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[Principal and Vice Chancellor]

How ‘yes’ really won the Scottish referendum

Monday September 22, 2014

Daniel Woolf is Professor of History and also Principal and Vice-Chancellor at Queen’s University, established in 1841 in the Scottish tradition.

Last week, a world that usually thinks of Scotland variously as the home of good whisky, golf, Robbie Burns, kilts and bagpipes, or which knows its history (badly) from films such as the laughable Braveheart, sat up and paid attention as the Scots voted on independence. There was relative clarity around what the vote would mean; Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, the prime architect of the vote, deserves credit both for bringing it about, and for gracefully accepting Friday morning’s result.

That Mr. Salmond resigned almost immediately thereafter is not especially relevant. It is unlikely that he would have continued much longer even with a ‘yes’ vote. Arguably, his work was done and, for many people, the best possible outcome may actually have been realized. Meanwhile, ‘No’ forces were quick to rejoice and exhale; as were Britophiles and expats (myself included) in Canada. The stock markets reacted positively.

There is a well-known school of 19th century Scottish epistemology known as ‘common sense.’ A comparable political and economic common sense prevailed on Thursday over any romantic memories of a pre-Union Scotland returned to its medieval glory, or dreams of future resource-rich sovereignty. A clear majority of Scots realized that their prospects are better within a United Kingdom than they would be on their own with a population smaller than Greater Toronto and only the indeterminate proceeds of North Sea oil able to provide the tax revenues to support social services that their liberal-left political culture has long held dear.

But from one perspective, the ‘Yes’ side has won more by losing than it could ever have gained by winning. At Westminster, both the coalition government partners, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and the Labour opposition made unequivocal commitments to further devolution, especially in fiscal matters; there were doubtless many prospective ‘yes’ votes, driven thence by frustration with Conservative policies (the Tories are about as popular in Scotland as the 1980s National Energy Program was in Calgary), who saw ‘no plus promises’ as the safer outcome in the end. It offers all the advantages of membership in a major European power, potentially removes several long-standing annoyances, and takes off the table the great many risks that outright sovereignty would have entailed.

What will happen over the next few months – an aggressive timeline has been proposed – is, however, less than clear. The devil will be in the details and the three parties at Westminster are not aligned as to what further devolution should look like. Total freedom for the Scots to set their own tax rates? A ceiling on variation from English rates? Whatever is conceded will be insufficient for Scottish hardliners and too much for some English politicians.

And the uncertainty does not stop with Scotland. What of Northern Ireland and the Principality of Wales, both of which have strong nationalist contingents and in Ulster’s case, a recent history of violence and terrorism? Any deal for Scotland will spur similar requests there. There is also the ‘West Lothian’ question – if only Scots can vote on critical matters that affect Scotland, why should their MPs also be permitted a vote on English matters? There have been several prior attempts to resolve this issue, including a commission that as recently as 2013 recommended changes to un-disadvantage England in a devolved United Kingdom. By extension, should there be separate assemblies of English MPs, Welsh MPs etc?

The end result of all this will be to preserve the U.K. as a unitary sovereign state from an international perspective but alter its internal governance considerably, perhaps to turning it into more of a federation – in some ways closer to current Canadian arrangements. The votes may be counted from the referendum, but make no mistake: we have not heard the last of Scottish matters, or even of Scottish independence.