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What Scotland Won

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Jonathan Mitchell/Demotix/Corbis
Runners at the start of the 2014 Perth Kilt Run

In the end, Scotland said no. Asked a six-word question—“Should Scotland be an independent country?”—voters there joined the very small club of nations who, when offered a state of their own, declined. And yet those who believed the Scottish referendum would settle at last a question that has lingered for decades—and the original, confident hope of Conservative prime minister David Cameron and other union defenders was that a plebiscite would kill off independence for a generation—may end up disappointed. For while the September 18 vote has settled one immediate question, it has opened up many others.

The explanation lies in what may come to be remembered as the most significant opinion poll in British political history. A YouGov survey published twelve days before the vote showed Yes ahead of No by two percentage points, 51 to 49. That seemed to support what reporters were observing in Scotland, where all the visible energy was for independence. It was the Yes signs that you saw on the streets and in windows, Yes buttons you spotted on lapels, Yes that had stirred the young and previously disengaged. A staggering 97 percent of the Scottish electorate registered to take part in the referendum, some standing in line till midnight to ensure they got their say, many of them people who had never been moved to enter a polling booth before. It was assumed that if turnout on the day shattered records—and at 85 percent it proved to be the highest Scotland had seen in more than sixty years—that would surely be thanks to a tidal wave for Yes.

But the YouGov opinion poll also triggered a reaction—perhaps an over-reaction—from the UK political and financial establishments, who were suddenly seized by the possibility that Scotland might, in fact, choose independence. Terrified by the prospect of the state disintegrating—the possibility that Yes could lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom that combines Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland in a single union—they moved swiftly to do some scaring of their own.

Several Edinburgh-based banks announced they would move their headquarters to London rather than remain in an independent Scotland, no small matter given the Scottish capital’s reliance on financial services. Next, the main UK supermarket chains warned that they would hike grocery prices if a new international border appeared between Scotland and England. The UK government repeated its insistence that if Scotland broke away, the newly independent country would not be authorized to use the pound sterling. If Scotland insisted on using the UK currency, London warned, it would have no say in how that currency operated: Scotland would have as little control over the pound as Panama has over the US dollar.

But all this was only one part of the strategy. There was a carrot to accompany the stick, in the form of a last-minute vow delivered by Cameron and the leaders of the two other main UK parties, including the official Labour opposition. They promised that if Scotland voted No, that would not be a vote for the status quo—on the contrary, Scotland would be rewarded with much greater autonomy. The message was that Scotland could get the best of both worlds, most of the advantages of independence while continuing to enjoy the benefits of the union. All it had to do was say No.

So Cameron is now honor-bound to cede many new powers to Scotland—moving closer to what is known as “devo-max,” or maximum devolution—at breakneck speed: the timetable published on the eve of the referendum speaks in weeks and months rather than years. If the prime minister keeps his word, the Scottish parliament will be in charge not only of health, education, and the like, as at present, but taxes and welfare benefits too. While foreign affairs and defense will still be settled in Westminster, almost every other decision affecting Scotland will be in Scottish hands.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats disagree with each other and the Conservatives on the scale and scope of these changes, but on the broad principle of greater devolution to Edinburgh there is broad consensus. Still, within hours of last week’s vote, a new—and old—set of questions emerged. Why should Scotland, alone among the four nations of the UK, have an autonomy denied to the other three? Why should Scots have a form of home rule denied to the devolved assemblies of Wales and Northern Ireland, established with Scotland’s in 1999?

Above all there was the question of England. If Scots alone are to decide Scottish tax rates and budgets, why should the taxes and budgets of England continue to be decided by a UK-wide parliament, a body that includes fifty-nine members representing Scottish seats? This is what constitutional nerds have long known as the West Lothian Question: Why should Scottish MPs decide on, say, schools and hospitals in England, when their English counterparts are constitutionally prohibited from making the equivalent decisions about Scotland?

The agitation on this point came within hours of the Scottish decision, as backbench Tories revived the slogan “English votes for English laws,” the demand given fresh urgency by the promised extra powers heading northward to Edinburgh. Motivating this drive is more than constitutional purism. Conservatives are keen not to be outflanked by the rising force of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which in its hostility to the European Union has emerged as the voice of a strident form of English nationalism. Tories want to make the demand for “justice for England” to prevent UKIP making that complaint its own.

Yet granting devolution to England is more complicated than it sounds. For Britain does not lend itself to the neat federalism embodied by the United States, with some powers exercised at the center and the rest wielded by the fifty states. The chief problem is size. England accounts for 85 percent of the total UK population. The English would be the killer whale in the fish tank, the Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish mere minnows.

Those hankering for cleaner geometry suggest that Scotland’s equivalent within the UK should not be a single England, but rather its constituent parts. In this scheme, Westminster would give power away to the likes of Yorkshire or Cornwall or the North-East, regions whose boundaries might be drawn to make them comparable to Scotland, at least by population size. The trouble is, while some of parts of England have a distinct political identity, others do not.

Not that Labour’s motive in opposing “English votes for English laws” is wholly pure either. It can struggle to command a majority among English MPs, and has often relied on Scottish and Welsh members to reach the requisite numbers to govern. If England were to be granted Scottish-style autonomy, Labour could win a UK-wide election, only to find that it could not, in fact, rule in England itself.

This is the genie that has been decanted by Scotland’s No. Optimists believe it could lead to the long overdue reshaping of a hyper-centralized British state, one designed for the age of empire. Pessimists worry it will simply prompt another round of arcane constitutional wrangling of the kind that has prevented change for so long.

But there is a further worry. The 45 percent of Scots who wanted out tended to include those with little or nothing to lose, including Scotland’s poorest. They put aside their traditional Labour allegiance and voted Yes. When asked to explain, few answered in terms of constitutional arrangements. They spoke instead of their anger at an economic model that, since the decline of the heavy industry that once formed the backbone of Scottish working life, has failed them for the best part of thirty-five years. The appeal of independence was that here, at least, was something new, something that had not yet failed.

That 45 percent vote was not just a repudiation of the British state. It was an economic cry of pain. It’s not clear whether or how that has been heard.