Scottish Independence and Devolution: Difficult times for Central Government
By Dr John Stanton
On 18th September 2015, a video on the Sky News website showed David Cameron proclaiming that ‘a year ago Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain part of the United Kingdom’.
On the same day, however, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon could be heard saying that it would ‘be wrong … to rule out another referendum’, emphasising that it is - in the end - the democratic choice of the public. Indeed, one of the SNP’s 56 MPs, Alex Salmond, speaking in July, even went so far as to suggest that a second referendum is inevitable. These statements, marking the 1st anniversary of the Scottish Independence Referendum, topped off a year of discussion and debate surrounding the question of Scottish independence and the issue of Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom. They also emphasise the importance of the issue going forward. Salmond’s famous suggestion a year ago that the 2014 vote was a ‘once in a generation’, decision, seems increasingly not to be the case. But with a year having passed and the issue still very much at the forefront of political and governmental debate, what does the future hold?
For David Cameron to say that the vote was ‘overwhelming’ is perhaps a little strong.
Fewer than 400,000 votes separated the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps; not even 10% of Scotland’s electorate. 55% percent of them voted to remain a part of the United Kingdom; 45% for independence. With the possibility of another referendum at some point in the future - whether near or far - the question of Scotland’s independence falls largely at the feet of David Cameron and his government. In the aftermath of the referendum, the Prime Minister made various promises and settled for the further devolution of power to Scotland. The success of the ‘No’ vote was understood as a call for greater decentralisation; the publication of the Smith Commission report in November 2014 was a blueprint to that end.
Need for satisfaction
One factor that might bring about another referendum earlier than thought is the apparent view that the government has fallen short of its 2014 devolution promises and the proposals set out in the Smith Commission report.
Indeed, as recently as Prime Minister’s Question Time on Wednesday 16th September, Scottish National Party (SNP) MP, Angus Robertson, criticised the government on this very issue. While the government is very confident of the view that the Smith Commission proposals have been honoured insofar as a Scotland Bill has been introduced and various tax and welfare powers have been devolved, it is a point fairly made that if the United Kingdom is going to remain united, then it is the people of Scotland who need to be satisfied with the devolution schemes set out and implemented. Political differences will perhaps ensure continued debate on this, but the Conservative government may have a difficult time ahead if the beneficiaries of devolved power deem the goods to be insufficient.
There are, of course, a number of wider issues relevant to the question: there is a feeling, for instance, that if the UK votes to leave the EU in 2017, Scotland will, in turn, vote to leave the UK and pursue EU membership on its own. The prevalence of the ‘English votes for English laws’ campaign is also notable. One thing is clear, though, the question of Scottish Independence and the issue of Scotland’s place in a “United” Kingdom is far from settled and will, in time, pose difficult questions for the government.
Devolution, a form of decentralisation, is the statutory granting of powers from the central government of a sovereign state to govern at a subnational level, such as regional, local, or state level.