LONDON // Scotland was enticed to reject independence with a promise of new powers but the pledge has pushed Prime Minister David Cameron into offering the same package to England – a move that could change the face of the United Kingdom.
Mr Cameron secured the outcome he wanted after Scots voted No by a clear margin in the referendum, but the messy business of delivering further devolution has now begun.
In the heat of the campaign, the Conservative leader joined his Labour and Liberal Democrat colleagues in pledging new control over tax, spending and welfare to the Edinburgh parliament if Scots voted to stay in the UK.
They insisted that a No vote was still a vote for change, and Scotland’s pro-independence First Minister Alex Salmond has made clear he expects the commitment to be honoured.
But the proposals have sparked concern among many English MPs. They warn of the implications for their constituents, who they say feel increasingly marginalised.
Mr Cameron confirmed on Friday that proposals for “devo-max” in Scotland would be laid in legislation by January, although not implemented until after the general election in May.
He said it was only fair that other UK nations had the same powers delivered in the same time frame – paving the way for a rapid and potentially radical decentralisation of power.
“Just as the people of Scotland will have more power over their affairs, so it follows that the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland must have a bigger say over theirs,” Mr Cameron said outside Downing Street.
The reforms would likely see Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs barred from voting on issues that do not affect their constituents, such as health and education.
But beyond that, the details are unclear. Ten years ago voters in north-eastern England voted resoundingly against a plan to set up a regional assembly.
But the mood has shifted since then and newspapers in northern England on Friday united to demand more powers for their regions in a “fair deal after so many promises were made to Scotland”.
Whatever the format of the new settlement, analysts say the UK is likely to change substantially.
“We’re moving towards a more federal version of Britain,” said Tony Travers, professor of politics at the London School of Economics.
Professor Malcolm Chalmers, of the RUSI defence think tank, added: “While this referendum has failed to destroy the Union, its fall-out could still destabilise it in a quite fundamental fashion.”
The Scottish Parliament was set up in 1999 and already controls areas like health, education and law and order, with some power over the rate of income tax.
The proposed new powers would give it “almost everything except for full independence”, said Emily St Denny, a politics professor at Stirling University.
Northern Ireland’s devolved government has fewer powers than Scotland, and Wales has fewer still, although legislation granting the Welsh assembly some taxation powers is currently before the British parliament.
But there is no separate English parliament, an anomaly that Mr Cameron hopes to address with his plan for “English votes for English laws”.
Boris Johnson, the Conservative mayor of London, sounded a note of caution.
“We all have to look at some of the promises that have been made and try to make sense of those promises without making a nonsense of the parliament at Westminster.”
* Agence France-Presse