News Americas, LONDON, England, Tues. Sept. 23, 2014: The way the United Kingdom manages its affairs is unlikely ever to be the same again.
The decision by the Scottish people on September 17 to vote decisively against independence, and the British Prime Minister’s subsequent announcement that greater powers will now be devolved to the regions of the United Kingdom, and even major cities, means perhaps paradoxically, that even the ‘no’ vote in the Scottish referendum, is set to change the nature of the United Kingdom.
This is because when it first appeared that Scotland would vote ‘yes’ by a slender margin, the British establishment and the Westminster political class appeared to panic. In a truly extraordinary development, Gordon Brown, the former Labour Prime Minister, announced that if the Scots voted ‘no,’ they could anyway have greater powers; implying that they would be granted this before the next UK General Election due in May 2015, and would obtain a version of what all in London had previously rejected: the so called ‘devo-max’ option.
Despite the fact that none of the leaders of Britain’s other political parties or the Cabinet had signed up to this, they all saw this as the best way to secure a Scottish ‘no’ vote.
The consequence, as Prime Minister Cameron has now made clear, is that Britain as a whole is about to undergo significant constitutional change; the detail has so far not been spelt out, let alone explained to the electorate or their elected representatives.
Taken at face value, the settlement for Scotland would appear likely to devolve most powers other than defence, foreign policy and monetary policy to the legislative assembly in Edinburgh and to the Scottish government. This would mean that Scotland will in future have the power to raise its own taxes, develop and control further its health care, education and social provision, and in a curious way become more like one of Britain’s overseas territories in the Caribbean or the Associated States of the 1970s: albeit with a kind of permanent entrustment to act internationally within the framework of overall UK policy.
But most startling of all is what has followed from a ‘no’ vote for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and even major cities like London or Manchester.
The most that is so far known is contained in a statement made by the British Prime Minister early on the morning of Friday September 19 after the outcome of the Scottish vote was announced.
He said: “We now have a chance – a great opportunity – to change the way the British people are governed, and change it for the better….The three pro-union parties (Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats) have made commitments, clear commitments, on further powers for the Scottish Parliament….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 must have a bigger say over theirs. The rights of
these voters need to be respected, preserved and enhanced as well.
“It is absolutely right that a new and fair settlement for Scotland should be accompanied by a new and fair settlement that applies to all parts of our United Kingdom.”
“In Wales, there are proposals to give the Welsh Government and Assembly more powers. And I want Wales to be at the heart of the debate on how to make our United Kingdom work for all our
nations. In Northern Ireland, we must work to ensure that the devolved institutions function effectively.
“I have long believed that a crucial part missing from this national discussion is England. We have heard the voice of Scotland – and now the millions of voices of England must also be heard.”
He also spoke about “a debate about how to empower our great cities”.
In short, what appears to have happened is that the ‘no’ vote – by 55.3 per cent to 44.7 per cent of Scottish voters on a massive turnout of 85 per cent – has triggered, irrespective of the outcome, recognition of the democratic inequity between the parts of the United Kingdom and the desire of significant numbers of voters in England for greater regional autonomy.
One immediate consequence is that it is fast becoming clear that the political silence observed within Britain’s three main political parties while campaigning in Scotland was underway is at an end.
Politicians of all political persuasions are likely to see this as the starting gun for the next general election in May 2015, with the two main political parties Conservative and Labour likely to be on separate sides of the argument about the way in which England and Wales have devolved powers, and who votes within Parliament on regional issues. The Prime Minister’s announcement may also significantly reduce the appeal of the right wing nationalist UK Independence Party (UKIP) which threatened his party’s vote.
What this also means is that for a possibly prolonged period, the UK will become engaged in a constitutional debate of unknown proportions.
In some senses what has happened also speaks to the lack of leadership and foresight among Britain’s focus group-led politicians, who unlike the Scottish leader, Mr Salmond, and his UKIP counterpart, looked increasingly uneasy when faced with real people asking questions that mattered on the streets or at gatherings of a non-staged nature about matters that touch their lives.
So much so that as the campaign went on, it became clear that in future the new politics will be for those politicians, like those in the not too distant past, who can carry people with them and speak and look normal in public debate rather than being a figment of a spin doctor’s imagination.
The huge vote in Scotland also indicated that when it matters reasoned debate, democracy and democratic principles are alive and well.
Internationally, in Washington in particular, there is relief as there was a fear that a ‘yes’ vote would diminish the UK’s capacity to act and its standing in the world at a time of growing global insecurity.
The outcome has also been welcomed in Europe where other separatist movements, particularly in Spain, would have seen a Scots vote for independence as supportive of their cause.
Despite the sense that the UK’s role in the region is now much diminished, the Caribbean too, for the same reasons, should welcome the outcome of the decision by a majority of Scots to stay within what looks likely to be a much changed United Kingdom.