NEW YORK – U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron is a happy man right now. If he’d lost the union through sheer carelessness, which looked possible last week, history would have been unforgiving.
Had the Scots voted for independence, the poor man would have ranked for all time, beyond hope of redemption, below Neville Chamberlain in the gallery of Great British Failures. Congratulations, sir: Your reputation is damaged but retrievable.
It’s too soon to say that the U.K. has cause to be happy.
One good thing: The margin of victory for the union side — 55.3 percent to 44.7 percent — was a bit more comfortable than the final polls had led people to expect. That will have a welcome calming effect, quieting complaints on the losing side that the referendum was somehow stolen, and stifling demands for a rerun in short order.
Cameron, letting his elation get the better of him, greeted the result as a declaration of “the settled will of the Scottish people”; Alex Salmond, who led the campaign for independence and announced his resignation after the results were announced, said that a majority had decided against it “at this stage.” The numbers helped to make Cameron’s assessment more plausible.
Here’s the problem. If the nationalists had won, they’d have started a risky, costly transition, but the final destination would have been clear.
The unionists’ victory avoids that short-term pain but prolongs the constitutional uncertainty indefinitely. Cameron might wish things were “settled,” but they aren’t.
The demand for independence isn’t going away. When you consider the apocalyptic predictions of the No campaign, the Yes campaign’s transparent dishonesty (on taxes and spending) and incoherence (on the currency), the threats of Scottish businesses to move south, and the rock-solid consensus outside Scotland that leaving the union would be a tragic error, 45 percent support for independence suggests a certain resilience.
According to a poll taken alongside the referendum, 70 percent of those voting for independence thought “the principle that all decisions about Scotland should be taken in Scotland” was the most important factor; only 20 percent said they gave most weight to “on balance, Scotland’s future looked brighter as an independent country.”
Compare that with the other side. Of those voting for the union, 47 percent said the risks of separation were the main reason to stay; only 27 percent said “a strong attachment to the U.K. and its shared history, culture and traditions” counted most.
It’s as you would expect, maybe, but nonetheless worth noting: Strength of conviction rests heavily on the independence side. Might that change?
Cameron has promised that Westminster will now devolve more powers to Scotland. Will that cool nationalist passions? I doubt it.
The Scots already have their own parliament and a substantial measure of self-government. This new phase of devolution, like the previous one, will whet rather than sate the appetite for more.
What the promised “devo max” will mean isn’t yet clear. But suppose it lets Scotland collect all its own taxes (which it doesn’t at the moment) and spend them on domestic programs entirely as it sees fit.
Suppose only defense and foreign policy are reserved to the government of the U.K. as a whole.
Now suppose that Scotland and the rest of the U.K. disagree about defense and foreign policy — as they do, in fact. Salmond’s party strongly opposes the U.K.’s nuclear-missile force, which is based in Scotland.
Or suppose, again quite plausibly, that Scotland would be less keen than England to support the U.S. in military action in the Middle East or elsewhere.
And then there’s the small matter of the promised U.K. referendum on quitting the European Union.
If, in due course, Scotland is governing itself successfully in all domestic matters, why would it submit contentedly to the U.K.’s defense and foreign-policy decisions?
Suppose, on the other hand, it were able to block them and get its way. What would the English think of that?
This understates the difficulty, because the new phase of devolution will topple a constitutional dispensation that’s already unbalanced.
Recall that the Scots, despite having their own parliament in Edinburgh, currently enjoy the bizarre privilege of sending Scottish members of Parliament to Westminster to vote on English-only matters (not to mention a fiscal bonus called the Barnett formula, which underwrites higher public spending in Scotland).
Because Scotland leans to the left, this arrangement has been vital in maintaining the strength of the Labour Party in the south. You might be shocked to learn that it was a Labour government (led by Tony Blair, born and educated in Scotland, and Gordon Brown, a Scot representing a Scottish constituency) that enacted it.
A new round of devolution, with Tories in charge in London, opens this Pandora’s box.
To meet the demands of English conservatives, Cameron has said that the rest of the U.K. must now get devolution, too — English votes on English policies. The prospect is a constitutional restructuring almost as radical as the one implied by full independence for Scotland.
It’s hard to say where this leads. For instance, if England ended up with its own government, just as Scotland has its own, how will the U.K. choose its prime minister?
Carried to its logical conclusion, devolution implies a highly distributed form of federalism — but Britain’s political parties and institutions aren’t set up that way.
Who knows what kind of adaptation would be desirable or even possible?
This much is clear, though: The independence campaign has set forces in motion that will push Scotland and England further apart.
Today there’s the promise of English devolution. Next come the calls for English independence.
No, Prime Minister, nothing is settled.
Clive Crook (firstname.lastname@example.org), born in Yorkshire, is a Bloomberg View columnist and a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.