Friday, 19 September 2014

The United Kingdom saved but not preserved

So in the end it wasn’t even close.

Yes to Scottish Independence
But this time at least it was No to ending the Union
Scotland voted to stay in the United Kingdom by a wide margin – 55.3% to 44.7%. A substantial difference. Nothing like as wide as the 20-point leads the ‘No’ campaign was notching up in polls two years ago, but still decisive, and nothing like the close result the polls predicted last week. Why, a couple of polls even put ‘Yes’ ahead.

Had the ‘No’ campaign failed, David Cameron might have found his position untenable. As it happens, Alex Salmond, after a long and highly successful career as Scotland’s First Minister, has decided to resign. Odd. It was a bad defeat but it was only one defeat, and no-one has been a more outspoken champion of Scotland. Surely his commitment would have been just what was needed for the next round of the debate.

For a next round there’s certainly going to be. David Cameron wasted the two years of the campaign, when he could have prepared proposals for increased Scottish autonomy. There might have been a Constitutional Convention, involving all parties. That would have put Alex Salmond on the back foot. He could have taken part, and looked as though he was hedging his bets on independence, or stayed out, and looked petty.

Such a Constitutional Convention would have prepared proposals to lay before the Scottish electorate as an alternative to independence. But it would have required effort from David Cameron, who’s shown himself no great friend of hard work. Instead, he waited until a poll showed the ‘Yes’ campaign ahead two weeks ago and then rushed around, stitching ideas together in a panic.

Suddenly, out of the shadows, stepped a figure from the past. Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister, emerged as the only champion of the United Kingdom to produce coherent, well-argued proposals for transferring more power to Scotland, his home country. He was a transformed character. My wife, watching him speaking passionately to a campaign meeting, said “why couldn’t he be like that when he was in Downing Street?” I was amused to notice next morning’s Guardian asking the same question.

Brown brought together the leaders of the three main UK parties, David Cameron for the Conservatives, his Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg for the Liberal Democrats, and Ed Miliband for the Opposition Labour Party. They published a ‘Vow’ to hand over powers to Scotland in the event of a ‘No’ vote, while maintaining the current net transfer of public funds to Scotland.

On the front page of the Daily Record
The vow all three party leaders now have to honour
Now that vow has to be kept. Partly because to break it would be to lose all credibility. Even more because we remember the lesson of the two independence referendums in Quebec: the 1980 vote saw independence rejected by nearly 20 percent; a triumphalist response in Ontario and no concessions to the nationalists, meant a new referendum in 1995 where secession was defeated by only just over a single percentage point. 

To avoid that fate, the UK has to grant substantially more autonomy to Scotland. But that’s not without its own difficulties. Voices are being raised in Wales about whether the other nations of the UK can expect the same enhanced powers as Scotland. And in England an old question is being asked again: should Scots MPs in Westminster vote on English issues, since English MPs have no say on the same issues in Scotland, now handled by the Edinburgh Parliament?

Equally, voices are being raised to ask just why the rest of the UK should continue to fund significantly higher public spending per head in Scotland than anywhere else.

The worst problem is that we don’t all, in England, give the same answers. Should some issues in the Westminster Parliament be regarded as purely English with only English MPs entitled to vote on them? Or should there be a specifically English Parliament just as there is a Scottish parliament, a Welsh Assembly and a Northern Ireland Assembly? Or is it tolerable to leave Scots with a say over English education, social security and healthcare, while the English have no say over theirs?

Personally, I like the idea of an English Parliament in principle, but not at all in practice: it would have an entrenched Conservative majority for a long time to come.

As for the extra public spending in Scotland, is it reasonable since the whole of the UK has benefited from the North Sea oil found off the Scottish coast? Or is it money taken from England, Wales and Northern Ireland and handed, without justification, to the Scots?

Tough questions with no easy answers. And we have only a few months to find a response. We’ve just emerged from a tough campaign, only to go into some tough negotiations.

I was asked this morning whether I was celebrating last night’s results. The answer is ‘no’. What I feel is relief that the Scots aren’t leaving us. But celebration can only start once we’ve solved the difficult questions we’re facing, and come up with a new constitutional settlement that meets the aspirations of all four nations in this newly reunited Kingdom.

No hope, by the way, of stopping it being a Kingdom any time soon.

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