What next for the United Kingdom?

What next for the United Kingdom?

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The people of Scotland have spoken. By a margin of 10%, they have voted against independence. The United Kingdom will remain united.

The vote was extraordinary. 85% of the residents of Scotland voted. The majority of administrative areas in Scotland returned a No vote: only Dundee, Glasgow and two districts close to Glasgow voted Yes. Areas that voted No had a higher percentage of people voting than areas that voted Yes: in some areas the percentage was over 90%. Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland, had the lowest voter turnout at 75%, ten percentage points lower than the average. Although the Yes campaign did their best to persuade the poor of Glasgow, Edinburgh and other Scottish towns and cities to vote for change, it seems not enough of them bothered to do so. And conversely, the extraordinarily high turnout in No-voting areas suggests that prosperous No voters really did want to remain in the union. Perversely, reports in the last few days that the vote would be very close – and premature rejoicing by the Yes camp – may have increased the No vote, as people realised that there was a real prospect of break up of the union that had brought them prosperity.

Predictably, some blame the British establishment for frightening people into voting No. There may be something in that: the poorly thought-out economic case presented by the SNP was an obvious weakness and the Better Together campaign did not hesitate to attack it. But in the end this wasn't about economics. It was about going it alone. And it seems the majority of the people of Scotland don't want to go it alone.

But that doesn't mean that things can stay as they are. This “No” vote was certainly not a vote for the status quo. In the last days of the campaign the UK government promised further devolution for Scotland and protection for its current level of fiscal transfers (the so-called Barnett formula). The rest of the UK, notably the leadership of the Welsh assembly, reacted with some anger to this. Scotland currently receives more under the Barnett formula than Wales, which was particularly badly affected by the destruction of the UK's mining industry in the 1980s and 90s and remains depressed with high levels of unemployment to this day. And the promise of further devolution raised hackles in England, where the fact that Scottish MPs can vote on English affairs but English MPs can't vote on Scottish affairs (the so-called “West Lothian question") rankles. Bribing the Scots to remain in the union opened a sizeable can of worms in the rest of the UK.

And now the worms have escaped from the can. Even before the Scots cast their votes, people were discussing the possibility of creating an English parliament and reforming the Barnett formula. And as the Scots made their decision, the UK Prime Minister announced:

"Just as the people of Scotland will have more power over their affairs, so it follows that the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland should also have a bigger say in theirs."

It seems the UK is already drifting towards fundamental constitutional reform.

But devolution for the whole UK – the creation of a community of “member states” - will not be easy. Further devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and even reforming the Barnett formula, is child's play compared with the problems that England poses. England is far larger than any other state in the union, and it is deeply divided: the prosperous London and South East dominate it both economically and politically, and there are sizeable pockets of poverty and depression in the regions that were formerly industrial powerhouses. Trickle-down economics has never trickled down far enough in England. The Labour party, which would face virtual annihilation in an English parliament, supports the creation of self-sufficient regional assemblies within England – an idea which has been tried before but unfortunately failed to gain much traction with English voters. The Conservative party, predictably, likes the idea of an English parliament. And equally predictably, large local authorities such as Yorkshire and cities such as Manchester want to run their own affairs. This is a political minefield and certainly not something that can be addressed before the 2015 general election.

But creation of an English parliament, while it would not address the inequalities in English society, would at least be a step along the path towards the federation that is my own vision. It would force the UK to adopt a federal model of governance. Each of the four current member states would have its own parliament, and Westminster would become a “group of four”: voting rights at Westminster would need to be weighted so that the voices of the smaller states could be heard. I do not accept the arguments of devolution sceptics that the dominance of England, and in particular London, would make a federal model impossible. Many countries in the world have federal governance models that unite large and small states, both poor and prosperous. The UK could learn from them.

At some point in the future there could be further devolution within England, or even eventual replacement of the English parliament if the people of England so decide. Politics is an evolutionary process: no model of governance is ever set in stone. The important thing is that the people of the country are empowered to decide how they should be governed. And the Scottish vote has set a very important precedent.

The fact that Scotland was allowed to vote AT ALL is remarkable. The UK government allowed the people of one of the constituent parts of the Union to decide whether they wished the Union to continue. Had they voted “Yes”, the United Kingdom itself would have ceased to exist in its current form: there would still have been something called the “United Kingdom”, but it would not have been the same entity. How many other countries in the world would risk their entire existence on a democratic vote? To be sure, the UK government never expected the vote to be so close. But the fact remains that the Scottish referendum was an extraordinary example of peaceful democracy in action, both on the part of the Scottish people and on the part of the UK government. I hope that commitment to peaceful democracy continues as the UK embarks on what will now be a lengthy and complex process of political reform.

Image courtesy of The Times.


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