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Not simply ‘no’

The Scottish referendum is a trigger for a larger debate on the devolution of powers within the UK.

Published: September 22, 2014 12:00 am

By: Michael Rosie

scots

So the Scottish Question has been asked, and answered, again. Scotland has voted to stay within the United Kingdom, and we can get back to normal. Except the Question remains, and there’s no going back to what passed for normal before Thursday.

For a long time, Scotland’s referendum campaign had a rather settled pattern. The pro-independence “yes” campaign offered formulations of what an independent Scotland would be like: a vaguely Nordic model was proposed, a social democratic society, with public services underwritten through a wisely invested oil fund. Where Westminster had squandered, Scotland would invest. And Scotland would remain in the European Union and share the sterling in a currency union with its former UK partner.

Nonsense, responded their opponents: Scotland would be expelled from the EU, there would be no currency union, and North Sea oil was insufficient to underpin a basket-case economy. Internal documents from the “no” campaign revealed their own name for these tactics: Project Fear. Clearly ahead in the polls, they felt no need to articulate a more positive case for the union.

From February this year, however, there were the first signs that the “no” campaign was in trouble: opinion polls, stable for months, began to shift in favour of independence. Their response was to “guarantee” further powers to Scotland in the event of Scotland rejecting independence: a pledge lacking detail and substance, and also revealing serious differences in the Better Together coalition on what (if anything) they would be willing and able to actually deliver.

Cameron can now portray himself, somewhat disingenuously, not only as the prime minister who saved the union on Thursday night, but the prime minister who will redraw and buttress the union more widely and wisely for generations to come. ( Source: Express photo by C R Sasikumar ) Cameron can now portray himself, somewhat disingenuously, not only as the prime minister who saved the union on Thursday night, but the prime minister who will redraw and buttress the union more widely and wisely for generations to come. ( Source: Express photo by C R Sasikumar )

Since these opaque promises were accompanied by further siren warnings about the consequences of independence, the “yes” campaign coined their counter-slogan: “Hope over fear”. It worked; by summer the polls had converged and the referendum result seemed very much open to question.

In seeming panic, and just days before the poll, the leaders of the three main UK parties jointly signed a “vow”, published in a popular Scottish newspaper, pledging “extensive new powers” for Scotland and a schedule for delivering them. The details remained vague, not least given that there would be very serious parliamentary difficulties in passing such legislation, and the “vow” outlined a very ambitious timetable.

The pro-independence surge faltered, and as the results of the referendum filtered in, two things soon became clear: Scots had responded to the call to vote in unprecedented numbers, breaking all UK records. And the noes had it — by 55 per cent to 45 per cent.

Any notion that the referendum settles the matter should be set aside. Even before the poll it was clear that a “no” vote would raise almost as many questions as a “yes”. Given that a very large minority of Scots — 45 per cent – rejected the 307-year-old union with England, and given that a substantial number of those who had voted “no” in the expectation of further powers being granted, the onus is now on the Westminster parties to deliver.

And scarcely have the ballot boxes been returned to storage than there are stirrings of revolt amongst English Conservatives. David Cameron, the British prime minister, responding to the referendum result promised to draw up not only plans to devolve further powers to Edinburgh, but also to propose changes in the ways that other parts of the UK are governed.

On the face of it, this is a smart move by Cameron: it promises concessions to concerns beyond Scotland and may iron out the “anomaly” of Scottish parliamentarians being able to vote on purely English matters, long a concern of English Conservatives. It also wrong-foots his bitter Labour rivals in advance of the 2015 UK general election.

Labour has hitherto been the party of constitutional change, having delivered the legislation that enabled the devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the late 1990s. Cameron can now portray himself, somewhat disingenuously, not only as the prime minister who saved the union on Thursday night, but the prime minister who will redraw and buttress the union more widely and wisely for generations to come.

But there are reefs aplenty ahead. First, Cameron’s pan-UK vision does not augur well for speedy delivery of more powers to Scotland. Any inkling of unreasonable delay on delivering on these vows and guarantees is likely to seriously reignite the Scottish Question. Second, Northern Ireland is already experiencing very serious strains on its ongoing peace process, so any constitutional tinkering there will need the careful time for thought and negotiation that Scottish urgency makes difficult.

And finally — and perhaps most intractably — there is the issue of redrawing the governance of England, for it is not at all clear that the English electorate want any serious change at all to their structures of government. A federal or quasi-federal “solution” for the UK fails, since this would demand either strong regional legislatures in England (for which there is little appetite) or an English parliament. This latter, of course, would come to dominate the UK in a less transparent way than the existing Westminster Parliament and would, in all probability, fuel further resentment.

In short, the sensitivities of Northern Ireland and the reluctance of the English to see the need for any tinkering of their existing governance call for calm, reflective and careful consultation on these issues. Yet the time and flexibility available has been limited by the guarantees made to Scotland during the referendum campaign. There is more to come from the Scottish Question.

The writer teaches at the University of Edinburgh

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