So the United Kingdom is still united, and in the end it wasn’t that close. The people of Scotland rejected independence early this morning, with the No campaign prevailing by a relatively comfortable 55% to 45%. The margin of victory was around half the lead the No vote had enjoyed in the early stages of the campaign, but it was far more decisive than recent polls, one of which put the Yes camp narrowly ahead, had suggested.
Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron said the independence debate had been “settled for a generation.” He added: “So there can be no disputes, no re-runs; we have heard the will of the Scottish people.”
President Obama, who angered Yes campaigners by expressing his hope that Scots would stay with the UK, tweeted that he “welcomed” the result.
"We welcome the result of yesterday’s referendum on Scottish independence." —President Obama pic.twitter.com/5qJyAPGP6Q
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) September 19, 2014
A vote for independence would have been cataclysmic for British politics; however, the reverberations from the No vote will still be far-reaching, and while supporters of both sides were celebrating or drowning their sorrows into the wee small hours, Cameron, along with politicians from all parties on both sides of the border, woke up this morning with a different kind of hangover — they must now turn their attention to dealing with the complex political and constitutional issues thrown up by the result.
With polls tightening in the run-up to the referendum, Cameron, along with other figures in the No campaign, including Scot and former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, made increasingly generous promises about the extra powers that would be devolved to the existing Scottish Parliament if Scots rejected independence. These include full control over the setting of income tax and other tax rates, and more powers over welfare spending.
Conservative MPs, with backing from their Liberal Democrat coalition partners and some in the Labour Party, are now demanding that if Scotland is effectively granted “home rule” then similar powers must also be devolved to England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and Cameron appeared to accede to those demands when he spoke this morning.
The result could be something like a federalized United Kingdom, and devolving powers to England would finally bring about a resolution of the so-called “West Lothian question” – the anomaly whereby Scottish MPs sitting at Westminster can vote on taxation and other matters affecting England, but English MPs have no say on matters devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
There are no plans for a separate English Parliament, but it’s likely that proposals will be put forward to enable “English only” parliamentary sessions, with English MPs legislating on matters relating only to England, and Scots MPs excluded. That would in all probability mean Ed Miliband’s Labour Party would be outvoted by the Tories on English matters – even if Labour won an overall majority in next year’s general election – because of Labour’s reliance on large numbers of Scottish MPs.
The referendum campaign highlighted the growing disconnect between the UK’s London-based political establishment and the rest of the country. And if Cameron does make good on his promise of greater devolution for England it would be bad news for Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, which has portrayed itself as the party of localism and regionalism, and which has criticized Cameron for promising so much to Scots at the apparent expense of the rest of the UK.
The result could also have implications for any future referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU; such a vote could well turn into another “the people versus the establishment” campaign, and the highly energized Scottish campaign and record high turnout of 85% demonstrated that, for all the lethargy that often afflicts modern politics, voters will still get involved when they’re given a say on issues that genuinely engage them.
The Yes campaign, fronted by Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond, is putting a brave face on defeat, but the reality is that the debate may have been settled for much longer than a generation. Salmond based much of his extravagant claims about an independent Scotland’s wealth on projected North Sea oil and gas revenues, and while many analysts accused him of exaggerating the extent of those energy reserves, there’s no doubt that they’ll be dramatically lower, if not exhausted, by the time independence comes up for debate again.
Conservatives everywhere should take heart from this result. As I wrote last week, the Scottish independence debate was more analogous to Texas seceding from the modern United States than the American War of Independence, and the vote to preserve the UK was, at least in part, a vote in favor of tradition and common heritage, and against grand utopian schemes and forces that were broadly “progressive” and populist in the worst senses. It may also turn out to be a victory for supporters of smaller and less centralized government, and for English conservatives it could mean a future Labour government is effectively unable to rule their nation.
But for a majority of Scots, and most of their fellow Brits, those are all issues for later. For a few days last week it looked like the 307-year-old United Kingdom might actually be about to break apart, and I suspect that many of us will appreciate what we share all the more after today, having come uncomfortably close to losing it.