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Never the Same Again – What the Referendum Means for the UK and the World

Commentary, 19 September 2014
UK Defence, Europe
The people of Scotland have opted to stay in the United Kingdom. But does it settle the question for a generation? The next few years will be spent working out a new constitutional equilibrium.

The people of Scotland have opted to stay in the United Kingdom. But does it settle the question for a generation? The next few years will be spent working out a new constitutional equilibrium.  

UK OK poster from the Better Together Campaign for ScotlandThe UK has Survived to Fight Another Day

By a significant margin, the Union has won a stay of execution, with a clear majority of the Scottish population – 55 per cent against 45 per cent, with a turnout of 85 per cent -voting to reject the case for independence. But this was not a vote for the status quo, and it will be some time before it is possible to state with confidence that the Union will survive in the long term.

Far from quelling the desire for independence, it is now clear that the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1998 encouraged a growing appetite for Scottish sovereignty. The same could now also be true for the next stage on Scotland's political history. All three main Unionist parties have promised rapid legislation, to be drafted before the next UK general election in May 2015, to transfer a substantial (if not precisely defined) range of new powers from London to Edinburgh. These promises, in the crucial last week of the campaign, seemed to play a significant role in halting the nationalists’ momentum.

The English Question Returns

Alongside Scottish expectations for substantial new powers to be transferred, however, the Prime Minister’s statement on the morning after the referendum has now opened a debate on what this will mean for the governance of England itself. The rejection of a North-Eastern assembly in the referendum held under the last Labour government means that this issue cannot easily be resolved through regional devolution within England.

As a result, the heart of this debate will be whether it is possible to introduce ‘English votes on English laws’ at Westminster without also, at some stage, creating a separate English government for English affairs. There will also be a series of other practical questions to be resolved. Therefore, while this referendum has failed to destroy the Union, its fall-out could still destabilise it in a quite fundamental fashion. The next two years will determine whether a new constitutional equilibrium can be created.

A Generational Struggle

SNP leaders have made it clear that they accept that another referendum should not be held for a ‘generation’, apparently now defined as being around 15 years. While this should provide a degree of comfort for Scottish voters and businesses, however, it still leaves open the real possibility of a fourth Scottish referendum (after those in 1979, 1997 and 2014) in the late 2020s. In the long term, only the defeat of the SNP’s status as the leading political force in the Scottish Parliament can restore stability to the constitutional settlement.

With 45 per cent of its population having voted for independence, however, Scotland is still a long way from achieving this objective. Much will depend on whether, having transferred new powers to Scotland as promised, the Unionist parties can seize the political initiative in the Holyrood Parliamentary elections of 2016.

Providing Assurance for Investors – Private and Public

Having, for the first time, looked at what a ‘yes’ vote might mean for them, private investors and businesses are now more sensitised than ever before to the risks that a further referendum could pose. If some of them were to begin to hedge their bets accordingly, there could be a risk of an extended period of underinvestment in Scotland, with serious consequences for its prosperity.

There is no such possibility for the public sector. Technical risk management considerations, given the significant possibility of a repeat referendum at some stage in the next two decades, might point to there being a case for spending modest amounts on mapping alternative Trident bases in England. But any such proposal is likely to be firmly vetoed by political leaders, who would fear that any such step – if acknowledged in public – could be misinterpreted.

One of the clearest consequences of this vote, therefore, is to consolidate Trident basing at Faslane and Coulport. Similarly, this vote is likely to consolidate the position of the Clyde as the main provider of military surface shipbuilding within the UK, albeit probably on a smaller scale than has been made possible in recent years by the carrier programme. Politicians on the No side have made much of the Scottish defence jobs that were dependent on the Union. They will now have to deliver on these commitments.

International Perceptions

Until a month ago, international attention to the referendum was sporadic, not least because London’s politicians assured their foreign allies and friends that a No vote was in the bag. All that changed as the polls narrowed, and the international media descended on Scotland. Foreign leaders and publics, from around the world, have looked beneath the bonnet of the UK’s venerable constitution and have seen something that is not entirely comforting.

The peaceful and democratic way in which the UK has handled this divisive issue will enhance its reputation. It may even provide some lessons for other European democracies, such as Spain, facing separatist movements of their own. Even so, it will not be easy to restore previous perceptions that the UK is a fundamentally stable and reliable state.  The difficulty of doing so could increase in coming years if the Conservative Party continues its trajectory towards becoming openly opposed to membership of the EU.  

Towards the Next Referendum

The common Scottish belief that England – especially its southeastern corner – is now under the thrall of UKIP and anti-European Tories has been cleverly exploited by the nationalist camp. Yet, if the UK were actually to withdraw from the European Union, after the 2017 referendum that David Cameron has promised, the impact on the independence debate would be far from clear.  For it would pose a fundamental dilemma for nationalists. After a UK (and therefore Scottish) exit in 2018, it would be very difficult for the SNP to argue that an independent Scotland could then rejoin the EU even as it maintained a common currency and common travel area with a non-EU state (the UK).

Supporters of the nationalist cause would therefore have to decide whether they believed that an independent Scotland would be better off remaining in a currency union and common travel area with the UK, or whether it should transfer its allegiances to Europe. It could not have both. Far from strengthening the case for Scottish independence, therefore, UK withdrawal from the EU - deeply destabilising in other ways - could significantly complicate the nationalist case.

The UK as a Distracted Power

As long as the UK’s constitutional future remains uncertain – on both the European and Scottish dimensions – its international reputation and clout is bound to suffer. This is in part about perceptions, as others question whether the UK can remain a responsible and stable international actor while so much is in flux.

Given the amount of political energy that will continue to be devoted to these existential – but essentially domestic – issues, moreover, there is going to be less willingness to engage actively on the international stage. It remains to be seen how significant such a phenomenon will be. But this referendum will not have entirely assuaged fears that the UK could be a distracted power for some time to come.

Professor Malcolm Chalmers
Director of Research/UK Defence Policy, RUSI

For RUSI's comprehensive analysis on Scotland, go to www.rusi.org/scotland

Author

Malcolm Chalmers
Deputy Director-General

Professor Malcolm Chalmers is Deputy Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). His research is focused on UK... read more

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