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UK Under Pressure Over Promises of Scottish Powers

Scotland may have voted against independence, but with demands for greater devolution from Edinburgh and elsewhere in the UK, the story isn't over yet.
October 2, 2014, 12:10pm
Image via Reuters

Scotland may have decided to remain in the United Kingdom by a decisive margin of 10.6 percent at its historic independence referendum on September 18, but for the 1.6 million people who chose an unknown future over the 307-year-old union, the story may be far from over.

The vote has been widely credited for galvanizing political engagement on a level rarely seen in Scotland or indeed elsewhere, with an unprecedented turnout of 85 percent — far outstripping the 64 percent of Scots who voted in the 2010 British general election, or the 58 percent of Americans who participate in the 2012 presidential vote.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has victoriously proclaimed the issue of Scotland's place in the union to be "settled," but the situation on the ground doesn't necessarily reflect such a glowing assessment.

Glasgow's George Square, a hotbed of pro-independence activity in the lead up to the vote, devolved into a scene reminiscent of Northern Ireland when the results become clear. British nationalists stood off with independence supporters, waving the Union Jack, singing the imperial anthem of Rule Britannia and setting off flares. There were even reports of Nazi-style salutes and threats to burn Glasgow for voting for independence. Both sides had celebrated the peaceful equanimity that marked most of the politics of the referendum - one of the most serious acts of violence was the egging of the Scottish Labor parliamentarian Jim Murphy by independence supporters in Kirkcaldy. That police had to be called in to separate protesters the day after the vote besmirched the whole process, and all parties were quick to condemn the escalation as the result of drunken thugs taking advantage of the raw political state of the nation.

Yet was this truly an isolated incident, or is it a promise of things to come? Almost half of the political nation actively chose to sever ties with the rest of the United Kingdom. Many had been striving towards their idealized image of an independent Scotland for years, a kind of fervour unlikely to simply be extinguished by a No vote. The breakdown of voting patterns are also a concern for the British government. It was the 65-and-over population that carried the No vote, with 73 percent opposing independence. Conversely, 71 percent of 16 to 17-year-olds supported independence, and the Yes campaign won a majority of 16 to 54-year-olds — almost 57 percent. As time goes on, therefore, anti-union sentiment across the population may only grow.

The vote equates to a monumental display of discontent with the status quo, with many seeing it as a rejection of elitist-Etonian politics in the form of the current Conservative government. While Blair McDougall of the Better Together campaign said that economic "scaremongering" was crucial to ensuring a unionist victory, the promise made to the Scottish people on September 16 has been widely recognized as the clincher. Leaders of the three major parties (Conservative, Labor and Liberal-Democrat) vowed to fast-track the devolution of powers to Scotland if the nation remained within the United Kingdom. Even before the vote, there were rumbles of opposition from the back-bench of Cameron's own party, but with the fate of the union now decided, everything is unravelling.

First Minister Alex Salmond, who announced his resignation following the verdict, accused the British government of tricking Scots into voting against independence. Yet he said that even he was surprised at the speed with which the prime minister reneged on his promises. Less than 24 hours after the vote, Cameron said that issues of increased Scottish autonomy would be worked through in tandem with wider constitutional questions facing the United Kingdom, something which promises to be a long and drawn out affair, primarily because there is no British constitution.

The present-day United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a patchwork of nations united by conquest, in the case of Wales and Cornwall, and treaty, in the cases of Scotland and Northern Ireland. Scotland was an independent kingdom in 1707 when it signed the Treaty of Union with England and created the United Kingdom — while Wales and Cornwall had been subsumed by England centuries before — and therefore has the greatest legal claim to extensive devolved power. But Scotland is not the only part of the country to suffer on account of London's dominance. Because of the city's importance and vitality, the region commands disproportionate attention from the government, most especially in terms of spending — or at least, disproportionate in the eyes of those outside south-east England.

Since 1999, Scotland had been accruing increased levels of autonomy, spurring other regions to seek the same. Northern Ireland and Wales both have regional assemblies, although their levels of devolved authority are far less than those of the Scottish parliament. However, it isn't only the nations of the United Kingdom that hunger for devolution. The Core Cities UK campaign, comprised of the country's 10 biggest cities, has demanded devolution at the same speed as Scotland, with Manchester leading the way. The idea is that with increased power over taxation, local interests will finally be allowed to compete with those of London and prevent the capital from continuing to swallow the bulk of yearly spending. Such an overhaul of the constitutional format of the United Kingdom has never been attempted, and the result could be anything from the introduction of a devolved parliament in each nation, or even a federal-style government on par with the United States, where an untold number of local parliaments handle regional matters while Westminster retains authority over larger issues like defense and foreign relations. Such a proposal is not new — Winston Churchill proposed a series of regional parliaments in 1912, with one in Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff and then 7 throughout England — but it is certainly not in line with the speedy solution promised to the Scottish people.

The former Labor Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the man credited with brokering the cross-party promise and himself a Scot, has now reacted by announcing his intention to ensure that the strict timeline, which should see debate begin this month and legislation passed in the next parliament, will be met. This week, he called for 100,000 Scots to sign a petition demanding Downing Street stick to its promises, insisting there should be "no strings attached" to pledges of more powers for Edinburgh.

Alistair Darling, the former Labor chancellor who led the Better Together campaign, told the BBC that there was no link between more Scottish powers and the rising calls for change from south of the border, such as demands to exclude Scottish parliamentarians from voting on matters that solely affect England. He said that devolution-max is "non-negotiable" and that "anyone who welches on that [promise] will pay a very high price for years to come."

As the citizens of Catalonia in Spain are only too aware, for an independence referendum to hold any political legitimacy it needs the approval of the central government. Cameron's claim that the issue has been settled for at least a generation ignores not only the 1.6 million Scots who voted for independence, but also the unknown number who only decided to vote no based on the promise of devolution-max. If the Conservative government drags its heels over increased devolution, what options remain?

Newly impassioned youth are being reminded that there is little Scotland can do to stand up against the interests of the more powerful England. With the general elections just around the corner, the major parties will now focus on shoring up votes — the vast majority of which are located in England — and Scotland will lose the central political role it has recently become accustomed to enjoying. Without recourse to legitimate democratic action, future debates over Scottish autonomy and independence could stray dramatically from the peaceful tenor of this referendum.

Already, the United Kingdom is sagging under the weight of calls from all sectors for increased devolution, federalism, constitutional conventions and reforms. In Northern Ireland, sporadic outbreaks of rioting continue to be a chilling reminder that sectarian violence has survived, if largely dormant, within the British Isles. The last thing the British establishment needs is for such a situation to migrate to the much more populous and much more centrally located Scotland.