The United Kingdom: A Marriage Saved, or Relationship on Life Support

by Ewan Watt:

Just days before Scots were due to vote whether to secede from the United Kingdom the unexpected happened. According to a YouGov poll 51 percent of Scots stated that they would vote in favor of independence—only the second favorable poll for the ‘Yes’ campaign in two years of campaigning. What had just seemed like a pipe dream to a handful of merry nationalists now appeared to be carrying enough momentum into Election Day to break up the Union.

Scotland VotesThe poll shocked the British political establishment, leading to the party leaders of the Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats to put their differences aside and rush across the northern border to offer Scots a last gasp compact to stay part of the United Kingdom. The deal, which later became a signed ‘vow’ on the frontpage of a tabloid, guaranteed Scotland would continue to receive her generous share of UK spending, while the devolved Scottish parliament would receive additional powers to raise revenue and solely oversee spending on healthcare.

However, on election night as it became clear a comfortable majority of Scots would vote to stay in the Union, the pro-independence campaign claimed that the so-called devolution-max vow had bribed Scottish voters and “shot the nationalist fox”, ultimately saving the Union. But to what end? Hours after the result had been confirmed, Scotland’s nationalist first minister Alex Salmond resigned and highlighted the travails that Scots could expect as the pro-Union camp struggled to uphold its part of the bargain. The pro-Union parties have already missed deadlines, while Cameron has allegedly failed to make good on a timetable for additional powers.

Despite the 307-year marriage intact, however, the Union’s coalition quickly fell apart. Even before Scotland rejected independence UK prime minister David Cameron was clearly struggling to assuage concerns of his backbenches as some resisted calls to hand over more powers to Edinburgh and “feed” Scotland’s alleged spending “addiction.” After the ‘No’ vote this rhetorical outrage evolved into fierce resistance, with calls for the prime minister to address English grievances before any new powers could make their way to Scotland. After seeing 45 percent of Scots vote to leave the Union, England is now coming to terms whether to approve of the runner-up prize.

The most contentious issue amongst English members of the UK parliament has been the so-called West Lothian Question. Raised almost 40 years ago when Scots were first voting on devolution, the issue pertained to the fact that Scottish MPs could vote on domestic legislation that had no impact on their own constituencies. Given the fact that Scots have just one elected Conservative in Westminster and the presence of Scottish Labour MPs has prevented Cameron’s party from an outright majority, it’s hardly surprising that calls for ‘English votes for English laws’ would gain traction. It’s for this reason, however, that finding a solution and staying true to the bipartisan pledge on additional powers for Scotland is looking problematic.

In order to halt what would be a de facto Conservative majority in Westminster, the Labour opposition simply can’t allow for its MPs’ votes north of the border to become the makeweight for additional devolution in Edinburgh. This poses many problems for Labour. Not only does it mean that they will struggle to uphold a promise to the Scottish people that former UK prime minister (and Scot) Gordon Brown spearheaded, but it also runs the risk of making them look like a parochial party in England where they must pick up seats if they are to oust the current coalition government. Unable to hold their part of the bargain, it will be intriguing to see British politics where it’s the Labour Party and not the Conservatives blocking a new constitutional settlement.

After Quebec rejected independence in 1995 by a wafer thin majority, the Canadian press noted a “firm rejection of the status quo is only clear result.” One could also say the same of Scotland’s own referendum 20 years later. But unlike Canada, Scotland’s referendum has prompted calls to further decentralize power to all governing regions rather than meeting the demands of just one national grievance. Some might say a new constitutional settlement could help reinvigorate the Union and kill talk of another Scottish independence referendum once and for all. But with the emergence of an autonomous English political identity, what binds these people together as Britons? In the short-term the promise of additional devolution to Scotland might well have saved the Union. Even in the event this obligation is fulfilled, this long marriage might only have had a stay of execution.


Ewan Watt writes extensively on political issues in Scotland and the United States. A native of Scotland, he recently became a U.S. citizen. You can follow him on Twitter at @ewancwatt.

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