And so, almost two full years after the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, put pen to paper and signed a deal granting Scottish Parliament the power to hold a referendum on independence, the United Kingdom for now remains intact after victory for the ‘No’ campaign. A battle that has thoroughly energised political debate – particularly so in these final few weeks of campaigning, when debate has been near feverish – culminated in the early hours of Friday morning with a verdict far more comprehensive than most expected. Yet, as both Scottish voters and the wider British publish begin to come to terms with the continuation of their fourfold union, discussions on the very nature of that union moving forward are only just commencing.
During the final days of the campaign, it began to look for a time like Alex Salmond, the erstwhile Scottish First Minister, might be well on the way to securing victory. Opinion polls, which had for the majority of the campaign suggested that the likeliest outcome would see Scotland remain part of the union, suddenly put the pro-independence vote ahead, if only marginally. With Thursday’s ballot papers swiftly totted overnight, though, the result was in the end decisive – a victory for the ‘No’ voters by a ten per cent margin, fifty-five to forty-five. And later on Friday, Salmond announced his resignation, but vowed that efforts would continue in his absence.
What happens next?
Pro-independence supporters, while understandably disappointed at the outcome, may take heart from the defeat, not least because of the thorough shake-up their campaigning looks like to have set in motion. For the next First Minister especially, his or her role in proceedings is far from over, for they will no doubt be closely involved in the ensuing work to be done recalibrating the balance of power between Westminster and Holyrood, home of the Scottish Parliament.
Indeed, it is this wish for the devolution of political power that has driven the campaign. The SNP had called for greater influence over its own national affairs, particularly on issues such as finance, welfare and taxation. And, even before Thursday’s ballot, the leaders of Westminster’s three main parties – the ruling Conservative party, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – had already been pushed, or so it appeared, into signing a pledge on its commitment to devolutionary measures. If the pledge, which to many onlookers had about it a slight air of desperation, was key to clinching victory for the ‘No’ campaign, it has ultimately left David Cameron and his Westminster counterparts with a tight timeframe to deliver on their promises.
It is clear, then, that the shape of the United Kingdom as a political entity will now undergo comprehensive change – and not only in terms of the Scottish question. Indeed, the referendum outcome opens up further debates on the political futures of each constituent national assembly. In other words, the clamour for increased powers in Scotland is more than likely to be echoed in Wales, Northern Ireland and England.
The short-term future now looks set to see debate rage on constitutional grounds. Working by the timetable slated by Cameron et al earlier in the week, efforts to draft new legislation look set to commence immediately, with a January target in mind for the publication of the “Scotland Act” – interestingly, a date which would fall in line with Burns’ Night, a day commemorating the Scots’ most celebrated national poet. Beyond that, with a general election due in 2015, there lurks a little further off on the horizon a further referendum in 2017, this time on the question of European Union membership. In the current climate, the question of Europe may well be just as fiercely contested and equally divisive, which would place further strain on Britain’s union.
Taking stock, and swiftly
At dawn on Friday morning, when the British Prime Minister took to the lectern in Downing Street, he was likely issuing a great inner sigh of relief as he read from his notes, “The people of Scotland have decided, and it is a clear result.” That relief will be felt elsewhere too, one feels, as there is no way of knowing how the victory of a separatist movement in the UK might have spurred on similar efforts further afield.
In the immediate aftermath of the referendum there are certainly reasons to be cheerful, even perhaps for those on the losing side, for not only will change to the British political landscape now undoubtedly come; but the vote itself demonstrated an emphatic deliverance of democracy. Scots asked the question, were given the chance to have their say, turned out in huge numbers at the polling stations and, ultimately, a fair result was arrived at.
That noted, it seems unlikely that too many will dwell on this for long. There is much work to be done.