Scottish No vote makes independence more likely


The reaction in Westminster and the City of London to the No vote in the Scottish referendum on independence has been one of relief. This is a big mistake.

First, votes of 55 per cent to 45 per cent do not resolve issues for very long. The campaign has awakened public interest and strength of feeling unusual in modern politics. These are not characteristics of a debate that is settled.

Commitments by the UK’s main unionist parties to give extended powers to the Scottish government and parliament, free of detail and hurriedly advanced in the campaign’s late stages, are likely to be a bust. The division created in 1997 between devolved responsibilities and those reserved for the UK government was not arbitrary. The easily devolved powers were devolved. Others remained at Westminster because introducing separate regimes of, say, pension provision in a small island with a mobile population is horribly complicated. But independence would hand responsibility to a new government with strong incentives to find answers.

The UK Treasury, by contrast, will resist – and not without reason – ceding genuine control over tax policy or fiscal judgments. The result in practice is likely to be a package that decentralises a few peripheral aspects of welfare and tax policy, such as attendance allowance, and imposes yet another complex formula that appears to give the Scottish parliament greater control over income tax without really doing so.

This would matter more if demands for additional devolved powers represented a coherent request for new authority in specific areas. The claim that the UK government might undermine Scotland’s health service was central to the Yes campaign, heedless of the fact that health is already a devolved function and any decision to abolish the National Health Service in Scotland would be made in Edinburgh.

If you ask people in Scotland what tax and welfare policies they want, you find they do not want different policies. They want more generous ones. The Scottish government’s policy document on independence mostly consisted of a list of things it already has the power, but not the money, to do – and further devolution will not change that. The demand for more devolution is not an expression of desire for any specific administrative change but a cry of resentment against a political system perceived as remote and hostile from people who fear they are losing control of their lives.

Despite the efforts of David Cameron, the UK prime minister, to place his post-referendum devolution proposals in a context of overall constitutional reform, the debate is motivated by the special position of Scotland. This special position is hard to reconcile with the interests of the remainder of the UK.

The issue of why legislators from Scotland should have jurisdiction over English policy matters but English legislators no say over the same matters in Scotland, or the so-called West Lothian question, has no good answer.

The different complexion of Scottish politics from that of the UK as a whole gives urgency to the issue and fuels the resentment of English Conservative MPs. The current fiscal settlement, which favours Scotland, cannot survive the scrutiny and demand for transparency it will now receive.

The No side never grasped that the central argument of the Yes campaign is that Scotland is different. Every measure that respects the differences, far less emphasises or extends them, gives strength to those who favour independence. The creation of the Scottish parliament gave a platform to advocates of separatism; that is how the referendum came about in the first place.

The one certainty about the outcome was that any close result was a bad result. It is. Those who argued in 1997 that devolution was a slippery slope were right. Last week, Scottish nationalists lost a battle. But the outcome makes it very likely they have won their war.

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