Comment: How Salmond won the referendum
It was supposed to settle the question of Scottish independence for a generation. Instead, September's referendum has set in train a series of events that could yet lead to the breakup of the UK.
The numbers only tell part of the story. In a hard-fought campaign the nationalists succeeded in persuading 45% of voters that their vision was the right way to go. Independence is no longer a fringe interest; it is central to the debate about Scotland's future. #The45, as they've taken to calling themselves, are no longer a political force to be dismissed lightly.
Their claim that it's a case of 'when' and not 'if' for Scottish independence has a lot of emotional power north of the border. In Westminster, relief at the result and a preoccupation with fixing the West Lothian Question mean Scotland is being forgotten about. Few seem to realise the real debate has only just started.
Since September 18th an extraordinary process has begun. It is nothing short of revolutionary. Fuelled by the panic-stricken 'Vow' of the three Westminster leaders and given structure by an impassioned – but now irresponsible – ex-prime minister, the British revolution threatens to develop a momentum which extends out of the control of the politicians who started it.
We simply don't know where this process is heading. The West Lothian Question – the pursuit of English votes for English laws – was originally tied to Scottish devolution. Over the weekend which followed the referendum, the possibility of a nation-ending standoff between David Cameron and Ed Miliband threatened to break their promise to the Scottish people altogether. Were this to happen independence would be bound to follow sooner or later, on the grounds that the SNP would demand – and win – another referendum.
Separating the English question has not solved this problem. It has only prolonged it. We now find ourselves facing a rushed process of change which will produce draft legislation before the general election. William Hague's committee exploring cross-party consensus isn't getting very far. Westminster's leaders are falling back to their traditional approach to constitutional change: assessing the relative merits of reform based solely on their ability to improve their political party's advantage. With a general election framing their calculations, the Conservatives' goal is to create dividing lines with Labour. Pushing the matter to a vote before the end of next month will do exactly that.
During this period the nationalist approach will be to focus on the fulfilment of the 'vow'. Dramatic Scottish devolution has been promised and will now be demanded. Astonishingly for two losers, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon are now in a win-win position. Either they receive significant new powers for Edinburgh, or – if any problems do emerge – they can stoke the fires of anger and resentment and threaten another referendum.
In Westminster, the bigger problem will remain England. Working out how to provide comparable levels of power for the English is likely to take well beyond the next general election. It is fraught with difficulty. As Professor Alan Renwick of the University of Reading has pointed out, the 2015 election could very easily produce a Conservative majority in England but a Labour majority in the UK. Without the help of his group of 40-odd Scottish MPs, Miliband would struggle to get his legislative agenda through. "This arrangement," Renwick says, "would effectively require the establishment of separate UK and English governments – with enormous implications for the structure of government and the civil service". Even worse, a federalised Britain would be a deeply unstable entity. "A federation in which one of the constituent units was so dominant—England holds 84% of the UK's population—would be so unbalanced that it could well fall apart after a few years," Renwick warns. "All of this needs to be thought through. And the other possible path forward, devolution within England, raise even more questions. What units should power be devolved to? What powers should be devolved?"
Finding answers to these questions is a horribly complex process. It will also be an unpleasantly divisive one. The tussle for power between Westminster, town halls and the 'English' – that group of long-ignored campaigners whose calls for an English parliament will now be given a serious hearing – will be a no-holds-barred fight, precisely because the stakes are so high. It's a process that will also place a huge question-mark over Britain. Countries with steady political structures are stable; the UK, with this uncertainty hanging over it, falls into another category, one markets tend to be averse to and one in which separatists can thrive.
A constitutional convention may be the answer. This is the idea being put forward by Miliband to kick reform into the long grass. It is also backed by the Liberal Democrats, Ukip and the Green party. Academia seems to have been persuaded this is the way to go, too: yesterday 28 'democracy experts, membership organisations and academics" wrote to Hague voicing their support for a convention.
Now democracy campaigners like those at the Electoral Reform Society are trying to put some flesh on the bones of what this might mean, and how it might operate. A directly elected assembly, a convention consisting exclusively of civil society representatives and a citizens-only selection process are all options, but the most attractive model might be that used by the Irish in the last two years. Its constitutional convention, which began work in 2012 and only wrapped up earlier this year, was a mix-up of ordinary people and politicians. Critically, the professional politicians were outnumbered; they only made up one-third of the total. In Ireland they didn't dominate proceedings, as some had feared, but they did act as ambassadors for the process within their parties.
If there is going to be disagreement in England over the terms of the constitution, it will be over what is to be discussed. Defining the scope is likely to lead to serious disagreement. In Ireland this was quite broad, probably more so than would be generally acceptable in England. Disagreement over this seems likely, all of which risks undermining the process.
And that risk, above all, is what puts Salmond and Sturgeon in such a strong position. They have always known that independence is a long game – any kind of constitutional change is, as the Lords reform battle shows. What their referendum has started is a slow-burning revolution, a chain of events which started on September 18th and ultimately makes Scottish independence much more likely.