Opinion: What happens if Salmond loses the independence referendum?

There are clear signs that support for independence in Scotland is volatile and that the current debate is weakening it. Issues, such as defence, uncertainties over any financial settlement – not least because RBS is as Scottish as a glass of Glenmorangie – plus the normal fear of voters faced with a big step into the unknown, will all conspire between now and 2014 to make victory less and less likely.

So the residents of Scotland (including many who would describe themselves as English) may well say no. What then? Does the issue fade away?

In Scotland there would have to be a lapse of a good few years before the matter could be tested again.

But the odd thing about this debate – and its prolonged coverage over recent weeks – is the fact that England has begun to wake up and smell the coffee.

The traditional English approach is not to care too much: confident that there was unlikely to be any real change, English people have tended to regard England and the UK as much the same sort of thing. (Bagehot for instance uses ‘England’ for ‘United Kingdom’ more or less throughout, despite being in some ways the definitive work on the British Constitution).

The fact that many Scots don’t support the English football team in its various heroic failures has mattered little more than arguments over the fairness of public expenditure.

But the latter at least may well now change. The very fact that high level arguments have countered ‘Scottish Oil’ with ‘Scottish Bank’ has reminded normally disinterested – and often uninterested – English voters that there are some arguments to be had, should push come to shove, about how assets and liabilities may be carved up.

Recently the Executive of the LGA considered, for the first time, a paper on the impact of the mysterious Barnett formula.

This convention, in use since 1978, very simply requires that any increase in expenditure in England must be matched by a fixed increase in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. For instance, if there is an increase in spending of £100 in England there has to be an increase of £10.03 in Scotland. The link between England and any of the other nations depends purely on population – and not on need.

If a needs basis were applied, then expenditure in Scotland would reduce by £3.6 billion per annum, a hefty £700 per head. In Wales, incidentally, expenditure would increase by £1 billion and so it is no surprise that the Welsh Assembly has also been looking at this issue.

No-one is seriously arguing that Scotland should suffer cuts on this scale. But such disparities are stark and increasingly likely to be noticed by English voters under the current economic cosh.

A lost referendum campaign in Scotland may well let the genie out of the bottle and cause England to seek some reappraisal.

Or even an English Parliament.

* Chris White is a Hertfordshire County Councillor and Deputy Leader (Policy) of the Liberal Democrat Group at the Local Government Association

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • No mention of devo max?

  • LondonLiberal 30th Jan '12 - 1:51pm

    Chris, why shouldn’t Scotland suffer ‘cuts’ of the scale implied by moving from the Barnett formula to a needs based one? I lived in Edinburgh for four years doing my degree and I’m now heartily sick of scots telling us how superior their education (and other) systems are to ours when we are in fact paying for them, to our, and it appears, Wales’ detriment. If we are to believe in equality and fairness, then Scotland should be funded according to need, not politics. If they want to top up their spending, their parliament can vote to increase income tax by 3p in ther pound.

  • I suspect if the referendum fails then we’ll carry on having these arguments until one succeeds, because a “no” vote won’t magically fix the inherent instability in the UK constitution.

  • Malcolm Todd 30th Jan '12 - 2:28pm

    @Ivan “if the referendum fails”

    If there’s a “no” vote, that won’t mean the referendum’s failed. It would mean the referendum had succeeded in finding out that the independence campaign had failed.
    Just sayin’.

  • @LondonLiberal – and that’s precisely why most Lib Dems in Scotland support giving the Scottish Parliament the right to spend all taxes raised in Scotland – which is what Home Rule is all about. The fact is that whatever the result of the referendum, the current situation won’t remain in which case there has to be a change to the funding structure. Assessing the money based on needs would vary the amount depending on how you define it – Glasgow has areas of deprivation which are shameful in a developed country, whilst literally a couple of streets away having some of the most expensive properties in Scotland (Drumchapel & Bearsden, for example.)

    Personally, if the SNP lost I don’t think there would be another independence referendum for about 20 years. Salmond would almost certainly have to resign as leader, and with him gone the SNP’s incredible talent for infighting which he has managed to control for the last few years would almost certainly re-emerge (it’s actually never far below the surface.) In effect, they’d blow themselves up as they fought over strategy.

