It was a simple question with two simple answers: Should Scotland be an independent country? The answer was either “yes” or “no.” But behind both of these answers lay an extraordinarily complex future for the United Kingdom. But strangely, that future, however complex, may have been very similar no matter what answer was given by the majority of the votes.
In the end, the answer was “no.” With 55 percent of the final vote on the night, the “No” camp came out with a much higher majority than the polls had expected. This presented an unexpected blow to the Scottish independence movement and has probably removed the issue from the political landscape in Britain for decades to come. It also claimed the scalp of the Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, who resigned shortly after defeat .
Devolution or Revolution?
What is more certain is that the UK government knows it has to look at radical constitutional reform. It has to implement the “devo max” option . This is the option for more extensive devolved powers for the Scottish government, and it was put on the table by the “No” campaign in the last weeks before the referendum in order to shore up what appeared to be a wavering “No” vote. The fact is, however, that the devo max option has always been on the table—it was just that the “No” campaign decided not to play that card until very late in the day.
Originally it was the Scottish government that wanted a three-question ballot paper—“Yes” or “No” or devo max. It was the UK government that wanted the two-question Yes/No ballot and the Scottish nationalists came around to its way of thinking. This started to look like a gamble that had backfired in the last weeks of the campaign, but in the end the Westminster parties got the result they all wanted.
But although devo max was never offered to the voters, that seems to be the road the UK will now take, and the end result is likely to be a Scotland with far greater powers over its own affairs, a federated state with the rest of the UK—maybe a better way to describe it would be independence-lite.
A Climate of Uncertainty
The implications for the rest of the UK are enormous, should Northern Ireland and Wales gain a similar status, and England’s regions joining in too in a coherent federal state with a UK government in Westminster and powerful regional governments in Edinburgh, Belfast, Scotland and in the English regions. But given the muddled nature of British constitutional politics, the most likely result would have been a powerful Scotland, federated with the rest of the UK, and much weaker governments in Wales and Northern Ireland and nothing for England. However, late in the campaign, the “No” camp began to raise such slogans as “ English votes for English laws ” and the idea of enhanced national and regional power transfers was touted.
The Westminster parties have agreed upon a schedule for reform in relation to Scotland—agreement on the package for devo max by November 30, a fully published outline by January ready for the British General Election next May. But we now know that all three parties have profound disagreements about what the reform should look like. The Liberal Democrats want to see a modern federal constitution for Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and some form of devolved powers for England focused in regions and cities. Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party has hitched Scottish reform with the West Lothian question , such that Scottish MPs at Westminster will lose any say over England-only matters. The Labour Party—currently in opposition but polling ahead for 2015—want the Scottish reforms to go ahead with a delay on the wider constitutional question for the UK.
What this now looks like is a dirty inter-party battle seeking to protect vested political interests, rather than a rational process of reform, as Scotland, and perhaps the rest of the UK, looks on with eyebrows raised. This is especially evident for Labour, who draw a much larger quota of their Members of Parliament from Scotland than the other two parties. Labour also draws heavily on its Welsh MPs. Should they lose those votes in Westminster during “English-only” votes, they may find themselves permanently unable to govern in certain situations, even if they win a General Election.
It is interesting to think what might have happened to the UK if the “Yes” campaign had won a narrow victory. The fact is this would not have triggered a smooth, well-worked-out transition to independence. We would have entered the political unknown; it is not even clear who would have taken part in the negotiations. Although the leaders of both campaigns drew their lines in the sand—over currency, EU membership and nuclear weapons, for example—this was always hot air. Everything would have been up for negotiation and nobody was in a position to state categorically what the outcome of those negotiations would have been, except the end result of Scottish independence.