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Devolution: Whose victory march?

Devolution: Whose victory march?
The British establishment is breathing a collective sigh of relief. The people of Scotland have chosen Westminster rule over political sovereignty, and the Union remains intact.

Scotland’s pro-independence campaigners, bent on separatism and self-determination, claimed they had the momentum to realize an independent Scottish state. But they were mistaken.

The No campaign’s marginal victory has devastated thousands of Scots who had hoped Thursday’s referendum would pave the way for radical political transformation. It has also undercut the notion that vibrant grassroots movements can cultivate peaceful change in a seasoned democracy.

Many argue the passion, motivation and determination harbored by the Yes camp failed to appease fears roused by its rival ‘Better Together.’ The No campaign’s unyielding forecasts of economic peril, dwindling national security, an EU membership in jeopardy, and ruptured NATO relations ultimately eclipsed the pro-independence movement’s messages of positivity, hope and empowerment. And all the while ‘project fear’, as it was dubbed by budding Scottish secessionists, was bolstered and backed by the wider British establishment.

In the run up to September 18, unprecedented collaboration across Westminster’s divisive political terrain was apparent. It was interpreted by many as a frenetic effort to salvage a Union in jeopardy, and preserve a set of political and economic interests pertinent to the status quo.

While collective pleas and ominous warnings have secured a marginal victory for Better Together, Scotland’s independence referendum has rattled the very foundations of the UK’s socio-political design. As Scots’ hopes for a sovereign state evaporate, Salmond’s government must forge an alternate path for Scotland and prepare to negotiate the prospect of devolution.

Whose victory march?

In the run up to the referendum, Westminster pledged to enhance Scotland’s powers if a No vote reigned supreme. Following the No campaign’s victory, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg’s recent promise is foremost in Scots’ minds. All three parties pledged to deliver new powers to the Scottish parliament in accordance with a concrete timetable. But whether they will now act fully upon their pre-referendum rhetoric remains to be seen.

Commenting on the prospect of devolution, Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander told the BBC such a move would pave the way for “a stronger Scottish parliament but with the strength, stability and security of the United Kingdom.”

But Scotland's deputy first minister, SNP MSP Nicola Sturgeon, has expressed serious doubt over Westminster’s conciliatory overtures, emphasizing specific and explicit details were absent from the tentative pledge.

At present, the fate of Scotland appears to hinge on a set of ambiguous, ill-defined, assurances by an array of establishment figures unable to agree on the details of their collective vow.

And because Cameron, Miliband and Clegg battled stringently to keep the option of devolution off the referendum ballot paper, cynicism and doubt over the long term benefits of their proposition hang heavy over Scotland today. Ed Miliband stressed prior to the referendum that a No vote was a vote for change. But whether this change will rupture the foundations of the status quo many Scots fought so hard to overturn is debatable.

Deputy First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon speaks at a 'Yes' campaign rally in Perth, Scotland September 17, 2014. (Reuters / Russell Cheyne )

Prior to the referendum, Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg warned Britain’s political establishment required a fundamental overhaul should Scotland acquire further devolution. The deputy prime minister cautioned it made little sense for Scottish MPs to garner the same degree of leverage over solely British matters if their devolved powers increased.

Clegg’s consideration of the matter relates directly to the so-called West Lothian question, a concern that English MPs should hold more sway over English legislation in the event of Scottish devolution. Should Clegg’s suggestion come to pass, Scottish MPs could lose the right to vote on vital issues such as the budget.

But dissatisfaction with devolution is unlikely to remain confined to Scottish borders. Such a legislative change could undercut Labour’s political leverage in Britain, which draws a considerable degree of support from Scottish MPs. And many argue Westminster has given little consideration to how such a power shift will affect the wider United Kingdom.

Although the coalition has attempted to appease widespread fears that devolution would reap a democratic deficit for the English, their actions have had little impact. Despite having conducted a special report which examined its potential ramifications entitled the McKay commission, the coalition subsequently shelved it for 18 months. As a result, many Conservative backbenchers have expressed deep concern. Former cabinet minister John Redwood has called for a separate English parliament, while MP Andrew Percy has urged voting rights be addressed.

