On 18 September, Scotland voted against independence from the United Kingdom by a margin of 55-45 per cent, an event that will be of interest to many in the U.S. given the commentary made there by many in the lead up to the vote. We asked a number of experts to comment on the results and what might occur in future. John Van Reenen sees two major battles ahead, over the European Union and regarding constitutional change. Norman Bonney argues that the Labour Party conceded the progressive campaigning initiative in socially deprived neighborhoods to the independence movement and faces a major challenge to retain its electoral base. Rupert Read writes that there is now an overwhelming case for a constitutional convention. Craig McAngus writes that the result is only a partial answer to the Scottish Question that has now asked an English one.
The immense turnout of 85% is a tribute to healthy democracy in Scotland and the UK as a whole. The Scottish people were brave to vote against breaking up the UK. There was immense pressure in the campaign to make the vote a declaration of identity rather than of reason – “You can only really be Scottish if you vote yes”. This was always deeply offensive and deeply untrue. It is possible and desirable in the modern world to have multiple identities and indeed, civilised living requires this. Gordon Brown’s speech on the eve of the vote – at last – made this into a passionate rallying call.
As I have argued before, the economic case for maintaining the union was overwhelming. There are now two major battles ahead. The first is over the European Union as the Prime Minister has promised a vote on this by 2017. This has even more risks for the prosperity of the UK than the Scottish vote. The economic arguments in favour of this continued union are also overwhelming, but the siren call of barren nationalism will again be amplified by UKIP and a great many narrow minded politicians. And the Scottish referendum has shown that many people will find this an attractive song – for “distant Westminster” read “distant Brussels”).
The second battle will be constitutional change. Powers will go to Scotland, but what about the other countries of the UK? What is clear is that people are deeply unhappy about over-centralisation of power in Westminster. We need to consider more power to the city-regions of England and how to economically revitalise areas outside of London. The LSE Growth Commission has been followed up by a City Growth Commission (I am one of the members). We will issue our report next month calling for a new settlement within England across its major city-regions to match the changes now proposed between England and Scotland.
This is not the end of a move to decentralise power – it’s just the start.
Clearly the great ambitions of the reconvened Scottish Parliament of 1999 to transform politics in Scotland in a more participatory direction have failed. About half the Scottish electorate do not believe that the current arrangements which grant generous funding and extensive powers of self-government over health, education, local government, transport and planning etc. (with more in the pipeline) are capable of delivering greater involvement, more equality and social justice. The Labour Party has failed to use the institutions it created to strengthen its position in Scotland and the stature of its MSPs has never matched the challenge of the SNP. It has also conceded the progressive campaigning initiative in socially deprived neighbourhoods to the independence movement and faces a major challenge to retain its electoral base.
UK party leaders seemed out of touch when campaigning in Scotland. the Prime Minister, David Cameron, emphasised the apparent weakness of the Tories in Scotland by referring to the one Scottish MP. But disproportionality at Westminster minimises apparent Tory support in Scotland and he could have bolstered the party’s status by mentioning the 15 Tory MSPs (12%) elected under the proportional representation system as well as Ruth Davidson, their impressive leader. The hidden agenda of the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, elected by proportional representation, was to prevent a separatist administration gaining control of Holyrood. But a low poll in 2011 returned an SNP majority elected by only 45 per cent of those voting but with a commitment to hold a referendum on independence. And in the end campaigning may have made little difference to the final outcome with separatists again polling the same percentage share as in 2011.
The ‘Yes’ campaign has played a vital role in throwing open questions about the support for our current constitutional settlement – questions that will not go away simply because of a narrow defeat for the ‘Yes’ campaign. In fact, the questions are in many cases more urgent than they would have been, had Scotland simply been going its own way.
The debate triggered by the referendum has illustrated how people across the country have been left feeling unrepresented and neglected by Westminster policies and politics. It is clear that the “business as usual” approach to politics favoured by the three ‘main’ parties is no longer resonating with the voting electorate. There is now a real opportunity to mount a serious reassessment of our political system – including a debate over the introduction of a written Constitutional Convention and Bill of Rights. And this opportunity is forced upon us, by us all being still in the same Kingdom together.
For the three largest parties have had to commit themselves to some version of ‘devo-max’, in the last few weeks, in order to stave off independence. So, we must now have some version of devo-max and that that means that the ‘West Lothian question’, the question of what matters the MP for West Lothian etc. can vote for in Westminster, must at last be properly addressed – which requires a serious shake-up of our constitution and democratic arrangements, in itself.
As Green MP Caroline Lucas has already called for, it is therefore now high time for a people’s Constitutional Convention in this country. To settle all these questions, once and for all, and to take British democracy at last into the 21st century. The crisis of a wide lack of confidence in the political system of the UK can only be addressed by a non-elite Constitutional Convention that involves ordinary people in deciding on how to reform the electoral system, how to bring in enhanced regional and local government, how to implement a right of recall of elected MPs who lose their constituents’ confidence, and so on. As a host of fine relevant individuals and organisations argued in an important letter in The Times last week. We need to get behind this campaign, together.
The referendum is over and Scotland has voted No. There is undoubtedly huge disappointment amongst those who were campaigning for Scotland to be an independent state, and relief amongst those who wanted Scotland to stay in the UK. The turnout, at just shy of 85%, is remarkable and unprecedented, and the hope is that this democratic engagement in politics can be sustained moving forward. We know that the pro-UK parties are committed to further devolution for Scotland and the three main parties will soon begin the arduous task of putting together a joint position on what those powers should be. The aim is to have these proposals in draft law by January, and the clock is certainly ticking in terms of meeting this deadline.
Although the Scottish Question will remain on the agenda, the English Question has also been asked. At just after 7am, David Cameron made a statement outlining plans for a sweeping review of the relationship between the nations of the UK. Crucially, he stated that an answer to the infamous West Lothian Question would be sought and the issue of English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) would be examined. Reports in the media suggest that he was under pressure from a number of MP’s who insisted that the issue be visited in return for allowing the Barnett Formula to remain an, as yet, unquestioned feature of territorial politics in the UK. John Redwood, a long-time advocate of EVEL, was interviewed on BBC News this morning suggesting that, in his view, there ought to be days when The Commons focuses on English legislation only. This is obviously problematic in that if Labour were reliant on their Scottish MP’s for a majority, or even to exist as the largest party, then they would be outnumbered by the opposition on these English-only days. However, there is political capital in dealing with this question given that recent research has shown that the English are not exactly pleased at the perceived over-funding of Scotland. UKIP have also sniffed an opportunity to exploit this, and so Cameron is now using the constitution as part of his campaign in the run-up to the UK General Election. In the longer term, there is no doubt that a can of worms has been opened here and so, in a somewhat ironic way, the search for a Scottish Answer has subsequently asked the English, and the wider British, Question.
Note: This article is provided by our sister site, British Politics and Policy at LSE.
Featured image credit: Joel Suss CC BY 2.0
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USApp– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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