19 September 2014
Mercator Senior Fellow, Europe Programme
The relief at the Scottish No vote to independence is palpable, and not just in London. But it is a further warning that traditional politics is over.
There may have been dismay in Dundee and Glasgow, the two Scottish cities where the Yes campaign won a majority, but in Edinburgh the prospect of an ill-prepared and precipitate separation from the rest of the United Kingdom was not regarded with any equanimity.
In most European capitals too, the sudden surge in support for independence that marked the last weeks of the Scottish referendum campaign was watched with horror and astonishment. In Madrid, most of all, the very idea that the UK could contemplate some form of dissolution was anathema. It was feared that a victory for secession would give new impetus to the already powerful Catalan and Basque independence movements.
Although the final outcome of 55 to 45 per cent appears decisive, the narrowness of the gap is likely to inspire rather than depress such would-be independence movements.
The outcome should certainly be seen as a warning in London and other capitals about the extent of a popular backlash against a metropolitan elite, and disillusionment with the current political process. Many of those who joined the nationalist cause in Scotland towards the end were not so much traditional nationalists as protesters against that perceived incompetent, insensitive and even corrupt elite. This was another expression of the protest votes against mainstream parties seen in many European Union member states in the recent European parliament elections.
No more ‘business as usual’
If Scotland had voted Yes, it would have caused an earthquake in the UK body politic. David Cameron would almost certainly have been forced to resign as prime minister.
The No vote means many difficult questions do not need to be faced. In the event, it is Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister, who will step down, after losing the referendum.
And yet given where he started from, he fought a remarkably successful campaign, and one which will have huge potential consequences. For the outcome suggests that the very idea of a ‘United Kingdom’ and of a clearly defined British identity has lost much of its power of attraction. All the romance was on the side of the Scottish nationalists: the pro-union campaigners were reduced to a mere cost-benefit analysis.
Many senior politicians and commentators believe that a profound constitutional shake-up will be needed in order to accommodate the promises of greater devolution made by all three main parties during the campaign. It is also needed to give new meaning to the very concept of a union that appears to be as much resented as it is appreciated by its peoples.
The good news is that the Scottish referendum result gives an opportunity for a really thorough debate on a new constitutional settlement for the whole UK, based on a far more federal system. It would involve a substantial devolution of powers not just to Scotland, but to the English regions, Wales and Northern Ireland. It would reverse the decades-old trend to centralize power in London.
The very word ‘federal’ has long been a bad word in British political discourse, although mostly in relation to the perceived threat of EU integration. Jean-Claude Juncker, the new European Commission president and former Luxembourg prime minister, was condemned out of hand as a 'federalist'. But even Nigel Farage, the leader of the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party, now argues that a 'federal' arrangement is necessary in the UK.
As long as England is treated as a single entity, however, such a federal system might well be unworkable because it would be so lopsided. Only with the creation of powerful English regions, and very probably a split between London and the rest of southeast England, would some semblance of balance be possible.
The bad news is that none of the established political parties seems ready to think so far outside the box. In his immediate reaction to the result, Mr Cameron merely talked about English parliamentarians having the right to vote – without Scottish involvement – on English legislation. He seems to be thinking of some inner parliamentary system, inside the House of Commons.
Yet what is surely needed is a truly federal system that would be represented at Westminster in a new upper house, replacing the anachronistic House of Lords with a federal upper chamber – as in the US, or in Germany. It would provide a second level of democracy, with strong regional roots, to curb the excessive central authority of British governments.
Such federalism would very probably be resisted by English nationalists, who want to maintain their domination of their less populous neighbours, and traditional politicians on both left and right, unable to conceive of a switch from confrontational to consensual politics. The end of an effective two-party system, with the recent proliferation of minority parties including the nationalist parties, the Greens and UKIP, is already pushing the UK in that direction. The present coalition government is not an aberration, but it is likely to be a model for the new normal.
Such a constitutional solution might not only help to defuse the centrifugal tendencies ever more apparent in UK politics. It might even help British voters to come to terms with membership of the multi-layered ‘federal’ democracy of the European Union.
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