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Tom Devine: is this the end of the Union as we know it?

The fearsome 56? Hannah McKay/EPA

The extraordinary electoral destruction of Scottish Labour in the UK election, leaving the formerly dominant people’s party with one solitary seat north of the border, was bound to trigger even more searching questions about the immediate constitutional future of Scotland.

The Scottish Conservatives had been hors de combat since the 1990s. Now,the only remaining party political champion of unionism in the country had also been routed. It does indeed seem that the Union might soon be overwhelmed by this nationalist tsunami.

I am a historian; the future is most certainly not my period. But a few thoughts, based on some reasoned speculation, might be of interest on what might happen now to the so far unanswered Scottish Question.

At first glance, the omens seemed favourable for those who aspired to the establishment of a sovereign Scottish state in the near future. The SNP has turned Scotland into a one-party nationalist polity. The two Scottish parties which staunchly support the Union have only a seat each in Westminster and have been overtaken by the serried ranks of 56 new nationalist MPs.

SNP morale has been boosted to astronomical levels. The Yes movement was not killed off by the referendum defeat but has continued unabated since then. Scottish opinion has hardened around the SNP under the new leadership of Nicola Sturgeon since the referendum, hence it is very likely that the party will be returned to power at the next Holyrood election in 2016.

The nationalists now have the political contest for which they have long yearned, nay lusted: a straight toe-to-toe fight with a Westminster Tory government which has promised to bring in yet more austerity and draconian cuts in welfare over the next few years.

The fight they’ve been waiting for. Hannah McKay/EPA

The Conservative campaign before the general election against the supposed threat from the Scots supporting a Labour minority government could hardly have helped the unionist cause. Westminster itself also now seems less a parliament of the entire union than it did a few years ago.

As Michael Kenny recently argued:

As an unintended consequence of devolution … An increasingly Anglicised polity has quietly emerged as an incubus at the heart of the UK state … the Westminster parliament is gradually evolving into an English-focused one.

This tendency can only increase when EVEL (English Votes for English Laws – the plan to prevent Scottish MPs voting on any proposed English-only legislation) becomes law.

A federal solution in light of today’s fluid set of changing relationships between Edinburgh and London could certainly provide a formidable and possibly an insurmountable roadblock in front of the independence bandwagon. Yet recent talk of a federal solution remains just that: talk.

A federal settlement immediately comes up against the problem of the grossly imbalanced demography of the UK, with England having 85% of the total population, and little interest in the English regions in regional assemblies. A state which has struggled unsuccessfully for many years to modernise the House of Lords is hardly likely to be willing to see through a root-and-branch reform of the British constitution and political system.

Then there is the promised plebiscite over whether or not to remain in Europe which has to be held before 2017. If England votes to leave and the Scots to stay, the SNP has indicated that this will lead to another referendum on Scottish independence. However, in 2015, the result of that European vote is too close to call. The polls suggest the vote for exit is not quite as strong as it was once some time ago in England. Significantly UKIP, the chief promoter of a British exit, only managed to win one seat at the May election.

Yet, all the above does not necessarily mean that another Scottish independence referendum is inevitable before the end of the current UK parliament in 2020. This year could indeed represent the high watermark of nationalist popularity. The SNP’s new MPs face a government with a clear though small majority. Will they, “the 56”, have any more chance of changing or influencing Tory policies than their Labour predecessors of the 1980s whom the nationalists themselves memorably vilified as “the feeble fifty”?

A new landscape. Italay90, CC BY-SA

Nicola Sturgeon will be more aware than most that a second referendum will be a zero sum game. If there is one and the vote is lost again the cause of independence would be sidelined for many years to come and might indeed never surface again for the foreseeable future.

An entrenched opinion poll majority for Yes of at least 60:40, or more, might be an essential precondition for trying once more. That could be very difficult to achieve in the short run as the current popularity of the SNP is not based on a commitment to independence by all of those those who voted for the party in May.

Then there is the realisation of The Vow or what might now be termed The Vow Plus. David Cameron performed a brazen volte face in his first speech after his election victory. Only the day before he and his acolytes were still playing up the Scottish card, warning of the terrible fate which awaited British democracy through the feared Caledonian takeover of Westminster in league with the Labour party.

Now he is declaring his firm intention to grant Scotland “the strongest devolved government anywhere in the world”. What this means only time can tell; and even more time will be needed before the impact, if any at all, of the promise on the Scottish Question can be determined.

Indeed, the tactics of the prime minister may well be crucial to future outcomes. Cameron manifestly lacks what Neal Ascherson called: “the satanic realism to grab permanent control of England by letting the Scots go” (and so ensure a potentially perpetual Tory hegemony in England).

Any leader of the Conservative Party, conscious of its great unionist traditions, would prefer not to go down in history as the person who allowed the Union to break up on their watch. David Cameron’s approach over the next few months might turn out to be the x-factor in the next stage of the attempt to provide an answer to the Scottish Question.

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