Europe / United Kingdom

They Voted No – Now What? Scottish Devolution After the Vote

On September 18, 2014, Scotland held a referendum with only one question on the ballot: Should Scotland become an independent country? In the end, the vote came to 54.2% against an independent Scotland and 45.7% for an independent Scotland. However, this does not mean that the balance of power in the UK will remain the same. As the September 18th vote got closer and closer, it was looking increasingly likely that the Scottish people were going to vote for independence. As a result, the “Better Together” campaign, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, began promising greater autonomy for Scotland if the vote didn’t go through, despite having earlier insisted that Devo Max (an option that would keep Scotland a part of the UK but with greater constitutional power) be kept off the ballot.

The three major political parties in the UK backed this promise, each with their own ideas about how, in the event of a “no” vote, power would be devolved to Scotland. The Labour party laid out a plan that would increase Scotland’s power to vary its taxes, and increase Scotland’s power of its welfare and social benefits programs. The plan made it clear that Scotland would not gain power for implementing corporation tax or national insurance.

The Conservative party made the case that Scotland should have full control over income tax, making the Scottish parliament accountable for 40% of the money it spent. The Conservatives also have said there is a case to be made for Scotland having more control over the Value Added Tax (VAT) as well as responsibility over welfare programs being devolved to Scotland.

The Liberal Democrats have devised a plan that would bring Scotland one-step closer to “home rule.” They would like to see Scotland be able to raise and spend taxes on its own terms, as well as borrow on its own terms. Its monetary relationship with the UK would continue on a needs based structure, with powers involving oil, welfare and foreign affairs staying at the UK level.

But all of this was only speculation at the time that it was announced. The real question is, what will happen now that Scotland has voted to remain part of the UK?  So far, the Better Together campaign, in conjunction with David Cameron, has laid out an extremely ambitious plan that has a Draft Scotland bill being published in January, and the bill being included in the Queen’s Speech in May. However, the inter-party arguments about how power will be devolved to Scotland may be enough to stop any devolution at all. David Cameron’s own party has described devolution as a “meaningless process.”

Already people in Scotland are getting nervous that they just lost their chance at independence, especially after Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, commented that, “Constitutional change matters. But we all know something else matters even more,” in reference to the Labour party’s election platform. Only three days previously he had been quoted as saying “The people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland must have a bigger say.” The rapid turn around in support for Scottish devolution by party leaders has led to indignation across Scotland, with many people claiming to have fallen into the “English trap” of false promises. Many people only voted “no” based upon the promises made by the Better Together campaign about a more autonomous Scotland, and so this halt in progress is creating tension. Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond (who has since stepped down from his post) has said, “I’m actually not surprised at the caviling and reneging on the commitments. I’m only surprised by the speed at which they’re doing it.” The Scottish National Party has jumped from around 25,000 members to over 100,000, becoming the UK’s third biggest party by membership and the largest in Scotland by far, showing a clear consensus throughout Scotland that if the Better Together campaign doesn’t deliver on their promises of devolution, Scotland will take action.

So what does this mean for the UK as a whole? The other countries in the UK, most notably Wales, have always had strong nationalist movements of their own. Many people suspected that if Scotland had broken away, Wales and Northern Ireland would have been soon to follow. This represents the greatest fears of the “Better Together” campaign, and the main reason why it was so crucial to keep Scotland from voting “yes.” Nevertheless, the “no” vote in Scotland does not guarantee the continuation of a united UK. The response of the other countries within the UK will depend greatly on how and when the UK devolves power to Scotland. For example, a lot of party leaders are in favor of keeping the Barnett Funding formula, a formula for adjusting funds to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales based on population, in place. But, proposed changes to Scottish power would mean that Scotland would now spend more per head than ever before, and it has been predicted that Wales would lose 300 million pounds per year in funding.

Britain needs to use this as an opportunity to take steps towards a more federalist structure. Scotland is not the only country within the UK that deserves to have more of a say in its own affairs. If Westminster takes this as a chance to equalize the power dynamic in the UK, they have the chance to stop nationalist movements that might develop in protest to Scotland’s (proposed) new power and autonomy. In order to do this, however, England’s leaders have to stop using this as an opportunity for a “political power play” and instead create clear, cohesive goals that can be achieved across a realistic timeline.