After a two-year referendum campaign, Scotland last Thursday voted to remain part of the United Kingdom. Despite the Scots’ rejection of independence by a margin of 55 to 45 percent, Britain will never be the same again.
Even among those voting No to independence, many want to see a more autonomous Scotland as part of a federal U.K. English and Welsh voters share Scots’ disenchantment with Britain’s current system of government, as demonstrated by growing support for anti-system parties and declining turnout in elections across the U.K.
Ten days before Scotland’s referendum, opinion polls showed the Yes campaign pulling ahead. In a panic, the leaders of Britain’s three main parties offered Scotland more devolved powers to avert the breakup of the union.
Following Thursday’s No vote, British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged that draft legislation on greater devolution of tax, spending and welfare policies to the Scottish parliament would be published by January 2015.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats are equally committed to a transfer of powers from London to Edinburgh, although the parties disagree over the details. But picking at the threads that bind Scotland to the rest of Britain threatens to unravel the whole U.K. constitution. Granting increased powers to Scotland’s parliament raises the question of whether Scottish MPs in the House of Commons should vote on legislation affecting only residents of England and Wales.
If the Commons were composed of two tiers of MPs, there are consequences for the selection of the British prime minister, whose position rests on his or her majority in Parliament. Perhaps it is time to consider a directly elected head of government, or one chosen by the Commons and an elected House of Lords representing the U.K.’s regions?
A separate English parliament is an unworkable solution to the constitutional imbalance created by Scottish devolution, as 85 percent of Britons live in England. What would be the division of powers and legitimacy between the head of the English government and the British prime minister?
Another possible solution is a truly federal system offering English regions their own assemblies, similar to those in Scotland and Wales. But when voters in the Northeast of England were offered a regional assembly in a referendum in 2004, 78 percent voted No.
Partly voters feared the addition of another layer of bureaucracy to an already complicated multi-level system of subnational government. There was also cynicism about creating more jobs for politicians, who are generally regarded by British voters as out of touch, self-serving and devoid of principle.
In the coming months, further devolution for Scotland must be considered within the framework of a new system of government and culture of politics for the entire U.K. The 84 percent turnout in the Scottish referendum and huge number of activists who joined the Yes and No campaigns demonstrate that British voters enthusiastically engage in politics when offered the chance to effect significant change.
The dilemma for Britain’s political leaders is how to build on the public engagement generated by Scotland’s referendum, without rushing into ill-conceived reforms that further confuse constitutional arrangements and create more problems than they solve. Given deep voter distrust of the Westminster establishment, reforms must be bottom-up in order to gain legitimacy.
The debate over how Britain is governed for the next century should also include the future of the U.K.’s membership in the EU.
As Scottish voters are generally more enthusiastic supporters of EU membership than the English, a vote to leave Europe in the “in/out” referendum promised by Cameron for 2017 could reopen the independence debate.
In order for a referendum on EU membership to take place, Cameron must first win Britain’s general election next May, as neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats are committed to a referendum. Scotland’s independence vote has been a grueling affair for the prime minister, whose Conservative Party holds only one Scottish seat in the House of Commons.
Cameron was criticized for his lackadaisical campaigning efforts in Scotland. But given the Tories’ toxicity in Scotland, perhaps the best thing the prime minister could do to save the union was exactly what he did do: Keep a low profile.
Cameron’s promise of greater powers for Scotland is creating a backlash among members of his own party who fear devolution will place English MPs at a disadvantage and will allow UKIP to seize votes from the Conservatives by positioning themselves as the representatives of the disenfranchised English.
There is pressure on the prime minister to prioritize the needs of his party when designing the package of reforms for the Scottish parliament. To do so would confirm voters worst suspicions about the intentions of politicians.
Labour leader Ed Miliband similarly faces pressures from his party. Without Scotland’s Labour MPs, Miliband can’t become prime minister. But letting Scottish MPs continue to vote on matters affecting only England and Wales will lose Labour voters in middle England.
The rapidity and composure with which both sides accepted the result of the independence referendum speaks well of British democracy.
But this democracy will be put in danger if the institutions of British government, which have evolved over centuries, are not reformed to meet the demands of modern voters.
Tina Burrett is assistant professor of political science at Sophia University.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.