Another by-election, another Labour humiliation- so far, so unsurprising.
That this time it was the SNP, rather than the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats delivering the shock may seem of only passing significance. After all, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the SNP were riding high, winning the Hamilton by-election in 1967 before gaining 11 MPs in the October 1974 election. Yet in the end the Scotland Act of 1979 was defeated and the SNP fell back to only two seats in the subsequent 1979 general election.
However, my fears for the very future of my country are growing.
In 1979, the Conservatives held 22 seats. Now they hold only one. Instead of voters abandoning the party of government for the party of opposition, the Scottish voters are choosing the party of opposition to the Union.
Even in their wildest dreams, the Scottish Conservatives can not hope to gain more than a handful of Westminster seats, even if their English and Welsh counterparts make dramatic gains. A future Prime Minister Cameron would have to face the fact that his mandate from Scotland would be weak at best. In addition he would be facing, in Alex Salmond, a wily and determined enemy of the British United Kingdom. The visceral loathing of the Conservative Party in Scotland is deeply entrenched. The Thatcher government was seen as a colonial master imposing deeply hated policies on an unwilling nation, and not -as in middle England- the author of necessary reforms. Salmond- naturally- will play on this for all that he is worth.
The next two years are clearly going to be very difficult economically for the whole of the United Kingdom. The weak public sector finances require dramatic cuts and a far more proactive from the Central Bank, yet the electoral cycle is highly unfavourable for the radical- even emergency- action that is necessary. Whoever takes office after the next general election will be looking at an economy with serious macro-economic imbalances and a poor quality domestic labour force.
This is a very bad time for a constitutional crisis- for that is what we are likely to face. With oil at over $120/bbl the interests of Scotland, as an oil producer and the rest of the UK as an oil consumer have certainly diverged- as Salmond never tires of telling us. The fact is that that over the next few years the UK faces a perfect storm: a conjunction of financial weakness, economic imbalance and electoral mathematics that will lead to serious constitutional implications.
Yet the problem I have is that no-one is making the positive case for maintaining the 300 year Union. The absurd scare stories do not alter the fundamental fact: of course it is perfectly possible for Scotland to be a viable independent state. The question is whether that is desirable let alone necessary, both to the Scottish people and indeed for the wider interests of the whole of the UK.
In my view, it is not only undesirable, it is a potential disaster for the security of the peoples of the current Kingdom, leaving two smaller states far weaker than their collective strength. In the face of the challenges of Russia and China, the UK -despite the looming economic crisis- is a far more viable entity than the separate states. Economically our collective credit rating will fall, and the influence we have together will have gone. Scotland would have the economic influence of Denmark and England about that of Spain- as opposed to a collective footprint today that is nearly equal to Germany and which can certainly contend with India and China.
All this assumes, of course, that any split would be reasonably amicable. But suppose it was not? One does not have to predict Yugoslav levels of violence to see outcomes that could be very disruptive. There may be considerable resentment in the rest of the UK. Scots may face problems in England or Wales, English people already complain of insults and discrimination in Scotland. Instead of the velvet divorce like that of the Czechs and Slovaks which the Nationalists forsee, there could be a bickering and poisonous divorce- as most divorces are- with legal and financial disputes that last for years after separation. I could easily see the entrance of any newly minted proudly Scottish Olympic team to the London Arena being marked not by cheers but with a hail of abuse and catcalls. Alex Salmond presumes much on English, Welsh and Northern Irish goodwill.
Yet the election that must take place before May 2010 is now a point of maximum danger. Any result where the SNP match at Westminster their previous result at Holyrood while the Conservatives gain a landslide in the rest of the UK has the potential for a constitutional crisis that could see the end of the United Kingdom.
The 55th Parliament of the United Kingdom could be the last, but if David Cameron does not wish to be the last Prime Minister of the UK, he must answer the legitimate aspirations of the different parts of the Kingdom, without turning Westminster into an English Parliament- for that way lies the certain break up of our country.
I can only hope that we can see sense in time:
"Let the love of our land's sacred rights
To the love of our people succeed
Let friendship and honour unite
And flourish on both sides the Tweed"