Britain plans political upheaval after Scot vote
Sep. 19, 2014
LONDON (AP) — The saga of Scottish independence is over, but a new journey of political upheaval is only beginning for the United Kingdom.
Prime Minister David Cameron responded Friday to the passion of the failed Scottish breakaway by promising sweeping new powers to the U.K.'s regions. Scotland's rebellious spirit and England's own movement for more autonomy mean that to keep an uneasy marriage intact, each of Britain's four nations soon may need to live mostly under separate roofs.
Cameron vowed to follow through on campaign promises to spin off key decision-making powers from London to the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, particularly over tax rates and welfare benefits, to keep separatist sentiments at bay. As importantly, he called for a similarly robust reform of the relationship between Parliament in London and Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and most significantly its home of England, where 85 percent of the U.K.'s population lives.
"I have long believed that a crucial part missing from this national discussion is England. We have heard the voice of Scotland, and now the millions of voices of England must also be heard. The question of English votes for English laws ... requires a decisive answer," Cameron said outside No. 10 Downing Street.
The push to reshape the political map of the United Kingdom comes ahead of two key tests of opinion that, depending on how the cards fall, could end in Britain's exit from the European Union in a promised 2017 referendum. First, U.K. voters must decide by May 2015 whether Cameron and his Euro-skeptic, England-centric Conservative Party remain in power or give way to the center-left Labour Party, the perennial preference of Scottish and Welsh voters.
All the while, nationalist forces in Northern Ireland, Wales and even England are feeling empowered by Thursday's strong 45 percent support for Scottish independence. The pro-independence vote fell short of pollsters' predictions but still means that more than 1.6 million Scots opted to leave Great Britain.
Cameron appointed one of Scotland's business grandees, Lord Smith of Kelvin, to lead a Scotland Devolution Commission that would report recommendations by November on what responsibilities and powers should be transferred to Scotland. Cameron set a rapid timetable calling for legislation to be published by January and passed before he calls elections. Typically, the Commons and upper House of Lords don't work that quickly.
He said similar diplomatic initiatives would begin with the regional governments in Northern Ireland and Wales, but offered no deadlines or specifics. Like Scotland, those two also received their own legislatures in the late 1990s as Tony Blair's Labour government delivered on his campaign pledge to bring a measure of self-government to nations that long have complained of English domination of decision-making.
That move let the genie of nationalism out of the U.K. bottle.
Before Blair's devolution push, the British central government was dominant, while town and regional councils covered chiefly the mundane realities of daily life, like garbage collection and parking meters. The regional governments of Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff still have a long way to go to wield the kind of autonomy enjoyed by U.S. or Australian states or Canadian provinces. While they have their own effective governors, "first ministers," the devolved administrations cannot impose or collect taxes.
As part of Cameron's campaign appeals to the Scots, the Edinburgh parliament would receive new powers to set its own sales tax policies, change income-tax bands to make the rich pay more, and potentially collect and receive other tax revenues more directly. Currently, sales and income taxes go to a U.K.-wide authority, and Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales receive block grants that are subsidized by English taxpayers.
But Cameron faces challenges on several fronts.
Right-wingers in his own party oppose the promises he has just given to Scotland, and instead want to focus on freezing Scottish lawmakers out of voting on parliamentary bills that apply only for England and Wales, a longstanding grievance and oddity of the U.K.'s multi-layered political system.
Cameron said he expected Parliament to pass bills to transfer more powers to Wales' Assembly and to create new restrictions on Scottish and Northern Irish lawmakers in the House of Commons, so that they could no longer vote on issues pertaining only to England and Wales.
Wales has been in union with England the longest, shares jurisdiction on law-and-order and many other matters, and has received fewer devolved powers than Scotland and Northern Ireland. But the Labour leader of its regional government in Cardiff said the Welsh wanted whatever the Scots were getting, too.
"The old union is dead. We need to forge a new union," said Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones, who argued for more funds from the central government. "It's perfectly reasonable that we might expect a fair share of the pot."
Bernard Jenkin, a Conservative lawmaker, said he expected England to create a its own fully devolved political structures — so that while the United Kingdom still would have an overarching prime minister, England would join Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in having a first minister overseeing internal affairs, too.
Cameron's move to emphasize new England-only political structures looks like a canny response to his narrow escape in Scotland. Should he succeed in shifting the powers of lawmakers in the House of Commons, a future British government would not be able to marshal support from Wales and Scotland to win key parliamentary votes. That would favor the Conservatives, who are profoundly unpopular outside England.
Northern Ireland, as always, poses different and more physically dangerous problems.
There a delicate Catholic-Protestant coalition of former enemies has spent months in deadlock over trying to impose U.K. welfare reforms. Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist party, is refusing to impose the cuts, Northern Ireland is suffering mounting financial penalties as a result, and the province's Protestant leader is warning that their power-sharing needs fundamentally new rules to survive. Failure there could mean a resurgence of the kind of street warfare that claimed 3,700 lives over the past four decades.
Thursday's Scotland vote also offers tantalizing promise for Sinn Fein, which wants a referendum on Northern Ireland's future. The province's 1998 peace accord contains provisions for a vote on whether Northern Ireland should stay in the United Kingdom, as its Protestant majority favors, or be absorbed into the Republic of Ireland, which won independence from the U.K. in 1922 after a two-year war.
"It is time for the people who share this island to have a respectful and informed debate with regard to Irish unity or continued partition," Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams told reporters outside Dail Eireann, the Irish parliament, in Dublin. "The people here, like our Scottish cousins, should be provided the opportunity in a border poll to determine the constitutional position. That is the democratic way forward."
Waiting in the wings for any stumble is Labour leader Ed Miliband, who hopes to oust Cameron from power in London and entice voters in Scotland back from the Scottish National Party, the pro-independence force that swept to power in Scotland's Parliament in 2011.
"This was a vote for change," Miliband declared to the victory rally of the anti-independence Better Together campaign in Scotland. "Change doesn't end today. Change begins today, because we know this country needs to change in the way it's governed."
The future direction of the United Kingdom appears destined to face many internal tugs-of-war: between parties and capitals, and between each voter's soul and sensibility.
That conflict perhaps was best illustrated on the ballot papers of 691 of the more than 3.6 million Scots who cast their ballots Thursday.
When asked whether Scotland should be an independent country, those voters checked both "yes" and "no."
Pogatchnik reported from Edinburgh, Scotland.