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Britain Is Sinking (May 2006)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

With Labour losing support north of the border, could Scotland finally be on the brink of full independence?


Bad though the English local results are for Labour, another defeat, scarcely noticed, should worry 10 and 11 Downing Street much more.

If there was mention in the London press of the Moray byelection for the Scottish Parliament, held last Thursday, I've not seen it. This was about par for the course. The political intellectuals recently lauded by Tim Garton Ash - not a single one of them located north of the M25 - don't do Scotland. Moray showed Labour in the cellar at 2696, losing nearly half its vote, the SNP at 12,653, winning with a bigger majority, and the Tories going ... well, probably off the Scottish map at the next Westminster election.

Devolution has so far preserved the Union of 1707. Holyrood supplies Westminster lobby-fodder and handy house-elf MSPs to do the hoovering for the Whitehall Scots. The Tories are kept on life-support as a "British" outfit by their list MSPs at Holyrood. But Scots election terms are fixed and the country votes in exactly a year, on May 1, 2007.

The Labour party under Jack McConnell is not well placed. Uber-Scot Gordon Brown "took a baseball bat to the SNP" in 1999, and sulked in 2003. In 2006 he hasn't this luxury, as his economic strategy is now adrift, and the Scottish question is re-emerging with steady gains for the SNP in local elections. The Dunfermline election exposed rifts between Labour MPs and MSPs and, within the Holyrood coalition, between Labour and the Lib Dems. McConnell's exasperation with Brown is tending to take on a nationalist tone, and there's also a considerable grouping on the nationalist left - SNP, Greens, Scottish Socialists and independents - which in the 2003 election got more than 36% of the popular vote. Brown has to recover his reputation and hold Scotland, or events will move far and fast.

If by early 2007 he is discredited, two things might happen. Fears in Scotland of a second nuclear power programme and new Trident submarines, Iraq casualties and the re-emergence of $70 a barrel North Sea oil - oil income is now on a record £13 billion - could set the SNP up to head a "tartan coalition". Second, the hopelessness of their situation in Scotland and Wales, and the menace of the British National Party on their right, might force the Tories to go for broke and play for England.

The period between May 2007 and a Westminster general election, which could take place up to April 2010, would be critical. A Tartan coalition in Holyrood would be likely to play hardball with the oil, aiming perhaps at a Scottish-Norwegian agreement on the control of North Sea assets, with a low oil depletion policy and a bi-national monopoly: a northern OPEC providing a lifeboat for both states.

What would happen to England? Federalism, or conventions imitating it, has been comatose throughout New Labour's career: a constitutional upheaval to tax the skills of a Lloyd George. For all his longevity, Brown isn't on the Protean level of "the People's Champion". There are no Keyneses and Beveridges, Beaverbrooks and Weirs, by his side, no triumph against the Lords or the Kaiser on which to build. If a disaster like Dunfermline came at the top of Brown's tide, what chance of a recovery now?

With Labour split and fighting off the BNP, could the Lib Dems, who are federally-minded, turn out to be the "British" party, attracting funding from the wealthy who will, for sure, desert Labour pronto? With Menzies Campbell frog-marching his neighbour Gordon Brown to PR and a pro-Europe policy? A constitutional convention on the lines of the Lib-Lab fix which produced the Scottish settlement, 1989-1993, would probably produce a PR system and centrist coalitions, but it's a very long shot. David Cameron, on the other hand, might find himself doing the impossible deal: encouraging Scots independence, to leave the way clear for right-of-centre success in England.

There are worse things than the break-up of Britain: a "British Islands" system - informally a confederation of sorts - whereby an independent England with its allies in the archipelago could exercise the same sort of voting power within Europe as Germany plus, say, Holland and Denmark, might turn out a very attractive option. Shot of the ghost of Britain, the Islands could remake West Europe.

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