Commentary / World

U.K. stays intact, promising more powers to nationalists

by Hugh Cortazzi

On Sept. 18, the Scots voted 55 to 45 percent to remain part of the United Kingdom and against becoming an independent nation.

The results were greeted with relief by the vast majority of people in England, but disappointed Scottish nationalists who had campaigned enthusiastically and sometimes intolerantly for freedom from the government in Westminster.

Prime Minister David Cameron must have suffered some real anxiety, as he must have feared over the last two weeks of campaigning in Scotland that he might go down in history as the prime minister who lost the union.

Labour Party leader Ed Milliband also must also have worried that if the Scots voted for independence, it would ruin his chances of achieving a majority at the general election due in Britain next year, as Scotland has hitherto provided his party with more than 40 safe seats in Parliament.

The results of the referendum, however, have opened an array of other problems that need to be tackled urgently. The campaigns in Scotland showed clearly the extent of popular dissatisfaction with politicians in Westminster and with over-centralization of powers in London. Both Cameron and Milliband were jostled and heckled by nationalists when they tried to speak in Scotland.

Many in Britain, especially in England, accuse Cameron not only of complacency but also of walking into a trap set for him by Alex Salmond — the wily and unscrupulous leader of the Scottish nationalists — in agreeing to a referendum on a major constitutional issue with one simple question that required only a simple majority to pass.

The opposition has also been accused of failing their supporters in Scotland. Miliband must have had a shock when the industrial cities of Glasgow and Dundee voted in favor of independence.

The campaign for a No vote, which used the slogan “Better Together,” at first put almost all its efforts into demonstrating the risks to an independent Scotland. They argued that Scotland would not be able to use sterling as its currency and might not be able to afford pensions and other welfare benefits. The Scottish nationalists, for their part, appealed to Scottish hearts and romantic views of Scottish culture and history.

The No campaign was boosted by passionate and eloquent interventions in the final stages from Gordon Brown, a Scottish member of Parliament and former prime minister, who lost the 2010 general election.

It was also greatly helped by the publication of a joint pledge by all three party leaders (Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat) that there would be speedy legislation conferring extensive new powers to the Scottish parliament.

This promise will have to be honored, but although the three parties agree on the principle of devolving more powers over taxation and expenditure to Scotland, they do not agree on the extent of these powers. The devil is in the detail.

Even if the leaders can somehow come to a compromise on the new powers, they will have to persuade the Scottish nationalists that they have fulfilled their pledges. The nationalists will drive a hard bargain and will quote the 45 percent in favor of independence to back up their case.

The politicians in London also face threats from within their own ranks. Many Conservatives object to the Scots getting a better deal than other parts of the United Kingdom and being given a larger share of available resources. The argument that the formula allocating funds to Scotland is based on need does not convince some who see it as a bribe extorted from the rest of the U.K. by political blackmail.

Prime Minister Cameron has already conceded that something will have to be done to limit the power of Scottish members of the U.K. Parliament in London from voting on purely English issues when English members cannot vote on similar issues in Scotland. He also recognizes that there will be increasing pressure for further devolution not only to Wales and Northern Ireland but also to industrial cities in the north of England.

He knows there must be real change if the United Kingdom is to remain “united” in spirit as well as formally, but no one yet knows what changes should be made or how soon they can be made.

All he has made clear so far is that there will not be a separate English parliament. Nor will there be a federal constitution for the U.K.

The Scottish vote must also be a relief for those countries in the European Union that have areas within their borders clamoring for independence.

The most vociferous have been the inhabitants of Catalonia centered in Barcelona. The Catalans have demanded a referendum on independence, but the Spanish government has adamantly refused to countenance any such vote. The government also made clear that it would have objected strongly to an independent Scotland being admitted to the European Union.

Catalonia is not the only part of Spain that resents control from Madrid. Nor is it the only area in Spain with a separate culture and language. Nor is Spain the only European country incorporating areas with different cultures and languages. Belgium is split between Flemish and French speakers. The Mediterranean island of Corsica, which has it own language and tradition, has demanded independence from France.

Both Germany and Italy were once collections of independent states and were only unified in the 19th century. Both face pressures from regions seeking more power.

The issue is not confined to Europe. In Canada, French-speaking Quebec nearly voted for independence. There is little doubt that, given the chance, areas of Russia such as Dagestan and Chechnya would like to throw off the Russian yoke.

In China the Uighurs and the Tibetans, to name only two of China’s many minorities, would dearly love to be free from Chinese domination.

The Scottish vote has lessons for all democratic countries. People everywhere resent too much bureaucratic centralism and demand more local power. Politicians need to listen more.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.