Jackie Ashley (almost alone among British commentators, according to Charles Stross) examines the likely consequences of both the next British election and the promised-by-Tory-leader referendum on the European Union:
So the question facing the Tory leadership is quite clear: if, by next May, the Lisbon treaty has come into force and Europe has a new president, quite possibly Tony Blair, will Cameron keep his promise to hold a referendum? Yes or no? It’s a straightforward question. He knows that to do so would risk a huge row with the rest of Europe, and a fully operational treaty would be harder to unpick than one not yet signed. That’s why until now he has used the weaselly words that, if the treaty is signed, he would “not let matters rest there”.
Cameron also knows that many in his party, not least his would-be successor Boris Johnson, will push for a referendum and have the support of much of the media too. If Cameron appears to want to renege on his promise, he will provoke fury and rebellion on his own side. For now, his “wait and see” gambit is beginning to look indecisive. If he were Gordon Brown, he would undoubtedly be accused of dithering.
At the same time, Cameron is worrying about another referendum, one which may prove no less momentous for the future shape of Britain. He faces a two-sided constitutional struggle, looking south towards Europe — but also north towards the Scots.
The nightmare for Cameron is that, once George Osborne has revealed details of the cuts imposed by Tory Westminster on Scottish budgets, the SNP start to gain momentum for their proposed independence referendum. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister and nobody’s fool, has been watching the Conservative agendas on cuts and on Europe with fascination.
The Scots will be having their own referendum on independence in 2011, and the Tories barely poll north of the River Tweed. Up in Scotland, it’s Labour and the Scottish Nationalist Party as the top two. Scotland is in an odd situation of having its own parliament, but also sending MPs to Westminster, where they can vote on issues affecting the rest of Britain, but non-Scottish MPs do not get to vote on Scottish issues.
Charles provides the odds:
The current government is a minority one (yes, we’ve got a hung parliament): the Scottish National Party are in charge, although they rely on other parties to get legislation passed. The SNP are formally in favour of outright independence for Scotland, as an EU member nation; and they’re committed to holding a referendum on independence in 2011, before the next election. (Labour and the Lib Dems oppose this. The Tories do too, but they’re so marginal that nobody pays any attention to them.)
Here’s the rub. As things stand, the SNP would lose a vote on independence at this point. But under a conservative government in Westminster — especially one that’s wielding the axe of public service cuts, which is going to happen whoever wins the election and which will disproportionately hit the less well off, which includes a lot of Scots — well, I’d handicap things by giving the pro-independence vote an automatic bonus of 10%.
A sensitive, caring, next-generation Conservative government will therefore be at pains to tread lightly north of the border, and to attempt to defuse nationalist sentiment. Or will it?
On the one hand, to give them their full title, they’re the Conservative and Unionist Party, dedicated to preserving the union. But if they cut Scotland loose, then, in a 650 seat parliamentary system, they lose 80 seats, 78 of which belong to their rivals. Leave aside the fact that Cameron is committed to reducing the number of constituency seats in the UK: the 10% of them elected by Scotland are overwhelmingly not conservative. Ditching them will give the Conservatives an electoral lift that will last for a generation.
That’s got to be a temptation, even to a leader who “loathes the idea of being the last ever prime minister of the United Kingdom”.