Anise argues that despite the victory of the “no” campaign the promises made in the run up to and since the vote cause the fabric of the United Kingdom to unravel. Devolutionary pressures from the four regions threaten to create a much less unified Union.
Perhaps we were all too focused on the dramatics of Scotland’s independence referendum to recognize the long-term implications of any vote. When the Scots refused secession, ‘Yes’ campaign supporters mourned a supposed once-in-a-lifetime opportunity while ‘No’ voters, and unionists across the United Kingdom, celebrated a resounding victory. The reactions on each side might well have used a bit of moderation. Although it carries far less headline-grabbing excitement, the question now facing the British Empire carries equal import: on what terms will Scotland stay and how will negotiations with the Scots affect the Kingdom’s other regions?
In their attempts to lure undecided voters, the parties that rule Westminster offered Scotland maximum devolution. ‘Devo-max,’ as it is often called, would give Scotland full authority over its tax and social security policy, as well as significant powers over domestic economic policies and an expansion of its independent international representation. Still nominally a part of the United Kingdom, Scotland would, in effect, be in control of all matters except defence and foreign affairs.
On first glance, the devo-max offer appeared to be a crafty move by politicians narrowly interested in keeping Scotland in the United Kingdom. However, the broader issue – the preservation of the United Kingdom – may well be tested by a too-generous promise. If Westminster fails to keep its word, the consequences could be enormous: renewed bids for Scottish independence, this time backed with a story of the UK’s recent betrayal. If Westminster does keep its word, Scotland remains in the fold, but what of those in England, Northern Ireland, and Wales who see a sweet deal and want a deal of their own?
The Welsh, looking at the specialized treatment afforded Northern Ireland and potentially Scotland, see a stark contrast in their own circumstances. The most tranquil of the Kingdom’s regions, Wales is nevertheless home to a devolution movement that will only be strengthened by devo-max in Scotland.
Some in the north of England see the same contrast as the Welsh and have already started a serious push for regionalisation and devolution. That historic bid would gain support, momentum, and a host of arguments of Scotland is granted the powers it was promised.
Northern Ireland, a special case if ever there was, is already investigating further devolution and tensions are wont to rise if tidy agreements are not found. The most complex of the UK’s regions, and the state with the greatest degree of recent violence, Northern Ireland must contend with questions of national character and allegiance alongside concerns over state versus federal power.
With its promise already made to Scotland, Westminster faces a long road ahead. Greater devolution in three states, and the potential creation of another region in the north of England, would drain Westminster of the most basic governmental powers and highlight the fragmented identities present in the UK. Not nearly as dramatic as Scottish secession would have been, the process the Kingdom is currently undergoing is of similar consequence. The fabric of the British Empire is being stretched at its seams and soon the threads connecting each piece to its neighbor will be all but invisible.
Anise Vance completed his M.Phil. in Human Geography at Queen’s University in Northern Ireland and his MFA in Creative Writing at Rutgers University (Camden). He is currently working in Communications and Research for the Boston Foundation.