Poor constitution

05 September 2014

THE public in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland are beginning to wake up to the fact that a General Election is taking place on 18 September - and that they are not invited into the polling booths. The mistake, an understandable one in the circumstances, has been to consider Scottish devolution as a constitutional issue. At the heart of the complacency of the "No" lobby has been the view that: (a) nobody can possibly get excited enough actually to vote about constitutional matters; and (b) Scotland, with its own Parliament and representation in Westminster, has no burning reason to secede. What we have seen, however, is a straightforward political contest between a right-wing Westminster Government - projected endlessly into the future in many Scottish minds - and a largely left-wing majority north of the border. Given that Westminster is campaigning by proxy, it is no surprise that the Yes campaign has been gaining ground.

There is an element of 1066 And All That in the way the two sides have been presented: the independents "Wrong but Wromantic", the Unionists "Right but Repulsive". But the closeness of the polls of late has had the effect of removing the knock-about element from the contest. Anniversaries of ancient battles have no place in a debate about nations that share the same land mass, language, culture, and 300 years of history. Arguments about economics are a sideshow to the potential wrangling about foreign relationships and global identity.

The Churches are right to hold themselves aloof from the campaigns in order to concentrate on life after the polls close. If the majority votes for independence, there will be an immense feeling of loss and confusion among a minority in Scotland and the majority south of the border. If the majority votes for the status quo, the energy generated by the campaign will dissipate, and is unlikely to attach itself to anything to do with Westminster for a good while. Whichever side wins, the closeness of the vote means that the losing side can argue that, taken with those who failed to vote, it actually formed the majority. This is, of course, one of the central planks of the independence argument: that a majority in Scotland still has to bow to the will of Westminster. Tearing up the political map is no solution, however: large conurbations will always vote differently from rural areas, the Lowlands from the Highlands. Viewed in this light, the Scottish vote is, indeed, constitutional, but touches on far bigger issues than the relationship between Holyrood and Westminster. Voters - or rather non-voters - will remain disengaged from politics as long as they see no link between their wishes and the actions of the political classes. A Yes vote in Scotland would create a political crisis; it might be a crisis that UK politics needs.

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