The recently concluded Scottish referendum was one of the most momentous events in contemporary British history. Even as the question of the United Kingdom’s future is temporarily answered, the referendum’s repercussions are only beginning to unfold.
What is evident is that the United Kingdom (and indeed, the European Union) is in the throes of seismic political change, with what was formerly considered fringe lunacy fast becoming mainstream reality.
The astounding turnout for the Scottish referendum, a record-breaking 84.5%, discredits the notion that the British voter has become apathetic. Instead, it reveals the deep-seated discontent with the current political scenario. This is a simmering frustration that cannot be assuaged with debates on house prices and benefits alone. There is restlessness for more significant change, and the electorate demands to be engaged on far more portentous matters.
The Scottish referendum has served to expedite this need for far-reaching change. In the lead-up to the vote, Cameron made lavish promises to the Scottish voter, pledging to fast-track devolution of powers over taxes, over welfare and over spending.
However, immediately after the referendum, Cameron qualified his promises by insisting that the Scottish devolution would happen alongside a move towards ‘English votes for English laws’. This provoked wide-range criticism.
There has been condemnation from Labour that the Tories are indulging in cynical manipulation of the constitution to further their own political interests. There have also been accusations that Cameron was reneging on his promises to Scotland by effectively ensuring that Scottish MPS would only have second-class status in the English-majority House of Commons.
Critics have pointed out that the effectiveness of such reform is highly questionable, since England will still remain the dominant majority in matters of British interest and this is unlikely to satisfy the Scottish (and the Northern Irish and Welsh) populace.
Thus, it has become clear that there will be several challenges involved in drafting constitutional reform that manages to satisfy both the Scottish and the English voters, as well as meet the approval of all the major political parties.
Cameron will have to deal not only with the Labour party, which is reluctant to lose the advantage of it’s popularity in Scotland, but also with the Scottish National Party, which has experienced a surge in popularity and is now the country’s third largest party. Nicola Sturgeon, who is tipped to replace Alex Salmond as First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP once famously said “I felt the sense of disempowerment that came from having a Tory Government we didn’t vote for”. Sturgeon has clarified that she does not plan to call for another referendum in the near future but she does add that her party’s many new members are impatient for the changes promised to them.
In addition to the devolution of powers to Scotland, there also persist questions about granting an increase in sovereignty to Northern Ireland and Wales. The Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland states that it is happy for the status quo to continue whereas leaders of the coalition government between Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru demand that Wales is granted as much new power as Scotland instead of being relegated to ‘second-rate’ status.
Furthermore, the referendum has given strength to demands of greater autonomy for English regions (many of which have greater populations than Scotland) with Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg favouring the creation of city regions that have tax-raising and spending powers. The North-East had previously rejected the idea of increased regional autonomy, but post-referendum Britain is an altogether altered political landscape. If these city-regions are to become reality they will add further tiers of complexity to the already fraught situation.
But it isn’t Britain’s future alone that has been thrown into uncertainty after the referendum. There are separationist movements across Europe – in Flanders, in Northern Italy, in Corsica, in the Basque and in Catalunya – and many of these have derived strength from the referendum, regardless of the ‘No’ result. The Catalan movement has already chosen to mimic Scotland by calling for a referendum of it’s own (albeit a non-binding one that has not been recognized by the Spanish prime minister).
Meanwhile Matteo Salvini, a member of the European Parliament and head of the secessionist party in Northern Italy offered his congratulations to Scotland. “Thanks to the referendum, from today the Scots will have more strength, powers and money. Thank you Scotland, a splendid example of democracy, participation and pride”, read a post on Salvini’s Facebook page.
But it is not the sessionists alone who seek to capitalize on the growing resentment in post-recession Europe: UKIP, the French National Front and Freedom Party of Austria have all made great strides thanks to populations that have become disillusioned with the central establishment. And this disillusionment looks set to define British politics in the future.
Photo credit: Barbara Carr