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EDITORIAL - The UK's new federalism

Published:Sunday | September 21, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Scots voted last week by a comfortable 10 percentage-point margin to stay in the British union. Yet, the status quo has been irrevocably changed. It is important for Jamaica and its partners in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) to begin to pay attention to emerging events in Britain and how they will have to engage a reconfigured United Kingdom (UK).

And as our leaders are at it, there are lessons they might be reminded of from Scottish affairs about politics and leadership: the danger of inattention and of taking constituents for granted. That our leaders are unlikely to have as yet contemplated, much more begun to frame, options in response to potential developments in the UK is not primarily the result of resources or analytic capacity. Rather, like the superciliously arrogant grandees of Westminster, who were forced into a scramble at the eleventh hour to save the union, our technocrats and leaders were patiently inattentive to goings-on in a key economic and political partner.

The fact is, even after Alex Salmond's Scottish National Party in 2011 won an outright majority in Scotland's devolved legislature, few people believed that the Scots would ever vote for independence. Indeed, 18 months ago when the Britain's Tory prime minister signed the referendum agreement with Mr Salmond, with pro-union support 20 per cent ahead and few people expecting the pro-independence movement to get more than a third of the votes, Mr Cameron rejected proposals for a third question being placed on the ballot: for enhanced powers to the Scottish Parliament.


Yet, that is where things are now. For, with the Westminster parties facing, in the waning days of the campaign, the prospect of losing the referendum, they pledged to give the Scottish Parliament greater power over taxes, spending and social welfare. In the end, the unionists - not without the help of shrill claims of some corporate giants of the dire consequences of independence - won. Some of the votes to stay in the union would have been enticed by the promise of more power to Holyrood.

For this maximised devolution to materialise within a tight, though informal, six-month time frame will be, to say the least, challenging. The problem will no doubt have been exacerbated by the larger constitutional changes that are being unleashed elsewhere in the UK. Indeed, Mr Cameron, in the aftermath of the vote, said it offered an opportunity for "a new and fair settlement" not only for Scotland, but the other countries in the union - England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Or, as the opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband put it: "Devolution is not just a good idea for Scotland and Wales, it is a good idea for England and, indeed, for Northern Ireland."

The issue is what this broader devolution will look like, especially with respect to England, the much larger member of the union with four-fifths of the national legislators, a devolved Parliament along the lines of what is proposed for Scotland, or even what now exists in the rest of the union, is likely to lead to jurisdictional and constitutional conflicts.

The bottom line is that Britain is entering a testing, delicate and frenetic period of attempting to craft a new federalism that will have profound effects on the centralised conglomeration of power that is Westminster democracy. We ought to watch carefully for how it might affect us and what we might learn.

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