The longed-for breakup of the UK has receded somewhat with news that the Liberal Democrats have refused to back the Scottish Nationalist Party’s push for a referendum on independence should the latter party win the largest minority of seats in the upcoming Scottish elections.

With half a dozen parties holding more than a half-dozen seats in the 135-seat parliament, a simple majority in the 3 May election is out of the question. With the SNP currently holding a 5-point lead, the shakedown looks like about 45-52 seats for the SNP, 40-45 for Labour, 15-20 Lib-Dems, 13-18 Tories, 1-4 Greens, and 4-8 Scottish Socialist Party and Solidarity (the SSP split-off).

The most obvious result would be an SNP-LibDem coalition, and the SNP have been bending over backwards to try and find a way to accommodate the LibDems, watering down their proposed referendum question to include both the option of independence and a milder option of increased powers devolved to Holyrood (the Scottish parliament).

The Lib Dems aren’t having any of it, for obvious reasons. They’re aiming to get enough seats in Westminster in 2009 to get a hung parliament, and force through a UK-wide system of proportional representation, as the price of coalition. To do this, they need their Scottish seats.

Nevertheless, even by the currently debased standards of UK politics, it’s pretty cynical. After all, what could be more liberal or democratic than asking people what sort of entity they want to be part of?

So, unless the SNP, SSP and Greens pull off a stonkingly successful vote — and they would still need to govern as a minority — the Scots won’t get the chance for a free vote on their own future.

The closeness of all this is one reason why the Murdoch press went in so hard for Scottish Socialist Party leader Tommy Sheridan, who won a libel case against them for accusing him of seeing hookers at swingers’ parties. The case split the SSP down the middle, ending its chances of taking a few extra Labour seats in Glasgow and elsewhere. (The case is currently under appeal).

As for a desired result, I’m of two minds. A proportionally elected Westminster would spin UK politics on its head, and make things interesting again, but a sundered UK along the border would not only speed Irish unity, but end England’s pretence at having even the slightest continuity with “Great Britain”. 

Such pseudo-imperial bearing was instrumental in the Iraq catastrophe, and would be part of any US-UK-Israel nuclear strike on Iran. A sock in the gut may be just what England needs to be reminded of the fact that it’s a medium-sized country in Europe. But I can’t see it happening.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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