Mon | Aug 20, 2018

Scotland stays British - for now

Published:Monday | September 22, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Although the result was clear in last Thursday's referendum on independence, Scotland's future looks less so. About the only prediction that can be made with confidence is that Andy Murray will probably get a frosty reception at Wimbledon next year.

This may be one of those cases where the losers are winners. Having made promises of abundance he would have found difficult to keep in a Scotland that had to manage all its own finances, independence leader Alex Salmond may be secretly relieved. A narrow victory, which is the best he could have hoped for, would have left him little political capital with which to wiggle out of pledges.

But having run a campaign that caught his opponents off guard, forcing them into last-minute pledges of their own, he'll now get to hold their feet to the fire. As he said in his concession speech early last Friday morning, Scotland opted against independence "at this stage". He then went on to instruct the politicians in London that they had better come good, and fast, on their promises to devolve yet more powers to the Scottish Parliament. If they do, he gets independence-lite. If they don't, he gets to hold a second referendum on an I-told-you-so platform.

On the other side of the divide, the victory for the union may feel pyrrhic. British Prime Minister David Cameron nearly lost a campaign that had been expected, until just a few months ago, to be a cakewalk. His mismanagement angered his own party and the British public. Meanwhile, his last-minute promises have enraged the right wing of the Conservative Party. With Britain headed into an election year, only a desire not to change horses midstream will prevent Tory rebels dumping him - as some clearly want to do.

His discomfiture won't bring much joy to his Labour opponents, though. Although former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown returned from the political dead to breathe life into the no campaign's final days, the Labour Party itself can't take much joy in the outcome.

The uncomfortable fact is that many Labour strongholds in Scotland voted for independence, and the working-class vote that traditionally provided the bedrock of Labour support turned out to be nationalist. Labour leader Ed Miliband's forays into Scotland were tentative and awkward, and he did little to improve a public image that was not strong to begin with (just Google Ed Miliband and Gromit to see).

The Canadian example

The road ahead will be tricky. Britain has taken to studying the Canadian example to see how it confronted its own separatist movement, in the predominantly French province of Quebec. The federal response to Quebec nationalism, of giving more powers to the province, was easier to deliver in a country that already had a federal structure: whatever Ottawa offered Quebec, it could just offer to other provinces, if need be.

The problem for the United Kingdom is that it is a unitary country with devolved power in some regions. As Westminster hands more power to Edinburgh, it will likely do the same for Wales and Northern Ireland, which already have their own elected assemblies. But where does that leave England, where most of the British population resides? There is no English Parliament. That means MPs from Scotland sitting in London will get to vote on legislation that affects the English; whereas English MPs won't be able to affect legislation that is passed in Scotland.

Finding a quick and easy way around this is no easy matter. The task may now fall to Gordon Brown, as Britain's informal fix-it man, to craft a solution that can satisfy all parties. But with the politicians having promised urgent action on their commitments for further devolution to Scotland, he doesn't have the luxury of time.

If he pulls it off, he really will have returned from the dead. And then British politics will get interesting.

John Rapley lectures at the Centre of Development Studies at the University of Cambridge. Email feedback to


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