The Scottish Referendum and the Future of Governance in the UK

Gagan Batra and Guy Miscampbell

The votes are in. After years of speculation – and an outcome deemed ‘too close to call’ in the weeks and days leading up to last Thursday’s results – the Scottish referendum has come to an end, with Scotland rejecting independence and opting to remain part of the United Kingdom. Glasgow, the third largest city in the UK, voted ‘yes’ by a margin of 25,000 people. Yet perhaps more noteworthy was the number of those who voted in favour of separation: a striking 45 per cent of Scotland’s eligible voting population.

Political engagement was at record levels, with 84.6 per cent of registered voters casting their ballots. But with an estimated 1.5 million people voting to separate, alarm bells are now ringing in Westminster. The referendum may have ended with Scotland saying “no thanks,” but the narrow result has unveiled a clear mandate – and need – for change.

Many Scottish who voted in favour of staying united are equally unhappy with the status quo. It was not necessarily a strong attachment to the UK that motivated large numbers of the Scottish population to vote against independence, but was instead the fear of economic implications and disruption. The UK’s political leaders have promised to devolve more powers to Scotland in response, and with the dust now settled, they must figure out how to deliver. While it remains unclear precisely what form this devolution will take, or how the UK will respond to the overarching need for constitutional reform, comparisons have been drawn to the Canadian experience.

Couldn’t the UK simply give more power to Scotland?

Unfortunately, the solution in this case is not that straightforward. This is because of the so-called ‘West Lothian question’ – an issue raised by former British Member of Parliament Tam Dayell in 1977, who asked:

“For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on British politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?”

Put simply, devolving powers to Scotland would create a democratic deficit elsewhere. British politics has grappled with this question for decades, but has so far failed to find its answer. Even if Scotland was granted increased powers over key policy areas such as welfare, taxation, and spending, it would still not be sustainable for Scottish Members of Parliament to vote on English laws pertaining to the same issues. Problems have already arisen, with some 100 MPs threatening to block any devolution package that fails to adequately address the West Lothian question.

What about “English votes for English issues”?

One proposed solution has been to block MP’s representing the devolved areas from voting on issues that pertain exclusively to English interests. But that begs the question of how a Labour government propped up by Scottish votes would be able to get its agenda through on English matters, lacking an ‘English’ majority. At worse, there may be a temptation to call on Scottish votes for contested issues, thereby undermining one of the core principles of any devolution settlement. If nothing else, the UK would have to adapt to a more complex system of legislative bargaining and minority government.

Minority governments are not necessarily ineffective. While the UK has been ruled by minority governments in the past, such governments have been much more frequent in Canada, resulting from tight political contests between the Liberal and the Conservative parties. Despite differences in party ideologies and platforms, the overarching objectives of both the Liberals and Conservatives have remained true to Canada’s normative traditions – a fact that might be key to a successful minority government. However, the extent to which Scotland shares its values and traditions with the rest of the United Kingdom remains to be seen.

Federalism works fairly well for Canada. Couldn’t this model be applied across the pond?

For some, the obvious answer would seem to be to establish an English Parliament, complemented by a federal government, with equivalent powers to the Scottish, Northern Irish, and Welsh legislatures. Supported by a political consensus and strictly defined responsibilities, could this be the radical solution the UK needs and deserves?

The truth is, nobody really knows. The Canadian experience (and those of other countries such as Australia and the United States) suggests that such a system can work; but the unique construction of the UK would make it challenging, and attempts to move toward a federalist system could lead to widespread upheaval. Federalism in Canada is such that the separation of responsibilities between the federal and provincial governments is clearly laid out in the Constitution. In order to adopt a federalist system, the UK would first need to actually create a formal constitution, separate jurisdictional authority within it, and then determine the appropriate balance of these powers and responsibilities.

With 85 per cent of the UK’s population concentrated in England, and a traditionally centralized state, it is difficult to even consider for a moment the application of federalism. By comparison, Canada’s largest province by population, Ontario, only comprises 38.5 per cent of the country’s total population. Distributing resources, authority, and planning would constitute a major challenge – one that the UK may never be equipped to handle.

So then, what’s next?

While Canadian-style federalism may be applicable to the United Kingdom in theory, in practice it would be a different thing entirely. Canadian governance has been largely based around the concept of a decentralized state, whereas the exact opposite has been the case in the UK. Adopting a foreign system of governance can prove to be difficult, especially when there is no precedent regarding a uniform separation and distribution of power, or even a written constitution.

But the Canadian experience gives us reason to be hopeful. There is much that can be learned from Canadian governance and institutions, and the UK’s civil servant and political leaders should be looking across the pond for inspiration. If the United Kingdom is serious about forging a new settlement with Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales, it will certainly mean a less centralized government. Where better to look than Canada to see how a Westminster system of government has dealt with the challenges inherent?

Gagan Batra is a 2016 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a BA (Honours) in Political Science and Sociology from the University of Guelph. She hopes to continue studying issues of Canadian federalism, and is particularly interested in intergovernmental affairs.

Guy Miscampbell is a Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. Prior to moving to Toronto, he was a Research Fellow at UK think-tank the Policy Exchange, and an intern in the U.S. House of Representatives. He regards himself as British, but can’t define what that means.

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