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Westminster can at times feel a million miles away from Holyrood, Edinburgh. Alienation from central governance has been a frustration that has hung for a long time over a nation arguing against its raw economic deal. Currently SNP leader Alex Salmond’s argument for independence has swayed just 28% of Scots, but it is an issue that will inevitably entice more Scots closer to the referendum in 2014. While it would undoubtedly alter Scotland massively, it’s the potential shift in English politics that could prove to be the most substantial outcome from Scottish independence.
Simple electoral maths highlight the starkest consequences of separation to the Labour party. Without Labour’s 41 seats won in Scotland in 2010, the Conservatives would have had the chance to govern alone with a majority in Parliament. Ironically, it was Labour who introduced devolution to Scotland and Wales, probably in the hope of channeling any nationalist sentiment into the new parliaments that were long overdue after centralised rule in Westminster since 1707. While the less feisty Welsh Parliament is largely dormant, the Scottish Parliament has given a platform to SNP leader Alex Salmond who has voiced the opinion that Scotland should decide its economic policy, not Whitehall.
It has struck a chord with Scots disillusioned with the heavy centralisation of power and the general conduct of Westminster. The 2011 Scottish Parliament election only confirmed this when the SNP’s support increased by an unprecedented 12.5%. Labour’s disastrous showing not only led to the resignation of the Scottish Labour Party leader Iain Gray but also gave the SNP a majority in a parliament that was meant to encourage compromise and coalition not usher in a referendum on its very existence in the union. The self-inflicted nature of this problem is only heightened by the fact that at the 2010 General Election Scotland was the only part of the country in which Labour’s vote held up against its opponents. It kept all its seats in Scotland, whereas other Labour strongholds such as Wales and heavily urbanised English areas such as Greater Manchester and London saw large Conservative gains.
While Labour’s disadvantage is to the Conservative’s gain, independence is still a policy that the Conservative party is unanimously against. There is something particularly jarring about a party so adamant in challenging Britain’s frontier in relation to Europe when domestically it is being challenged by a key part of the union, albeit a part that has traditionally rejected the Tories at the polls. But the more lasting effect on the party should the union lose Scotland would be the legacy of Cameron. Any domestic or economic success would likely be overshadowed by his title as the last Prime Minister of what we currently know as the United Kingdom.
However it is the more ideologically based consequences that are the more interesting. How Labour would compensate for the loss of Scottish seats and a large sector of its vote could steer the party into new unchartered waters. One option would be to win back those Liberal Democrat voters who have slowly been eating away at Labour’s core base by splitting the anti-Tory vote. But this would have limited success. Labour may instead have to turn to the ideological right to win across its more liberal voters. Knowing that they are largely unopposed on the left, and with the Liberal Democrats unlikely to reach their popular vote peak of 23% again, further to the right appears a more viable prospect for capturing voter attention. Going further right than Blair and New Labour dared to go and betraying some of Labour’s core principles may not be welcomed internally in the party but could be the key to future electoral success without Scotland.
By 2014, the honeymoon period from this summer’s Diamond Jubilee and the success of Team GB in the Olympics will have dissipated and the harsh reality of the coalition’s cuts will have come into full focus. Alex Salmond’s ruthless electoral machine will be in full swing and the 53% who currently favour staying with the union could be persuaded independence would be beneficial to them; Cameron and Labour however are unlikely to come around to the idea any time soon. Unfortunately for them, this is one election where they sit on the sidelines.