  • David Allen 30th Jan '12 - 5:21pm

    It’s got a ring to it…. Coal Not Dole….. Need Not Tweed!

  • I still can’t believe this argument is being made. It’s been proven so many times to be inaccurate but is repeatedly spouted in terms of claiming ‘fairness’. The spending and subsidies in infrastructure and transport in some parts of the UK far exceed the differential here. Scotland doesn’t actually get a fair share, especially seeing as oil revenues were never spent there under Thatcher’s and other’s governments. An article such as this for the Lib Dems is ridiculous and doesn’t add to any debates or arguments.

  • Richard Swales 30th Jan '12 - 11:05pm

    From the 2009 Slovak presidential election TV debate:
    “So Mrs Radicova, how can you want to be president of a country you never wanted to exist?”

    If you let the Lib Dems be associated with the No campaign and lose, then you won’t be allowed to forget about it. The right in Slovakia haven’t been allowed to forget in 19 years.

  • So if Scotland votes no then Lib Dems and others in England will take it as a green light to make Scotland (already a net contributor to the UK treasury) worse off. Looks like Scotland should vote yes then!

    Perhaps Lib Dems in England could do more to help their Scottish colleagues by showing how appreciative they are of Scotland and the vital contribution it makes rather then writing these rather childish negative articles and comments.

  • Phew. It’s hard work not taking sides. I just warned that England may start and continue to query what it has not before. I don’t think anyone can detect from this article which side I might be on in any referendum vote on either side of the border. But AM decided to shoot my head off anyway. Heh ho.

  • And perhaps Scottish Lib Dems could do more to promote the inordinate benefits of union which have accrued to Scotland. It is not ‘Scotland’s oil’, it is Britain’s, it is not ‘Scotland’s deprivation’, it is Britain’s, it is not ‘Scotland’s army’, it is Britain’s.

    Yes, Wit, you tell the Scots that they’re being ungrateful. That should convince them.

    The debate amongst Scots needs to recognise the value of the union before it is blithely cast away for some petty ‘Braveheart’ nationalism based on historical myths, many of them centuries old. Scotland has done extremely well out of Britain and that’s how it should be. If you want to wheel out Thatcher, let’s throw back at you Scots Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. They did wonders for England, didn’t they, with devolution, more power to Scotland and England forgotten…

    The irony of your accusing the nationalists of peddling myths and stereotypes – when your own defence of the union amounts to caricaturing your opponents’ arguments and appealing to a sanitised, nostalgic view of British history – is hilarious.

  • David Rogers 31st Jan '12 - 1:09pm

    I’m with London Liberal and Neil Bradbury on this. In so many other policy areas we’re arguing for fairness and needs-based funding, e.g. raising the income tax threshold more rapidly, the pupil premium, or the allocation of public health resources returning to local government. Why not a replacement for the Barnett formula?
    And it’s no longer tolerable that Scottish MPs vote on issues for England that are devolved matters where they live. So that means clarity is needed for all parts of the UK about what is rightly Federal, and what is more local, regional, or national.
    Finally, with the other sporting references in the article and comments, I can’t resist – given the controversy over bankers’ bonuses – pointing out the UK (mostly English) taxpayer support which has been going for many years to a certain Scottish tennis player…….payment by results anyone?

  • Cllr Steve Bradley 1st Feb '12 - 12:32pm

    The tendancy of a lot of English people to use ‘Britain’ interchangably when they also mean their own particular nation has been on the decline for the last 20yrs.

    For an anecdotal example of this, just look at the news footage of the 1966 World Cup final. Almost every flag on display in Wembley that day amongst English supporters was the Union / British flag.

    Nowadays the majority of flags on display at an England football game are the St George’s Cross. A small example and by no means a representative sample. But it is certainly indicative of a broader shift in the sense of English identity.

    Under the UK, Englishness was subsumed by the larger ‘party’ to the union in order to not appear like England was dominating things (which it obviously was). Then in the last century asserting Englishness became tied up with a nasty right-wing side to identity. Both those elements have changed a lot recently, and there is now much more confidence in a proud but benign assertion of English identity. I suspect the whole Scottish question will escalate that process further.

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