Where Does the Path to Independence Lead?

It’s a dangerous game to play. If the prime minister refuses the result of the second referendum, there will be no lawful way for the Scots to exit the union. We have to wait for the beginning of a conflict between Westminster and Holyrood

If predictions prove to be right, on 6 May, Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party will once again earn the title of being Scotland’s government. It will do so with an instruction to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence. Elections, however, always have a superb capacity to shock. But it is a mark of the sloppiness of Westminster’s government that its master, in order to avoid the split of the union, is now reduced to two words: let’s hope.

The union situation could have been handled more efficiently and things did not have to come to this. The truth is that the prime minister’s positive perspective on Scottish independence shows that his happy-go-lucky attitude on any serious issue may be working: but it is also true that Boris Johnson embodies, in his magnificent and splashy way, a deep dereliction of duty that goes beyond him and that has been accentuated in two important reports which have come out this week.

The reports – one from Cambridge University’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy, and the other from Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government – are important pieces of information on policy failures which have led the union to the verge of collapse. The two reports show a string of bad habits in the way the central governments have looked on the nations of the United Kingdom since the modern decentralisation process began back in 1997.

Inherent to this bad habit is decentralisation’s primal sin – the crooked approach of uneven autonomy. Two pivotal decisions were made at the start of the process: England was disregarded and the UK parliamentary sovereignty remained unquestioned. That might have been the time to reshape the UK political system as a federal state, but that ship has sailed.

Instead of amending the shortcomings, decentralisation issues have been tackled in impromptu ways throughout the years. Wrap-around with this was the evolution, in Whitehall and Westminster, of a “decentralise and move on” mindset. The Cambridge report believes that “those working at the political centre became too detached from, and perhaps even smug about” decentralisation’s continuing consequences. The writers of the report claim “worries about the territorial state is not in the bloodstream of the UK state”.

In the light of this information, the prime minister’s lack of interest in the union – his negligence in the crisis he has helped create in Northern Ireland is the most prominent instance – may be part of a deep-rooted culture in UK politics. The prime minister and his fellow cabinet members are like Dickens’ Mr Micawber, always confident that something will uncover.

In spite of the fact that the culture of irresponsibility may be deeply ingrained in UK politics, the Oxford report demonstrates that it is now far more disastrous than previous years. According to the report, part of this negligence can be explained by David Cameron’s still staggering miscalculation after the 2014 referendum to immediately argue the case for the death of the Scottish independence movement – rather than to create a common ground with the 45% of Scots who had voted for independence. The matter was further complicated by the failure after 2014 to ponder on the changes in rules that might be put in the probable future referendums on the union.

If there is no second Scottish independence referendum in the coming years, the least good it will do is to give time to a rational, mutual way of thinking that has been so absent for so long from the UK political scene.

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