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Crisis Averted, But Scottish Separation Remains A Concern

Steve Helmeci |
September 20, 2014 | 5:20 p.m. PDT



As most people are now aware, the people of Scotland voted 54-46 against becoming independent on Thursday, ostensibly rendering my article published the eve of the historic decision in which I outlined the international ramifications of a vote for independence moot.

READ MORE: Scottish Independence Spells Trouble For The Rest Of Us 

But not so fast. While the problems that would have accompanied a "Yes" vote on Thursday were averted for the time being, there is nothing to say that the issue won’t arise again. In fact, I would argue that, given the close nature of the vote and given the course of action Westminster now has to take, the issue will be brought up again in the near future.

In the last article, I made the point that, in the month leading up to the vote, public opinion had shifted massively toward Yes by 10 percentage points, closing a gap that had been solid for a year before the referendum. Polls in the week before the vote showed a narrow 52-48 lead for the No campaign.

While the results were slightly more slanted toward the No campaign than the polling data showed, the swing in public opinion must have been a morale boost for the Scottish nationalists, while showing the government in Westminster that they are holding onto Scotland by a thread.

READ MORE: Scotland Votes Against Independence

A major reason that the UK held onto Scotland was because of promises made by Parliament to allow Scotland more autonomy within the union. Whether they are upheld or not, they could expedite the unraveling of the United Kingdom.

As part of the push to keep Scotland in the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron made promises to the Scottish people that they would be given more autonomy with regard to taxation, spending and welfare. Cameron pledged that these changes will be honored, and plans on having the changes ready for November, with draft legislation going to the floor of Parliament by January.

These promises have met with hostility in England, with London Mayor Boris Johnson slamming them as “reckless,” specifically targeting a commitment to protect a subsidy promised to Scotland under the Barnett Formula, a treasury mechanism in place since the 1970s to balance public spending in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland in accord with public spending in England. Interestingly, it has resulted in the other areas getting more public money than England, and as such has been ridiculed within the state as outdated.

Johnson went further, claiming that MPs from other regions of the union (Scotland specifically) should no longer be allowed to vote on laws that impact England only, echoing a stance that Cameron himself has taken. 

Cameron actually has taken such a stance further by proposing that each of the four territories in the UK have autonomous rights to vote on taxation, spending and welfare.

While this decentralization trend alone may be inconsequential to international politics, it creates a more nationalistic ideology in each of the four territories. And, given the trend in Scotland, giving the territories more autonomy could manifest itself in more referendums and a more fragmented UK.

All of the above points assume that Cameron follows through on his rhetoric, and the problems are evident if he does. But they could be even more disastrous if he does not. Scottish nationalism has reached a peak, given the close nature of the election, and a number of voters more than likely voted No because of the promises made by Cameron. As such, should he fail to follow through on said promises, the backlash could result in another referendum with decidedly different results.

Because of promises made to Scotland by Westminster, because Cameron has backed himself into a corner where he must follow through or face an even more unified Scotland against the union and because of the trend towards nationalist sentiment in Scotland, the problems surrounding a breakup of the UK are far from behind the international community. Regardless of the result on Thursday, the citizens of the United Kingdom are beginning to identify more with their respective states than with the union, and their elected officials are moving the union to the brink of collapse, a collapse that has already been proven to be a massive problem through the lens of European politics and the global economy should it occur.

The immediate crisis surrounding Scottish independence may have been averted, but the UK as a union is still in trouble, which means the global community should still watch the situation in the UK very closely.


Contact Columnist Steve Helmeci here. Read more from his column "Global Turning Points" here.



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