Conservative rumblings

Cameron refused to define his position on devolution in the run up to September 18. But in a live address on radio, Clegg recently emphasized that once the legislation is passed to grant significant new powers on borrowing, welfare, and taxes to Scotland, decisive action must follow on how votes are organized in Westminster.

Clegg backs the McKay commission, which stipulates Scottish MPs should continue to vote on new legislation in the wake of devolution. The commission also emphasizes, however, such a shift in the Union’s political and social fabric should be accompanied by the allocation of greater powers to English MPs over matters relating to their immediate jurisdiction.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron (L), deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (C) and Ed Miliband. (Reuters / Dan Kitwood )

David Cameron will likely expect some very tough questions in coming weeks, following Scotland’s independence referendum. As the ballots were counted on Thursday night, many MPs began to break their silence on further devolution for the Scottish Parliament. Caustic and disgruntled rumblings from Conservative backbenches gathered pace, as Tory MPs warned of the dangers of handing too much power to the Scots.

Before the results were out, Conservative MP Claire Perry warned calm, measured analysis was required in negotiating devolution. The last minute pledge, tentatively offered by Westminster’s three party leaders, entailed a vow to devolve tax-raising powers to the Scottish parliament. But Perry has denounced such a policy shift as “hardly equitable.” Her perspective was recently echoed by Conservative MP for the City of London, Mark Field, who claimed his constituents will strongly oppose devo-max, many of whom are driven by financial and business interests.

On October 16, Gordon Brown is expected to reveal his plans for devolution in Britain’s parliament, with a view realizing the power shift by January 2015. Should Tory MPs attempt to block devo-max proposals to offer more political autonomy to Scotland, a heated leadership battle is expected to infiltrate the Conservative’s stronghold.

Changing political horizons

Headed by First Scottish Minister Alex Salmond, Scotland’s pro-independence campaign politically engaged tens of thousands of Scots, many of whom reportedly felt marginalized and disenfranchised by Westminster rule. It succeeded in mobilizing the young, the elderly, the poor, the disabled, progressives, nationalists and idealists who had grown weary of the status quo. Although it failed to secure independence, it succeeded in highlighting a potent appetite for political change in Scotland.

The recent Scottish campaign for self-determination illustrates how mounting frustration with a far-removed centralized government can build over time into a forceful drive for political sovereignty. The Yes campaign’s near-victory occurred primarily because the politics that characterize the Union had changed in recent decades. Westminster rule appeared increasingly removed from, and out of kilter with, Scotland’s interests, prompting socio-political space for nationalist ideals to develop in Scotland’s public consciousness. Many critics and commentators suggest that an aversion to Tory conservatism and Labour’s broken promises provided a fertile fulcrum for the SNP’s pro-independence campaign.

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond poses for a photograph before placing his vote during the referendum on Scottish independence in Strichen, Scotland September 18, 2014. (Reuters / Dylan Martinez )

Following Better Together’s narrow victory, Alex Salmond conceded defeat in an emotional public address on Friday morning, emphasizing he accepted “the democratic verdict of the people.” But the SNP leader also cautioned that Britain’s three primary pro-union parties had to “live up” to their devolution promises.

PM David Cameron intimated that while the Scots will garner more power over their affairs in the future, so too will English, Welsh and Northern Irish citizens. In what was a deliberately ambiguous reference to plans for devolution, Cameron insisted the interests and rights of all UK citizens must be “preserved and enhanced.” Inherent to these words, was a veiled promise to the City of London and the wider British establishment that while the status quo would be subject to a few cosmetic changes, it will ultimately remain steadfast.

In the wake of a referendum that almost terminated a 307-year-old political union, Westminister faces many challenges. Thursday’s poll results marked a watershed moment both in British and Scottish politics, the legacy of which will play out for decades.

As the UK coalition and Scottish government embark on discussions regarding the tentative process of devolution, the stakes remain high. The negotiations mark a significant remodeling of the UK’s political landscape. The Yes campaign’s vision of Scotland as a revised Scandinavian-style state characterized by inclusiveness, egalitarianism, clean energy, and global peace has been denounced by critics as utopian.

But against a backdrop of devolution, Scotland’s future remains unwritten and everything including the very fabric of Westminster itself is still on the table.

Sarah Jane Brennan, RT