Devolution Revolution: London, Edinburgh and the Future of the United Kingdom

Global Centre Stage

The Scottish referendum result should be viewed not as an end in itself, but as the beginning of a process that might well change the union forever, insists Dr Michael J Geary

The question on the ballot paper was straightforward: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ In the end, the result was clear and definitive. On September 18, just over 53 percent of the 3.6 million people who turned out to vote said ‘No’ to independence. First Minister Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party and the ‘Yes’ campaign’s most vocal advocate for a split from London, resigned. The union between London and Edinburgh, forged in 1707, remains intact. However, the referendum result should be viewed not as an end in itself, but as the beginning of a process that might well change the union forever.

Two days before the vote, when opinion polls showed the ‘Yes’ campaign with an advantage, British Prime Minister David Cameron made clear that ‘independence would not be a trial separation. It would be a painful divorce.’ Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, leaders of the UK’s main political parties, signed ‘the vow’, a pledge printed on the front of the Daily Record, a Scottish tabloid newspaper. In it, the three leaders promised ‘extensive new powers’ for Scotland and set out a clear timetable for further devolution that would begin the day after the referendum. It all looked promising on paper and might well have been enough to sway undecided voters to reject independence. What exactly the party leaders promised is now open to interpretation.

A New Settlement for Scotland?

Savouring victory on the steps of 10 Downing Street when the result was announced on September 19, Cameron called for ‘a balanced settlement, fair to people in Scotland and importantly to everyone in England, Wales and Northern Ireland’ and acknowledged that the ‘three pro-union parties have made commitments, clear commitments, on further powers for the Scottish Parliament. We will ensure that they are honoured in full.’ He announced the setting up of a commission to oversee the ‘the process to take forward the devolution commitments with powers over tax, spending and welfare’ to be agreed by all sides by November with legislation to be published in January 2015. A new settlement for Scotland would be matched by increased devolution for England, Northern Ireland and Wales. Indeed, Cameron went so far as to promise a ‘devolution revolution’ right across the UK, although any reforms would not be delivered until after the British general election in 2015.

What exactly has been promised? This is not wholly clear; equally it is not clear if the promise was more akin to a pledge. Further devolution of powers from Westminster to Edinburgh is on the agenda, but it remains ambiguous what these will be. In 2016, Scotland will take control over tax and income tax rates. The rest is up for much debate and heated discussion in the weeks and months; political parties each have their own agenda. Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats might well favour a form of federalism, but the Labour Party is not so keen on the federal model, while the Conservatives do not want to completely relinquish all Westminster’s powers to the provinces. Labour, similarly, does not want to see the creation of an English assembly similar to those in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh.

Calls for ‘Devo Max’

Given the nature of the promises made during the campaign, it is clear that the SNP will push for devolution max. There are still a large number of policies tightly controlled by Westminster. These include immigration, defence and foreign policy, trade and competition, oil, gas and other energy policies, the currency, and pensions and welfare. ‘Devo max’ discussions are likely to focus on gaining control of all tax and spending policies, while London would maintain control over the rest including foreign and defence policies. Something looking like a federal Scotland would not have a say over future British involvement in overseas wars or have the power to sign international treaties.

If Cameron is serious about enacting a ‘devolution revolution’ across the UK, then the other three provinces are also likely to benefit from the promises made during the Scottish referendum campaign. All eyes will be on fiscal policy. It is highly unlikely that London will allow the provinces control over pensions and welfare or trade and competition; even Value Added Tax must be set at the federal level to avoid conflict with EU rules. Northern Ireland and Wales already have devolved parliaments with some powers, but England does not. This is also likely to change with calls for English members of the House of Commons voting solely on ‘English only’ policies. It remains to be seen whether Cameron’s plans will lead to the creation of an English assembly, and each of the main political parties have conflicting views.

Future Scenarios

However, much will depend on who wins the 2015 general election. The three main political parties are divided on how they want to devolve power to the four provinces. If Clegg’s Liberal Democrats hold the balance of power again, they might well push for a federal UK following the German model, the ideal scenario for many of the party’s members. Labour does not want to devolve complete tax policy, preferring instead to allow for upward only increases in tax rates. Yet, there is a strong whiff of constitutional radicalism in the air. The historic independence vote broke open a ‘Pandora’s Box’ and unleashed a desire for change in the way that power is wielded in the UK. While there were growing calls for increased devolution, the referendum campaign ensured that those voices just got much louder. Yet, one thing remains clear. In the words of WB Yeats, the Irish nationalist poet, ‘all changed, changed utterly.’

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Dr Michael J Geary

Dr Michael J Geary is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Europe and European Union History at Maastricht University, The Netherlands and Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, Washington, DC.

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