Scotland says “Nay”

alex-salmond_1215718cImagine that the United States contained not 50 states but four: New York, Connecticut, Vermont and Maine. Could the Constitution cope in these circumstances? Could New York, with the large bulk of the population, really tolerate equal representation in the Senate, where it could be outvoted by three to one if the other states all agreed? Could the smaller states tolerate the fact that a presidential candidate who won a plurality in New York would have a majority in the Electoral College – without the necessity of even being on the ballot in the other states? How would the smaller states feel about the economic and cultural power of New York City – a city with a larger population than any of the smaller states and home to one of the world’s most important financial markets?

We are used to the idea that being a state governor is a proving ground for presidents, but in this diminished union being president would probably be good preparation for the more important job: governor of New York. New York City’s mayor would be more of a rival for influence than would the governor of Vermont.

Such is the situation in the United Kingdom: four nations joined in a union, but where one of those nations, England, has more than 85% of the population. A century ago it was still common to use the word England interchangeably with ‘Britain’, ‘Great Britain’ or ‘United Kingdom’. This is now unheard of in the British Isles, but American politicians and media outlets will still occasionally refer to David Cameron as “Prime Minister of England”. 

Scotland, with five million inhabitants, the second largest nation in the UK voted decisively, but not overwhelmingly, against independence. Polls had suggested the vote would be closer. But the 1990s devolution deal reached by Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is unstable, and getting more so. In a panicked response to close polls the leaders of the UK-wide parties promised to give the Scottish Parliament even more powers. Scotland runs its own health, education and crime policies. Taxation and state pensions (social security) seem set to follow. Wales and Northern Ireland may have similar powers. But what of England? It is not, in the American parlance, a state at all. It is the federal capital territory. Its domestic affairs are governed directly by the UK government. It is as though Washington DC, with no control over its own laws or taxes, comprised 85% of the US population. (Not quite, actually. England does get to send members to the UK Parliament). 

If Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs, who have no say on health or education for their own constituents, were barred from voting on these matters for England then the situation would get worse. A future Labour government with a majority on foreign and defense matters could find English domestic affairs governed not by a separate First Minister of England but by the UK’s Leader of the Opposition. Labour has 40 MP’s from Scotland, the Conservatives just one. Labour also dominates Wales. Without Scottish and Welsh votes, a future Labour government could probably not govern. This could be the reality as soon as May next year. 

Supporters of the Union are claiming the issue has been settled for a generation. Scotland has voted to save the Union. But they are wrong. Problems for this union are only just beginning.

qlQuentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com

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