The United Kingdom has survived its near-death experience. Scots voted 55 percent to 45 percent yesterday in a record turnout to remain within the union. The sighs of relief this morning in London are audible. Yet even though the Scots stepped back from the brink—and the pandemonium that would have ensued—some tough decisions and rough politics are yet to come.
Why did the Scots decide they were better off in the United Kingdom than out? Economics no doubt played a major role. An independent Scotland’s economic prospects were always dubious. Iconic Scottish firms like the Royal Bank of Scotland and Standard Life reinforced that point when they came off the sidelines earlier this month and announced that they would decamp Scotland for England if the yes vote won.
But other factors influenced Scots as well. Some voted out of fear for the unknown. Why fix what’s not obviously broken? Others worried less about how a distant government in Westminster has failed them and more about what an emboldened new elite in Edinburgh might do to them. And though many Scots might be loath to admit it, an affection for the union, and even the English themselves, tugged at their heartstrings. Three centuries of union are hard to let go.
The no vote in Scotland was good news for David Cameron. He has escaped becoming forever known as “the prime minister who lost Scotland.” But his task is not over. He must now manage his victory. If he fails to rise to the moment and communicate his respect for Scottish nationalism—and just as important, his willingness to address their substantive concerns—he may yet snatch political defeat from the jaws of victory.
Even then, the referendum victory leaves Cameron politically wounded. He opposed giving the Scots the option of choosing greater autonomy within the union and instead insisted that they face a simple yes-or-no vote. But he had to pledge “extensive new powers” for the Scottish Parliament as part of his eleventh-hour pitch to keep the union intact. And the fact that so many Scots voted to leave the union nonetheless will fuel criticism of Cameron’s call for a nationwide referendum on Britain’s EU membership in 2017.
The Scottish vote was good news for Britain’s Labor Party. If the Scots had chosen independence, more than forty Labor MP’s would have soon found themselves holding a foreign passport. That would likely have cemented Conservative Party dominance of a rump Great Britain.
Investors cheered the news even ahead of the actual vote. The British pound had dipped in the days leading up to the referendum, only to spike as last-minute polls showed Scots leaning no. Firms that have been avoiding investing in Britain because of uncertainty about its future now may move ahead.
The Scottish vote is being welcomed in Spain and other European countries that have their own independence movements. Even though Madrid vehemently objects, Catalonia hopes to hold its own independence referendum this November. A yes vote in Scotland might have given new energy to the Catalonian cause. Even if Catalans ignore the Scottish vote, Madrid no longer faces the prospect of exhausting its diplomatic energies in a likely futile bid to keep an independent Scotland out of the EU.
Today no doubt is a bitter day for First Minister Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party. His life-long dream failed to come true. But he may be a winner nonetheless. He almost single-handedly took Scottish independence from a fringe view to the brink of a victory. Coming close has its rewards.
Salmond will press Westminster hard on its pledge to devolve extensive new powers to Scotland. The size of the yes vote highlighted the Scots’ deep dissatisfaction with their relationship with London. As Salmond presses his advantage, Westminster will confront the give-a-mouse-a-cookie problem. What it gives will not be enough; Salmond will demand more.
That battle will have ripple effects. Welsh leaders are already demanding greater devolution of powers to Wales. In turn, the English will increasingly question the fairness of a system that gives Scotland and Wales a say in their politics but doesn’t return the favor. National antagonisms could grow rather than recede.
So while London breathes a sigh of relief this morning, the battle over the future of the United Kingdom will continue. But the price to be paid for preserving the union will be calculated later. For now the Union Jack flies untouched—and unaltered.