By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
It is going to happen. Slowly, slowly catchee monkee. Just watch Alex Salmond walking the naive and intemperate Cameran into his elephant trap.
Ever since the Scottish referendum in 1997 voted heavily for a Scottish parliament it’s been step by step away from Westminster. Demands (or more and more powers, then within 10 years Salmond was able to form a minority government and finally last year the SNP won an absolute majority despite the voting system Labourhad rigged to prevent that ever happening. Cameron, as remote from Scottish politics as a man from Mars and devoid of reliable advisers on its realities, tried to appease the SNP in 2011 with an insultingly pathetic package of new ‘powers’ that included control over airgun licences and tiny changes to income tax.
His patronising proposals provoked a Scottish reaction in support of the SNPwhich demanded complete control of taxation in Scotland including corporation tax (pay attention, Stormont) and the Crown estate, that is the seabed to you and me, and broadcasting. The SNP is particularly exercised by the BBC, which gives lesstime to Scotland on its ‘national’ news than to the English cricket team. If Salmond gets his way there’ll be no BBC but SBC since it won’t be ‘British’ any more. All that is what Scots call ‘devo max’.
Polls show that 70 per cent of Scots support these demands and that’s what Salmond will put to voters in 2014. Scots will vote for that in 2014 and the UK will be different beyond imagination as a result. That is what has suddenly dawned on Cameron and his Westminster clique.
Cameron’s ill-advised petulant attempts in the past 10 days to stop this inexorable ‘devo max’ juggernaut have only made it certain to reach its destination.
This day week Salmond will present a consultative paper containing those proposals that will amount to fiscal autonomy for Scotland. He could even run a non-binding trial referendum on the proposals this year and organise a boycott of any proposed Cameron referendum next year if he doesn’t like it. He has Cameron over a barrel. Salmond will be able to say his referendum contains the questions the Scottish people want. Cameron, whose party is an endangered species in Scotland, has no moral or electoral authority to deny it. It is great entertainment. Cameron’s position seems to be based on the sentimental notion described last year in a new book by Professor Norman Davies called Vanished Kingdoms. Davies, who has been writing the history of European states for 30 years, says: “The British risk falling into a state of self-delusion which tells them that their institutions are above compare, that their country is somehow eternal.” Of course no state or country is eternal and Davies points to the Ottoman empire, which collapsed after 500 years; the Austrian empire; the Russian empire and other long-forgotten states in centraland eastern Europe. He concludes that the English are “blissfully unaware that the disintegration of the UK began in 1922 and will probably continue”.
‘Devo max’ will hasten that disintegration. The immediate response from English MPs will be to exclude Scottish MPs from decisions on English affairs, which is perfectly logical and reasonable since English MPs would have absolutely no say in Scottish affairs. Next step is a Sinn Fein position where Scottish MPs do not go toWestminster because they would be redundant. In other words the English reaction will de facto hasten Scottish independence.
All those developments, which will surely happen in the next decade, have serious implications for this place. So far people have confined themselves to ridiculing unionist discomfiture at Scottish zeal to throw off the English yoke. Not so fast. First, the departure of Scottish MPs from Westminster would guarantee a permanent Conservative majority. Norn Irn would have no protection from the worst of Conservative austerity measures because there would not be even the pathetic Lib Dems to mitigate their worst effects. Unionists here would not agree to a devo max referendum and anyway Stormont does not have the right to call one.
So nationalists would be trapped in an overwhelmingly Conservative arrangement until the twelfth of never and that is a long, long time. Unionists have more to gain than nationalists but as usual they do not know it.