They came, they saw… They bottled it. When the question was asked whether the people of Scotland wanted to be an independent country, the answer was a solid no. For every eight people that said Yes, nine said No. In only four of the 32 counts did the Yes vote score a victory. A week on, we’re already seeing the fallout from the campaign leading up to that day. Alex Salmond resigned a few hours after the result was announced; a denouement that brings a long career in front line politics to an underwhelming end. From now on, regardless of his achievements, Alex Salmond shall be known as the main that failed to carry Scotland over the winning line. Alistair Darling, god help us, regains a modicum of professional respect for leading the ultimately successful No campaign. The unknown in all this though is David Cameron. On one hand he could have dug his own grave by making desperate last-ditch promises to appease a wavering No vote in Scotland at the expense of whatever respect he still commands from his backbench MPs. On the other hand, he could have just made a move so shrewd that it all but guarantees a conservative majority in parliament until the end of time. Whatever happens, while the world as we know it may be changing, the status quo most definitely isn’t.
It’s fair to say that Scotland wants independence. When the result is 99-1 against, it’s fair to say it’s comprehensive. Even at 3-1 against, it’s still a clear decision. At 9-8 however it’s not a decisive victory, it is in fact an escape by the skin of our teeth. Like the smart-but-lazy kid at school, the SNP sabotaged its chances by totally failing to prepare for a Yes vote. They were so convinced that it would just happen, they didn’t bother to prepare answers to the question why it should happen. The result was that no matter what the question, the answer was always “Have faith, we know what we’re doing and we’ll sort something out once we’ve won.” The smart people took one look at this answer and realised that it would be the height of stupidity to bet their futures on a portfolio on non-promises and nothingness. The Yes voters on the other hand, who must clearly be Apple fans given their slavish dedication to something regardless of the facts, attacked those asking questions. “How dare you question independence? Don’t you believe in the vision of our great leader?” As it turned out, no, they didn’t. This however is not the same as saying they wouldn’t have voted Yes if a fully-costed detailed plan for an independent Scotland had been produced. Now that the question has been asked and answered, it is unlikely that we’ll find ourselves in the same position again, at least in our lifetime.
So, what of David Cameron. Like the SNP, he’s guilty of woeful preparation. The thought of a Yes victory never crossed his mind… Why would it? Except that it almost did. Heading up to the vote, the margin between the Yes and No camps closed day on day, and for 48 hours the Yes vote was actually leading according to one poll. The PM must have thought “This is terrible, how can this happen?” In times like that, what is needed is a cool rational voice – Somebody that can remove the emotion from the situation and calm things down. If you’re a bit of an idiot on the other hand, and this isn’t just limited to Cameron, Miliband and Clegg are also guilty of this, you make wild promises with no way of knowing if you’ll be able to keep them. Did the promises work? Would the No vote still have prevailed (perhaps with a lower margin) if these promises hadn’t been made? Unfortunately, we’ll never know, but as the sun rose over England and Scotland on the Friday morning, what was clear is that there would be hell to pay for the promises made in the days before. Scotland now expects to receive more powers and autonomy, to be able to spend money as it sees fit for the people of Scotland. As mentioned previously, some priorities such as education and healthcare should be set at a national level. Unfortunately this is less likely to be the case than ever before.
So why then may the status quo never change? For a start, one of the things nobody thought to do when promising extra powers for Scotland was ask the MPs that will vote on whether to grant these powers what they thought. As it turns out they’re not very happy with the whole sorry affair, and it will take a hell of a whipping to make them vote it through, especially when it is being championed by three leaders who are perceived to be weak. Cameron’s masterstroke on the other hand was to conflate the issues of independence for Scotland with independence for the remainder of the UK. English votes for English laws and all that. It turns out that around two thirds of people in England support banning Scottish MPs from voting on English laws. As labour derives much of its power base from its Scottish MPs, it would seriously hinder the chances of Labour being able to vote through legislation in England, even if they managed to form a government. Labour would like to see regional assemblies, devolving power to the English regions meaning they would gain a foothold in the north of the country. Thing is, the voters were offered assemblies and they turned them down, also as John Major remarked, if the answer is more politicians, then you’re asking the wrong question. Either way, until this question is answered, it makes it difficult to legislate for Scotland. Cameron, as the incumbent PM has the upper hand when it comes to tabling legislation, and can try to force the issue. Either way, the granting of additional powers to Scotland isn’t going to be a straightforward affair.
It has been said, quite correctly, that Westminster doesn’t care about anything that happens outside of London and the South East. In a way, why would it? London isn’t just the capital of the UK, it’s a global hub. London is at the heart of the financial system, connecting America and Asia – It’s the world’s largest financial centre. Around a third of the country lives or works in London, yet the same region produces over half of the country’s GDP. London and the south east is a net contributor to the economy, subsidising the loss-making regions of the UK. If Manchester, Sheffield, or Wales are neglected, the loss to the country is minimal. If we fail to keep the people and money moving through London, we’ll see an economic disaster that would make the last six years look like a pretty good time. Is this right, or fair? Probably not, but it is the way things are. Changing the way the country is governed may make people feel better. That said, having the voice to shout for change, and actually having the money to deliver that change are two different things. Politicians understand this well, but the public confuse them at their peril. This is why the status quo will never change.