U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron is caught between his desire to prevent Scottish independence and the knowledge that splitting the United Kingdom would guarantee his party retains power over what’s left.
Scotland elected 59 of Parliament’s 650 lawmakers in the 2010 election. The Labour Party relies on the region for 41 of its members, suggesting independence would consign it to opposition for the foreseeable future. Cameron’s ruling Conservative Party holds only a single seat north of the border.
“The electoral opportunist in him realizes Scottish independence would lock in a Tory government in Westminster for at least a decade,” said Tim Bale, author of the “The Conservatives From Thatcher To Cameron.” “But he doesn’t want to go down in history as the prime minister who presided over the end of union his party has defended for centuries.”
Cameron’s announcement that the Scottish National Party will get the referendum it wants is a victory for leader Alex Salmond’s efforts to win full power over the region’s 140 billion-pound ($220 billion) economy. The Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh currently makes policy on issues such as health, transport, justice and education.
Four polls in Scotland since the start of the year have put support for independence at or just below 40 percent, with backing for the union at between 39 percent and 61 percent. Salmond wants to delay the referendum until late 2014, to give him time to shift opinion in his party’s favor.
On The Radar
“If there was a vote tomorrow we’d probably lose it,” Pete Wishart, an SNP lawmaker at the U.K. Parliament in London, said in an interview. “But we’re now in a situation where people are starting to address the question.”
Opponents of independence argue that questions about Scotland’s future will deter investors concerned about everything from what currency the country would use to what its military stance might be. Defenders of the U.K. in its current form want guarantees that the vote will be binding, and won’t lead to a series of referendums on the same issue.
“That’s a major worry,” said Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, one of the parties lining up to support the 300-year-old union between England and Scotland. “Both at the social level and the business level, there are big concerns about how we can ensure people accept the result.”
The attitude of the English as a whole to the union is ambivalent, according to Jonathan Powell, who served for a decade as Prime Minister Tony Blair’s chief of staff.
“The Scots won’t vote for independence unless Cameron handles it very badly,” he said. “But the English might vote for Scottish independence if they got the chance.”
Education Secretary Michael Gove, a Scottish Tory who represents an English seat, warned last month against anti-Scottish rhetoric. Speaking to journalists at a lunch in London on Feb. 21, he spoke of “an underappreciated threat from English separatism,” and warned his English colleagues to be careful what they wish for. “If we turn inwards or against each other, our country will be a diminished presence,” he said.
Tom Harris, a lawmaker for the Labour Party, which also backs the union, proposes a convention that the SNP should only be allowed to call a referendum if it has an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, Edinburgh. Scotland’s proportional representation system is designed to prevent outright majorities of the sort Salmond won last year.
‘Head, Heart, Soul’
“Some people, not all of them Tories, have suggested that an independent Scotland might make it easier for my party to get a majority in Westminster,” Cameron said in a speech in Edinburgh on Feb. 16. “That doesn’t interest me. I believe in the United Kingdom. I’m a Unionist, head, heart and soul.”
The government and the SNP are currently debating details of how the referendum will work.
The Scottish Office says the Holyrood parliament lacks the authority to call a vote. Cameron and his Liberal Democrat Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore, have offered to give the Scots that power on a one-time basis, in return for independent oversight of the wording of the question.
The two sides are also debating when the vote should be held. While Moore says there’s no logistical reason not to hold it next year, Salmond is pushing to delay it by a further year.
Wishart said that in the event of defeat, his party would leave the issue “for a political generation” while reserving the right to keep the argument alive by “believing in independence, or campaigning for it.”
Labour’s Harris is concerned that the SNP won’t let the matter rest. “They would have a referendum every year if we let them,” he said. “We need to have some kind of trigger mechanism for these things. They have to be very, very infrequent. We need some stability.”