UK independence debate is not over

The ‘settled will’ of the Scottish people has merely sparked more questions for the English majority

A lone "yes" campaign supporter walks down a street in Edinburgh after the result of the Scottish independence referendum, Scotland, on Friday. Stefan Rousseau / AP Photo

The “Will they? Won’t they?” dance of Scottish independence is at an end. They won’t: last Thursday, Scots voted 55 per cent in favour of staying as part of the United Kingdom. The question, said British prime minister David Cameron afterwards, has been “settled for a generation”.

In fact, the question is far from settled. In a way, Scotland separating would have been the easiest answer to the question of how the United Kingdom parcels out power. Now, instead, there will be months, perhaps years, of debate on exactly how to split up power.

In theory, a federal structure should work, as it does in Germany and the United States. But the UK, although composed of four nations, is immensely lopsided: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland together only comprise ten million people. England provides the remaining 54 million.

It follows, therefore, that most of the wealth generated by the UK as a whole comes from England, in particular the powerhouse of London, and is then distributed across the country, ensuring equal access to services such as health, policing and infrastructure.

But the independence debate has sparked an ugly “England vs Scotland” streak in England, which some politicians have gleefully pounced upon. There is an analogy with a bitter divorce: after the threat of separation, there is little will from the aggrieved party to make concessions.

That mood appears to be taking hold in parts of England, a suggestion that if Scotland wanted to leave, let them, and if they decided to stay, well they should accept what they are offered. Couple that with other, long-standing questions about the devolution of power – for example, why Scottish members of parliament can vote on purely English affairs, but English MPs are denied the same influence on Scottish affairs – and it is a recipe for political wrangling with an ugly cast of nationalism.

One debate may be settled, but another, far wider one, is beginning. The end result of it might be sweeping changes to how Westminister, the seat of political power, governs the rest of the country, and what powers Scots – and indeed, the rest of the UK – have to rule themselves. What started as a call for greater powers for Scotland may end up handing stronger powers to other regions of the UK – or even, the most pessimistic predict, the dismantling of the whole union.

Yet such certainty, the British will tell you, is curiously unBritish. Far better to simply all muddle along together. At least 55 per cent of Scots agree. The question, now, is whether the English will also agree.