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Geopolitics

Why Scotland's Referendum Mattered Less Than You Think

Scottish voters have handily rejected the independence referendum. Still, Scotland is destined to gain more autonomy and drift ever farther away from London, with consequences across the UK.

The Union Jack is down, unity notwithstanding.
The Union Jack is down, unity notwithstanding.
Eric Albert

LONDON — What if the result of the Scottish independence referendum was not that important after all? Despite the victory of the "No" camp with 55.42% of the votes, the Scottish nation is destined to sail away from the rest of the United Kingdom.

Behind the rhetoric and the appearances, the Scots were indeed facing two very similar options: on one side, a "light independence," by staying very close to the rest of the UK; on the other, a complete decentralization of power, called "devo-max," which would give them broad autonomy.

"The two are almost impossible to set apart," says Simon Jenkins, columnist for The Guardian and the Evening Standard.

This apparent paradox results from the political dynamic that has prevailed in Scotland for the past two decades. To win over the electorate, the Scottish National party (SNP) progressively toned its message down. Alex Salmond, the Scottish First Minister, a very clever politician, attempted to give independence a warm image. He proposed keeping the Queen as head of state, guaranteeing there would be no physical border with England and that an agreement for the free movement of people would be set up. He even proposed keeping the pound sterling, something that irritated London.

In brief, an independent Scotland would have been very similar, in everyday life, to what it is today. Raising the threat of an indomitable, fierce, Braveheart-like Scot was not an option.

On the opposite side, the unionist parties had all promised to grant additional powers of autonomy to Scotland. Concerned about the SNP's rise in power, they managed to block outright independence. The nation already has had its own parliament since 1998, with important powers of authority on health, environment, education, housing. Now, devo-max should go much further.

In mid-June, the three leaders of the Scottish branches of the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties even published a joint text that said: "We now pledge to further strengthen the powers of the Scottish Parliament, in particular in the areas of fiscal responsibility and social security. We believe that Scotland should have a stronger Scottish Parliament while retaining full representation for Scotland at Westminster."

The delegation of tax powers is significant: Edinburgh already has some, in a limited way, but in this case, greater freedom would be given on many taxes, including on the income tax, which could be different from the rest of the country. The Liberal Democrats suggested the Scottish government could borrow money on financial markets. By promising the best of both worlds — strong autonomy without the mess of outright independence — the unionists managed to win over the undecided voters.

A vast renegotiation

Of course, on the question of defense, independence would have led to very important changes: the atomic arsenal, currently located north of the border, would have been moved to England, which promised to be complicated. It was also not guaranteed that independent Scotland could have kept thepound — London was clearly opposed to it. The question of the European Union was also a major wedge issue between the two options.

But the proximity of the visions between both camps meant one thing: this referendum was only the start of a vast renegotiation between London and Edinburgh, and talks will begin to know precisely how far devo-max will go.

"Alex Salmond will win because he will achieve maximum devolution," Ben Page, director of pollster Ipsos Mori, said before the vote.

Scotland’s growing autonomy will have important consequences for the UK, which is less and less "united." The Welsh and Northern Irish could also ask for their own set of increased powers. The Northern Irish, in particular, were already claiming tax powers. It seems the decentralization process, launched by Tony Blair in 1997, cannot be stopped.

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