Scottish Voters Reject Independence, Decide to Stick with the UK

Campaign banners from yesterday's referendum in Scotland, where voters rejected independence with 55% of ballots opposed and 45% in favor. Photo by Cathal McNaughton for Reuters.

Campaign banners from yesterday’s referendum in Scotland, where voters rejected independence with 55% of ballots opposed and 45% in favor. Photo by Cathal McNaughton for Reuters.

The people of Scotland have made their decision: 2 million decided to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom, politically united with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Only just over 1.6 million voters approved a ballot measure seeking to grant Scotland its independence.

Far from settling Scotland’s status once and for all, however, the vote is just the beginning of what is gearing up to be an earthquake in British politics, with the British parliament preparing for a major debate over the future of the United Kingdom. There are three reasons for this. First, during the campaign leading up to the election, the British government promised that Scotland would gain more control over their local affairs if they stayed with the UK. Second, the sheer closeness of the vote and number of ballots cast in favor of independence was a major wake-up call to British leaders that a very large number of people in Scotland are unsatisfied with their current political arrangement. Lastly, the vote carries major implications for all the other countries in the United Kingdom, each seeing what is happening in Scotland as a precedent for themselves.

Supporters of independence have been disappointed with what happened at the ballot box yesterday, and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, the man who worked tirelessly to set up the election in the first place, has announced his resignation. Queen Elizabeth II, who happens to be staying in Scotland right now, has urged everyone to respect the results and each other.

Meanwhile, Britain’s leaders, including Prime Minister David Cameron, are already rolling up their sleeves to start fulfilling their promises to Scottish voters – they plan to have their specific proposals published by next month, a finished bill drafted by January, and passage of the bill by May. Though the three major British political parties disagree on the details, all want to give the Scottish government more powers to fund itself through income taxes, and two of them (Labour and the Conservatives) want to give Scotland control of many important welfare benefits for the poor and elderly.

With Scotland likely to gain more self-government, there are growing calls for Wales to gain more self-government as well. The referendum has also stoked a major conversation in Northern Ireland, whose leaders want to get a similar arrangement to the one Scotland will get in the coming months. Even in England, there are calls for various local and regional governments to have more local control and depend less on policies dictated from London. Then there’s the long-standing quirk of British politics that stems from the fact that, unlike the other countries in the UK, England doesn’t have a parliament of its own. The British parliament not only passes laws for the UK as a whole, it also passes all English laws. This means that Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish members of parliament can vote on laws that only affect England, but English MP’s can’t vote on Scottish, Welsh, or Northern Irish laws. In England, 62% of voters want only English MP’s to be able to vote on England’s laws.

As Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones said in a press conference today, “The old union is dead. It’s time for a new union.”

The "Union Jack", as the British flag is affectionately known, is actually a fusion of the flags of England, Scotland, and the historic Kingdom of Ireland.

The “Union Jack”, as the British flag is affectionately known, is actually a fusion of the flags of England, Scotland, and the historic Kingdom of Ireland.

The “union” to which Jones refers is the union between the four countries within the United Kingdom. Legally, the United Kingdom is not a country, even though it functions like a country with its Queen and Parliament and military and foreign service and spy agency, and it is treated like a country by the United Nations, the International Olympic Committee, and every other country around the world. Having said that, on paper each of the four countries are fully sovereign nations that have agreed to a union that exercises their sovereign powers for them.

How did they agree to such a bizarre arrangement? The truth is, they sort of didn’t – England imposed this arrangement on the others. The English conquered Wales in 1283, and after several centuries as the private domain of the English kings, the 16th century Laws in Wales Acts effectively fused Wales to England in virtually all practical matters. Meanwhile, the English invaded Ireland in 1169 based on a possibly forged letter from Pope Adrian IV that said Ireland was England’s to conquer. The English conquest of Ireland was very slow and gradual, taking many centuries, but by the 17th century Ireland was firmly in England’s grip, thanks in part to large numbers of Protestant settlers from Scotland and England (the so-called Scots-Irish). Even then, Ireland remained a legally independent Kingdom, even if it was actually ruled by England, until 1801, when an Act of Union adopted by an Irish parliament that had been bribed into compliance dispensed with the formalities and joined Ireland into the United Kingdom. When Ireland won its independence in 1922, the majority-Protestant region of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the United Kingdom. This was rejected by pro-independence Catholics, who wanted a united, independent Republic of Ireland that covered the whole island, leading to decades of violence.

At least Scotland’s union was mostly voluntary. In 1603, King James VI of Scotland inherited the throne of England, where he became King James I. For more than a century, England and Scotland were two fully independent nations that just so happened to have a common monarch on both thrones. This became a problem when Queen Anne failed to produce an heir, leading to the distinct possibility that England and Scotland could wind up with different monarchs again, and the Scottish monarch could end up becoming an enemy of England.

Luckily for England, Scotland found itself deep in debt due to a failed colonial venture that bankrupted the government. England offered to bail Scotland out if they agreed to the 1707 Acts of Union, which fused the Sottish and English governments together. Far from a merger of equals, the union created a single parliament based in London that was, for all practical intents and purposes, just the English parliament with a few seats added to make room for Scottish representatives.

Mine! All mine! Mine mine mine!

Mine! All mine! Mine mine mine!

Until the 20th century, the United Kingdom was less a union of four sovereign countries and more like England-with-a-few-attachments. In the 1990’s, however, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and London were each granted their own governments to handle some local matters. These “devolved” governments are only able to exercise those powers that the British parliament grants them. The aftermath of the current election may lead to a major change to this arrangement – just how much power is the British parliament willing to give up to these local authorities?

These events have gripped the attention, not just of the British, but of the whole world. In Spain, the region of Catalonia has been agitating for a referendum on independence similar to the Scottish one, though the Spanish government has thus far refused to allow it. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of separatist and independence movements around the world seeking to split up the world’s countries from the Middle East to the Pacific Ocean. Then there are those concerned that the coming political fight in Britain may prevent them from taking a more active role in world affairs; with the struggle against ISIS and the Ukraine crisis, a lack of British involvement could be very problematic.

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