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Powers for Scotland

Samira Shackle, London
September 19, 2014

Westminster is breathing a collective sigh of relief following the 'no' campaign's win in the Scottish referendum. Now the question is how many concessions David Cameron's government will have to make.

Image: Reuters/D. Martinez

Over the past weeks and months in pubs and living rooms across Britain, conversation has been dominated by the Scottish referendum: will they or won't they go independent? "This was a moment where we could have changed history," said pro-independence campaigner and Glasgow resident Claire Stewart. "The eyes of the world have been on Scotland and that in itself has been an electrifying thing."

Now, the votes are in, and the question has been answered more decisively than expected: Scotland has voted against ending its 307-year-old union with England and Wales.

"I think those of us who were reluctant to see Scotland leave the UK are breathing a collective sigh of relief," said Martin McDonald, a Labour party activist who campaigned for a no vote. "It's a decisive vote in favor of staying in the UK, which means we can avoid a painful and protracted period of recounting votes and recrimination. All in all, I think everyone - yes or no - would agree that this was a real victory for democracy. I can't think of many other places in the world where an impassioned debate about something as big as secession could pass so peacefully. It makes me incredibly proud to be Scottish, and to be British. I'm glad I can still say that I'm both."

The difficult part

Now, many analysts argue, the difficult part begins; as the slogan for the anti-independence campaign said, "no thanks doesn't mean no change." Clearly, the 1.6 million people who voted for independence will not be content with the status quo; and many of those who voted to remain in the UK did so with the expectation of major reform. "Whether people voted no or yes in this referendum, let us be absolutely clear, this was a vote for change," said Ed Miliband, the Labour Party leader on Friday.

"What motivated many people in the yes camp was not simply blind nationalism, but the desire to break out on our own and build a progressive state in the model of some of the Scandinavian countries - unlimited by a Conservative English government we didn't vote for," said Stewart. "Now we will have to work with what we've got and see if Westminster delivers on the greater powers it promised."

In the final weeks of the campaign, as independence made gains in the opinion polls, big promises were made. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, the leaders of the three main parties, signed a pledge in Scotland's Daily Record newspaper promising that in the event of a no vote, the Scottish Parliament would be given increased powers - including the authority to raise taxes and to have the final say over the National Health System (NHS). It also promised to continue the Barnett formula that adjusts public expenditure for Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales based on population. This final promise was controversial; the formula was only ever intended to be temporary and many argue that it gives Scotland an unfairly large proportion of revenue.

David Cameron
He got his wish - but the work starts nowImage: Reuters/Dylan Martinez

Who gets what?

Now, the challenge for policy-makers will be producing a settlement that gives the Scottish people greater powers of self-determination, while not alienating other parts of the UK. Leanne Wood, the leader of the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, has called for Wales to be given equal devolved powers. "Wales can no longer be a spectator in its own national journey," she said. "Any offers to Scotland must be offered to Wales too. That's the very minimum we should expect."

Many citizens in Wales agree. "Wales already has significantly fewer powers than Scotland and receives significantly less revenue," said Gareth Edwards, a Plaid Cymru member who lives in Cardiff. "Nobody in Wales would be happy to see Scotland emotionally blackmailing the rest of the UK into letting it have its cake and eat it too. I'd love it if, instead creating more resentment, government took the opportunity to create major change and to re-engage people in all the parts of the UK who have felt unrepresented by government for too long."

There will also be heated debate about powers for England. "We have heard the voice of Scotland and now the millions of voices of England must be heard," said Cameron in a speech. Conservative minister William Hague, who will head up a cabinet special committee on constitutional change, said that further devolution to Scotland would make it "inconceivable to continue to allow Scottish members to vote on everything that is happening in England."

UK flag
What will staying in the Union mean for Scotland?Image: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

The Conservative party is particularly keen to address this question because of the risk of the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP) capitalizing on voter discontent in England. But it is a complex balancing act; removing voting powers in Westminster for Scottish MPs would undermine the ability of the left-wing Labour party to get a majority of votes in parliament. Broadly speaking, England contains more Conservative seats and Scotland more Labour seats, so previous Labour governments have relied on the votes of Scottish Labour MPs to pass legislation.

In Scotland, those who fought for a yes vote are swiftly turning their attention to executing the promised constitutional change. "I'm devastated by the result," said Stewart, the pro-independence campaigner. "But to have 1.6 million people raising their voices to call for independence is amazing. The politicians at Westminster have been begging the Scottish people to remain, after years of marginalization. That's a victory in itself."

The accepted wisdom over the last few weeks has been that whatever the result, the UK would never be the same again. Now it is time to see what form this change takes.

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