Breaking a vow, ending the union?

So Scotland voted No. It wasn’t the result I was hoping for, but the result has to be respected and considered in context. Towards the end of the debate the No campaign realised they needed to offer something tangible to voters in order to secure a clear victory. What resulted was The Vow - although it helped secure a No victory, its inherent flaws may actually make it the final nail in the Union’s coffin.

There are a few aspects of The Vow that make it likely to fail:

  1. There is no consensus between the three party leaders regarding the new powers.
  2. The three party leaders guaranteed that the unspecified new powers would be in place by specified deadlines. According to Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, the powers should be outlined by November and in place by January 2015.
  3. David Cameron’s insistence that more powers for Scotland should proceed in tandem with general UK constitutional reform; this is commonly referred to as “English votes for English issues".
  4. New powers will be implemented alongside a continuation of The Barnett Formula (the mechanism that defines how much money Scotland receives from Westminster).

With no agreement on what the new Scottish powers should be and whether they should proceed alongside reform in the rest of the UK, it seems likely that if further powers do arrive they will be diluted, late or perhaps won’t arrive at all.

Reforming Westminster to adopt an “English votes for English issues” sounds fair, but has serious democratic implications for the devolved nations. The amount of money that Scotland receives via the Barnett Formula is directly dependent on Westminster (i.e. English) public spending. While the formula exists, English issues are inherently also Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish issues. Excluding Scottish MPs would represent a clear reduction of Scotland's powers, and those of Wales and Northern Ireland.

Breaking The Vow

It is unlikely that powers will be on the table by November and even less likely that they will be passed into law by January. If these deadlines are missed, this would constitute a break of The Vow.

If constitutional reform results in “English votes for English issues”, Scottish MPs would lose their influence over Westminster spending and would impact on the revenue made available for Holyrood spending via the Barnett Formula. This loss of powers would constitute a break of The Vow.

In an attempt to avoid the problems associated with “English votes” and Barnett, the government may simply opt to scrap Barnett. In addition, many backbench MPs are campaigning for The Barnett Formula to be scrapped regardless — if this is allowed to happen, it would also constitute a break of The Vow.

It is difficult to conceive of any circumstance whereby The Vow is not broken.

What Next?

While the conversation about constitutional reform is ongoing, the Yes movement will be regrouping and the SNP will be selecting their new leader.

Nicola Sturgeon will be elected SNP Leader at their conference at the end of November, incidentally around the time the unspecified new powers are due to be presented. She would become First Minister, but would be expected to go to the country to seek a mandate to govern. The context would be a nation reeling from no new powers, no timetable, no Barnett Formula and/or a reduced role for Scottish MPs at Westminster.

An SNP manifesto without the promise of an independence referendum would be unlikely. Consider also that 45% of the electorate are committed to the idea of independence. Is it plausible that the break of The Vow would drive 180,000 people from No to Yes? That’s all it would take to win.

Public opinion will be key; if Sturgeon concludes that 180,000 Scots are sufficiently angered we’ll be having another referendum within 5 years.