Britain has averted further Balkanization. After a fraught referendum on Scottish independence, the preservation of the United Kingdom is undoubtedly a welcomed outcome, yet it is far from a happy one. Even with Scotland voting to remain in the union, the longer-term impact of this vote remains uncertain. There is no escaping the bad feelings and old ghosts that this referendum has roused. Nor has the way been cleared for a strengthening of the union. In what appeared to many like a fit of panic and desperation, Britain’s prime minister promised Scots that even in the event of a “no” vote he would still transfer yet more powers from Westminster to Hollyrood. The campaign against independence championed the slogan “better together,” but in reality Scots and everyone else in the United Kingdom look set to get still further apart.
The vote was always anticipated to be close. As it was 55 percent voted to stay and 45 percent chose secession. Whatever the outcome, there was either going to be a newly independent Scotland that was deeply divided against itself or, as is now the case, the preservation of a nation that many people in Scotland have made clear they don’t wish to be part of. That can’t go unnoticed, not least among the English. They perhaps can be forgiven for feeling somewhat disgruntled that considerable numbers of their compatriots wanted out; many with a passion. Accordingly, there were even signs of a contrarian splinter movement emerging—mostly among conservative pundits—who claimed to welcome a Scotland-free UK. They insisted that parting with so many Labor voters and economically depressed areas would only be cause for celebration.
The referendum also reminded the vast majority of citizens that they get a raw deal out of devolution, and that it’s only going to get rawer. Not only do Scots get their own separate government and parliament, but the representatives they send to Westminster are permitted to vote on laws even when they only pertain to England. And in addition to this double representation, Brits living elsewhere in the union must envy that their taxes go toward subsidizing free university education for all Scots, higher pensions, and higher levels of healthcare spending that they themselves don’t get to enjoy south of the border.
While a small clique of conservatives wanted to see the Scots go, far more will be furious that Cameron has promised to devolve yet more powers to Scotland in what looked like a rather unbecoming act of bribery. One can’t help but wonder if this whole problem might be eased by having a little less devolution, not more. After all, had devolution never been instituted at the end of the 1990s, it is hard to imagine that the appetite for independence ever would have grown nearly as strong as it is today.
There is no getting around the fact that having devolution to some parts of the United Kingdom but not others creates a rather topsy-turvy, and indeed unjust, constitutional reality. And although the British may claim to be proud of their uncodified and ever-evolving constitution, the current arrangement can hardly be regarded as satisfactory. In all probability devolution won’t be undone. Not only would many in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland resent handing back powers, but devolution necessitated the formation of several new political classes serving in the additional parliaments and civil services. And third rate as these regional elites no doubt are, they are in no rush to abdicate those well salaried positions. Indeed, during the recent push for independence, you could see them eying the prospect of ambassadorships the world over.
Perhaps eventually the English will demand a parliament of their own too and the UK will formerly embrace federalism. Some have speculated that Englishness has experienced a boost from the rampant petty nationalisms flourishing in Scotland and Wales. On the other hand, the British may just learn to live with this constitutional dissonance. They already have plenty; a farcically overcrowded House of Commons, a still unelected but now essentially powerless House of Lords, and a Monarch who presides over—and yet has no say over—a national church that most citizens don’t belong to or believe in. One wonders if even James Madison could untangle this little lot. But if Scotland is going to stay, then some solutions will need to be found, because right now there’s plenty of bad feeling, and few obvious ways in which to manage any of it.