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The British Election Study & the Scottish Constitutional Debate (by Professor Charlie Jeffery, University of Edinburgh)

Guest contributor

It is striking how insular Scotland’s constitutional debate is. Both sides in the debate see Scotland’s constitutional future in different ways as bound up firmly in relationships with the rest of the UK.

The Yes side envisages a form of independence which involves continuing partnership with the rest of the UK, sharing institutions from the Queen and the pound through to the DVLA. The No side is now developing a more or less shared vision of the division of powers between the UK and the Scottish Parliament if Scotland votes no which would give new powers to the Scottish Parliament in the fields of tax and welfare.

Neither side has given much thought as to how the rest of the UK might view its proposed recalibration of the Scottish-UK relationship. Each has pretty much assumed the rest of the UK will be happy with what they propose. We have seen the problem that might arise in such blithe assumptions in the dismissal by UK Government and Opposition of the post-Yes currency union envisaged by the Scottish Government and the question marks the UK Government has raised about other areas of proposed post-independence partnership like the BBC, energy markets or university research funding.

We have also seen it in the contortions the Labour Party went through in producing its proposals for more devolution, which had to back-track sharply from a more radical form of income tax devolution once the UK-level party (and especially the shadow Treasury team) woke up to what was being discussed in Scotland. [It may be the Conservative Party is yet to have the same controversy if and when English MPs realise how much tax devolution the Conservatives’ Strathclyde Commission has recommended and/or set in prospect]. There have been rumblings too from devolved Wales that additional privileges for Scotland will not be welcomed if Wales does not get progress on its own concerns, notably around devolution funding.

What we have not yet seen is much consideration about how the public outside Scotland might envisage the Yes side’s ‘independence-with-partnership’ or the No side’s attempt to head off support for independence by offering fuller devolution to Scotland.

We know from past public attitudes research that people in England are unhappy with what many perceive as the highly advantageous deal Scotland gets at the moment – not least the continuing influence of Scottish MPs at Westminster on policies that apply in England and the sense that Scotland gets more than its fair share of UK public spending. We know also that people in Wales want more devolved powers – no doubt seeing Scotland as some kind of benchmark.

In these ways Scotland matters for people in England and Wales (and we can presume the same applies in Northern Ireland though we have less public attitudes research to reveal it). So if the goalposts around Scotland shift – whether in the prospect of a post-independence partnership with the rest of the UK or Scotland getting more powers within the UK if it votes No – there may not be fulsome approval outside Scotland.

This could in turn set limits to the scope that the current and future UK Governments have in responding to Scotland’s wants. As we approach the referendum, wouldn’t it be nice if each side in Scotland’s debate began to think a little more (and use insights from research like the British Election Study) about why people in the rest of the UK should endorse what they propose for Scotland?