So what a Scottish former student of mine referred to in an e-mail as “The Neverendum” is now history and we’ve learned what the Prime Minister described this morning as “the settled will of the Scottish people”: a “No” vote by 55.3% to 44.7%. For those of us watching the results live as they came in, possibly the tipping-point was when Angus – about as near to an SNP heartland as you can get since first electing Andrew Welsh in 1974 – voted “No” by 56.3% to 43.7%. After that, it was pretty clear that even if Glasgow voted “Yes” (which it did, by 53.5% to 46.5%), the final result was going to be an overall negative.
But far from being the end of the story, it may be that it’s simply the beginning of a new chapter in the saga of Anglo-Scots relations, with a plot-line that very few would have contemplated when the referendum process was first set in motion. My own feeling is that Alex Salmond, canny as ever, has got at least half a loaf or even more than that. My hunch is that the promised extra powers – albeit unspecified – wrung out of the Westminster party leaders late in the campaign will be rather more extensive than they might have been prepared to concede at the beginning: devo very max indeed. So from Salmond’s point of view, once the new powers are in place, including the new limited powers over taxation, he’ll be able to operate with far less reference to Westminster than hitherto.
But from the point of view of the concerns of this blog, probably the more important impact will be on the overall constitutional settlement. What the campaign and its result have made clear is that, constitutionally, we just can’t go on like this. There are already noisy rumblings from David Cameron’s foot-soldiers about Scots MPs voting on exclusively-English matters; and the grant of substantial extra powers to the Scottish Parliament will inevitably exacerbate that. And once people start looking at the powers of English MPs in Parliament and at the position of the English regions, who knows where it will end?
There have already been calls for further reform of the House of Lords to take account of the situation as it emerges; and though that is clearly impossible in what is left of the present Parliament (if, indeed, it’s possible at all, given the recent history of Lords reform) it is almost bound to be revisited as part of any new, overall constitutional settlement. There also seems to be mounting support for a written Constitution – though that also, one feels, is a long-term project that might come to nothing very much. But taking into account the Conservative disquiet over the UK’s relationship both with the EU and with the Council of Europe, the possible permutations for bits of reform are endless: a revival of the English regionalist agenda? revisiting the Barnett Formula? another go at a “UK Bill of Rights”? bishops in the House of Lords? making the Supreme Court “supreme”?
In conclusion, Alex Salmond may not have won but nor did he entirely lose. And further down the line – say, in twenty years’ time when the Scots are so used to running Scotland largely without outside interference that they’ll start to wonder exactly what is the point of Whitehall and Westminster – might there be another referendum with a different result?
When I blithely wrote that “Alex Salmond … [will] be able to operate with far less reference to Westminster than hitherto” I reckoned without the speed at which political events can sometimes move. He announced his resignation as First Minister and Leader of the SNP later in the day.
Many watched this referendum, with interest, from Australia. Not a few who had Scottish ancestry probably wished they could have voted. Regarding your final paragraph “And further down the line…” I cannot help thinking of Australia’s relationship with Britain and the monarchy. Although we are a completely independent nation, the ties are strong. Could this be because we are given complete freedom to break away if we choose? Perhaps the very freedom we’ve been given binds us somehow.
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