The Day after Judgement – Scotland and the UK After the Referendum
Prof Jim Gallagher
The referendum has been a time of decision, a day of judgement on the question of independence. It was a choice between two different futures for Scotland. A future as a separate state, or a future as a nation within a larger state, with increased devolved powers. Now that the choice has been made to remain in the UK, this pamphlet sets out what should happen next.
The Nature of the Decision
The Scottish people have decided against independence. That option has been ruled out, certainly for the foreseeable future – according to the First Minister for a generation or even a lifetime. How long is that? The average age of mothers at birth in Scotland is about 30. So one might hope that the issue of independence will not reappear for decision by the Scottish people until around 2044. But this was nevertheless a vote for change, for devolution within the United Kingdom, but also for more of it. What was on offer during the campaign was more devolution under the Scotland Act 2012, and more beyond that.
Change in the United Kingdom
So change is inevitable. Indeed it would be a serious error if the UK were to conclude that the vote meant the country and the government could revert to business as usual. Things have changed, and changed for the better in that the status of the UK as a union has been democratically confirmed. First of all, there are the commitments made during the campaign to go beyond the Scotland Act 2012. These have to be put into effect. This is relatively straightforward, and a delivery plan has been set out. Agreement on the full detail of the plans is needed across the parties (in particular on just how much more income tax is to be devolved) and then the Westminster legislation need the endorsement of the Scottish Parliament as well. The template for legislating is how the Scotland Act 2012 was put into effect. The challenge for the Scottish government will be to engage constructively in this process.
A more complex task will be to take the opportunity of reconstituting the union, building the UK’s territorial constitution. This is something the UK has always had, but never properly acknowledged. It needs both updating and restating. Updating to acknowledge formally and explicitly that the union is a voluntary one of which devolved institutions are a permanent part, entrenched by the votes of people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and updating most crucially to reflect not just the place of those countries but the reality that England has a constitutional existence also, to be expressed in parliamentary procedures to deal with English legislation. Now that Scotland has answered the question put to it, the very different English Question needs an answer too. All of this needs to be drawn together and codified, and a suitable constitutional commission of legal experts could be tasked with the technical work. Having done so, the UK needs to understand that such a constitution needs to be managed, not ignored, and managed for the long run. The best way to do this is to create a substantial department of government to replace the present tiny territorial offices; and it might be that its work should be closely overseen by the House of Lords, especially if that body itself became more territorially representative.
Change in Scotland
Now Scotland’s constitutional future has been decided, change is needed in Scottish political debate. The referendum has been both divisive and energising. The division is easy to see, and may take time to heal. There will be disappointment, perhaps grief. People will need some time to come to terms with the fact of defeat. But they also need to acknowledge their responsibilities, and the feelings of fear and relief of those on the other side. Reconciliation is necessary, but can only proceed on the basis of honesty. Obligations fall on both sides – to accept the result, and to be magnanimous in victory. Working on a common project of developing the constitutional settlement in a consensual way might present an opportunity to move on, but only if the result is genuinely accepted by both sides. The approach taken by the SNP leadership will be critical here, but the inclusiveness shown by other parties will matter as well. Crowing is to be avoided, but so is defiance. The energy has drawn people towards politics; the challenge is to keep some of them there, especially those who have been led to believe that one decision could substitute for all of the difficult choices and trade-offs in real politics and public policy. This presents both an opportunity and a challenge for all the political parties, but most for all for the SNP who have to decide how to reconcile themselves to the voters’ verdict.
For the Scottish polity more widely, after nearly seven years of constitutional focus, proper discussion of domestic policy is long overdue. Of course the Scottish political system must make its contribution to the constitutional changes in the UK that will happen. But more is needed. How should the Scottish Parliament and Minsters use the powers they have and will get, and at least as important, how can they operate successfully within the UK framework that the Scottish people have chosen? The truth is that – especially after years of constitutional wrangling – the Scottish polity is weak. It capacity to generate and discuss policy ideas and options is limited; its outlook remains narrow, and often consensual to the point of blandness. Its politicians have little chance to learn and develop, and party policies with them. Devolution created a constitutional skeleton, but not the flesh of a functioning polity. It needs to be strengthened by investment in policy making and debate outside of government on both constitutional and day-to-day issues. On the former, the UK government might endow a new Scottish constitutional foundation to develop Scotland’s place in the UK, in the line with the vote. On the latter, public money might be invested to strengthen the capacity of the Scottish polity to have and engaged policy making process. One way to do that would be to enter into contractual relationships with major UK think tanks to provide a presence in Scotland to help develop and debate policy ideas, to provide opportunities for debate and discussion, and indeed for politicians to learn and develop. Such arrangements should be overseen by committees of Scottish parliamentarians from both levels of government so that they can be seen to be politically unbiased. Additionally, there may be merit in holding a review of how the civil service in Scotland works, in the light of the experience of the independence referendum, to address concerns that it may be seen to have been politicised by an unusually divisive issue; but also to see whether there are lessons about how policy can best been made in a devolved Scotland.
The independence referendum has been a truly extraordinary event. It has caused Scotland to look at itself in a way that no nation, perhaps, has ever had the chance to do. Much can be learned from the process. This is the day after judgement: Scotlandhas chosen to remain in the United Kingdom, and all involved have an obligation to act as if they are in not just the first days of a better Scotland, but of a better United Kingdom as well.
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