Feature

How Scotland's independence movement lost the vote and still won everything

Independence is dead. Long live independence!

"Do you believe Scotland should be an independent country?

Nine words. Millions of different reasons for voting. In the end, the "No" campaign won by 2,001,926 votes to the "Yes" campaign's 1,617,989 on a record-high turnout of 84.5 percent. That's about 55 percent against independence to 45 percent for it.

It's a little less close than the final polls predicted — and significantly wider than Quebec's 1995 independence referendum, where the margin of victory was just 60,000 votes. But it still felt like a close-run race.

A few weeks ago, I imagined the referendum as a question of whether the U.K. will be an enduring union like the U.S. or a crumbling dinosaur like the Soviet Union. Yet as it turns out — even after a decisive "No" vote — the answer is both and neither.

The people of Scotland chose to keep the U.K. intact. But the underlying truth that emerged from the referendum is that it is a union in desperate need of reform. That become obvious earlier this month as the "Yes" campaign surged in the polls, and unionist politicians — Labour's Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, the Conservatives' David Cameron, and the Liberal Democrats' Nick Clegg — made increasingly desperate pledges to give Scotland more direct power in the event of a "No" vote. They pledged that the Scottish parliament would be given full powers over all matters — including raising taxes — other than defense and foreign affairs.

Because a modicum of decentralization had been introduced in 1999, Scotland's parliament already had a lot of power: It can make its own laws on health care, education, the environment, social services, housing, local government, tourism, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and transport. It even had the power to raise or lower its income tax by 3 pence.

So the "Yes" campaign may have lost the vote. But given that its aim was to ensure that "the people who live in Scotland" were the ones "taking the decisions about our future," it seems like in reality, the "Yes" campaign won.

It may not be the sword-raising, freedom-crying, Mel Gibson-evoking victory that Scottish nationalists might have desired in their hearts. And it does still involve ceding some undoubtedly unpopular decisions — such as the presence of the nuclear missiles stationed at the Faslane submarine base and whether to intervene in Iraq and Syria — to Westminster. But nonetheless, it is a big victory.

And it is a victory that removes the uncertainties and major risks of independence — the issues of currency, membership of the European Union, and above all the difficulties of negotiating the details of independence with the U.K. — from the table. Scotland keeps the pound, it keeps its central bank, it gets to keep its membership in the European Union without having to adopt the euro. It even gets to keep the BBC. And the risks of Scottish businesses such as the Royal Bank of Scotland and Standard Life leaving Scotland and heading south have disappeared too. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Scotland has been delivered the vast majority of the powers of independence with few of the risks and the leaps into the unknown.

The greater change, though, may come in the rest of the U.K.

The U.K.'s constitution is ancient, convoluted, and unwritten. And that may soon change.

Full-blooded federalism — with further powers given to Wales and Northern Ireland as well as English regions — is coming, not least because while Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales long ago gained their owns parliaments, their representatives at Westminster have continued to be able to vote on English matters. With Scotland gaining more power, this disparity must now be addressed.

Earlier today David Cameron pointed out that not only Scotland, but also Northern Ireland, Wales, and England should have more autonomy. "We now have a chance — a great opportunity — to change the way the British people are governed, and change it for the better," he said. "Just as Scotland will vote separately in the Scottish Parliament on their issues of tax, spending, and welfare, so too England, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland, should be able to vote on these issues."

Of course, that change may not be quite as immediate as Scotland was promised by the unionists. With the May 2015 U.K. general election just a few short months away, it is highly dubious that much progress toward federalism will be made before then. Indeed, the current coalition government seems to have a clear agenda to implement such changes. But Britain should be given a chance to decide specifically how changes to its constitution will be implemented through a general election in which all the parties lay out their plans for reform. In other words: On to round two!

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