Scotland rejected independence and opted instead to remain part of the United Kingdom in a historic referendum last Thursday. The outcome, which was in doubt until the polls closed, preserves the U.K., but that union of states will be transformed as the Scottish people hold British politicians to their campaign pledge to give them more power over their own affairs.
When first announced, the referendum on Scottish independence — the ballot offered only a simple Yes or No — was thought to be a pipe dream, the fantastic imaginings of a handful of Scottish nationalists who did not speak for the overwhelming majority of Scottish people. For much of the campaign, the No vote appeared to be cruising to victory.
But in the weeks before the ballot, the tide shifted, with one opinion poll only two weeks before the vote showing the Yes side ahead. Panic ensued throughout the British establishment, and politicians in London and elsewhere in the U.K. rushed to promise greater self-determination for the Scots within the union if they voted to stay.
For many observers, the disaffection was inexplicable. Scotland has enjoyed greater autonomy for several decades, and a Scot — Gordon Brown — served as prime minister in the last Labour government and, before that, served as chancellor of the Exchequer.
More money has flowed to Scotland on a per capita basis than to any other part of the U.K. Southerners were also perplexed because, in their eyes, Scotland benefited greatly in status and standing from being part of the U.K. — a member of the European Union and NATO and holder of a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council — and heir to the legacy of the British empire.
Scottish nationalists scoffed at many of those benefits. For them, the flow of funds from North Sea oil is Scotland’s patrimony; the London government is being generous with Scotland’s own money.
While a new government in Edinburgh might not get a Security Council seat, it would expect to claim membership in the EU and NATO over time (if it sought them).
The list of offenses to Scottish pride is longer than those supposed assets. A deeply anti-nuclear society, Scotland hosts the U.K. nuclear arsenal at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, the home port of the Trident submarines and their nuclear missiles.
More troubling, though, is a sense of British arrogance and indifference to Scottish interests and preferences. This reflects the conservative ascendance in British politics in recent years, although observers date the split to the Thatcher era of the 1980s when Britain turned sharply to the right.
Thatcher’s reform agenda hit Scotland’s heavy industry especially hard, pushing it further to the left and widening the gap between the two nations.
Today, even after the Conservatives have retreated toward the center, Scotland remains considerably more social democratic in orientation than its neighbor to the south.
Anger was thought to have dissipated after the devolution of authority to the Scottish Parliament in 1999, but that step seemed to fuel, rather than douse, the nationalist fervor. When the Scottish National Party (SNP) won a majority in the assembly in 2011, the prospect of independence — or at least a vote — became real. Still, polls showed only a third of voters were prepared to leave the U.K..
Whatever confidence the political establishment had evaporated in the runup to the polls as support for independence climbed. With the outcome a seeming dead heat, British Prime Minister David Cameron promised a new constitutional settlement that would grant Scotland, along with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, new powers and authority over taxation, spending and welfare.
The current British government, along with the opposition Labour Party, also promised to maintain indefinitely higher funding levels that Scotland receives compared with other regions of the U.K.
That seems to have been enough to stop the groundswell. On Thursday, when 3.6 million voters — a turnout rate of 85 percent — cast ballots, 55 percent opted to stay within the U.K., while 45 percent chose independence.
The relief in London was matched in other capitals that feared Scotland’s secession would inspire like-minded groups in their countries. (Perhaps predictably, Russian election observers challenged the accuracy of the referendum result, wondering of all things, about the 85 percent turnout.)
Most importantly, Scotland’s independence activists accepted the result, even though Alex Salmond, firebrand leader of the SNP and first minister of Scotland, warned that the “1.6 million people who made a choice for independence … will speak and speak loud if there is a retreat from the commitments made.”
But if Scots will be closely watching reform efforts, so too will other members of the U.K. Which raises some interesting questions, most notably: If other Britons will have a reduced say in Scottish (and Welsh and Irish) politics, then why should those nationalities have full representation in the only assembly that makes laws for England?
In other words, should England have its own Parliament? There are other practical questions to be addressed as well. Believers in “Great Britain” are no doubt relieved after Thursday’s vote, but they have plenty of work ahead if they are to keep a cap on Scotland’s ambitions.
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