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Scotland Is Still a Part of the UK: Now What?

On September 18, the Scottish came out in droves to decide whether the future Scotland lie as an independent state or as a country in the United Kingdom. With turnout around 85 percent, the voters ultimately decided by a 55.3 percent to 44.7 percent margin to remain part of the United Kingdom. While on the face of it, this may seem as if a majority of the Scottish electorate voted to maintain the status quo, the result of the vote does not indicate a return to business as usual. A few days before the referendum, when the “Yes” campaign was gaining ground, it became clear that, whichever side won, the old ‘normal’ was gone forever. So now, as it is clear that Scotland and the UK as a whole will not be returning to the status quo, what happens from here?

In order to answer this essential question, it is imperative to first study the reasons why people voted for either side. The Guardian published a fantastic infographic answering this question just a few days after the election suggesting that the most important issues for “no” voters were the pound, job security, pensions and security, while the most important issues for the  “yes” voters were oil, the NHS and, most importantly, “disaffection with Westminster politics.”

Across Scotland, voters, especially young voters, feel disillusioned with politics in Westminster, the seat of the UK’s parliament. This disillusionment resulted in young voters overwhelmingly voting “yes.” These young voters were not voting primarily for independence, but rather were voting against their current lack of representation in the British Parliament. This sentiment was reflected in the rest of the Scottish population and was the most important reason for 74 percent of “yes” voters.

On the other hand, those voting “no” were driven more by the fear of the ensuing economic uncertainty should Scotland separate. Three centuries ago, the union between Scotland and England was built out of pragmatism — the Scottish wanted access to the economic infrastructure of England’s empire — and that sense of pragmatism is what continues holds the union together. Further cementing the “no” vote was the promised increase of devolution by English leadership. This promise of devolution meant that the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood would gain more autonomy over issues such as taxing and welfare spending. Prime Minister David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, the leaders of the Conservative Party, Liberal Democrats,and Labour Party respectively, all agreed to three promises that will increase the power of Holyrood: a change to the UK amendment, a vague guarantee of fairness to Scotland and an increase in the ability of the Scottish to spend more on the National Health Service than the rest of the UK. While these promises of devolution were not the primary reason why many “no” voters chose to vote that way, the promises did tip many over the edge. In the final days leading up to the referendum, nine percent of Scots decided to switch their vote to “no”.

Following the referendum, Cameron gave a speech, promising to follow through on his commitment to devolution, especially his commitment to increase Holyrood’s powers to tax and spend on welfare. However, in a very political move, Cameron also promised that in the same timeline, Northern Ireland, Wales and England must similarly gain more power over their internal affairs. Specifically, Cameron promised to find an answer to the famous “West Lothian question.” The West Lothian question asks whether Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs can vote on issues that affect only England — similar to Scottish desires for increased autonomy and devolution.

Without detailing just how this question would be answered, Cameron promised to set up a committee exploring options of how to answer it. The move of attaching these separate issues to the timetable of Scottish devolution has drawn sharp rebuke from many in Scotland and Ed Miliband’s Labour Party. The primary reason the Scottish are upset with this move is that it may slow down Scottish devolution. On the other hand, Labour depends largely on Scottish support for its power in Westminster, so any body that governs over England only will be dominated by the Conservatives. Additionally, while there are many issues that affect the Scottish and have a marginal effect on the rest of the UK, this is not the case for England because England is so dominant in the UK. Almost most every issue that has an important impact on England also has a drastic effect on the rest of the UK.

This referendum and Scotland’s decision to remain in the union  will no doubt affect the political balance of the UK. While the SNP is the most popular party within Scotland (and will likely remain this way), the Scottish tend to elect Labour MPs to Westminster. While this is a blow to David Cameron and his party, Scotland’s decision to remain in the union may yet help Cameron. Over the past few years, Cameron has been faced with the ascendant UK Independence Party, or UKIP, a far-right party aimed at removing the UK from the European Union. In recent months, Cameron has not only been threatened by UKIP, he has been humiliated by them, after a member of his party defected to UKIP. As a result of UKIP’s rise, Cameron has promised a referendum on whether or not the UK will stay in the EU, and Cameron hopes to win a decisive vote to stay. With pro-EU Scotland still in the mix, the power of UKIP and success of any anti-EU campaign is severely weakened.

The effect of the referendum in Scotland itself, however, is much less clear. Already, the SNP has embraced devolution, changing their official party line from supporting independence to supporting devolution. Because devolution is pretty much universally supported by Scots, and most Scots also appreciate the leftist alternative that the SNP presents, it is likely that the SNP will enjoy expanded support in the next few years. Certainly, the excitement and fervor that swept the SNP into power in the last election likely cannot be sustained, but a tempered SNP will still be a force to be reckoned with, and may be able to gain broader appeal and continue to dominate Holyrood politics. However, at the helm of the SNP will no longer be First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond, the face of the “Yes” campaign. After the loss of his campaign, Salmond announced that he would be stepping down as First Minister and SNP leader, and replacing him in both roles will almost certainly be Nicola Sturgeon. However, while Sturgeon will inherit a powerful party, she will be made responsible for ensuring that Westminster stays true to their word and hands over more powers to Holyrood.

But the supporters of independence are not just going to go away. With almost 50 percent of voters thinking this issue will reemerge in the next 10 years, the door has been opened, and will not likely close anytime soon. This has never about independence, but about representation. If this new wave of young, politically-active Scots do not see real change, the issue will undoubtedly re-emerge. There will likely be calls by many for another referendum, but whether or not it is held is a different story.

Ultimately, the defeat of the Scottish referendum on independence is anything but a single of the return normalcy. The “Yes” campaign gave voice and center stage to the 45 percent of the Scottish population who are unhappy with their representation in Westminster. This voice will not be silenced, and it will not stand for any more false promises or unfair treatment. With that voice out in the open, not only will politics not return to the status quo, it cannot.

About the Author

Matthew Dudak '18 is the Data Editor for Brown Political Review.