Steve Hewitt is Senior Lecturer in American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. He tweets at @stevehewittuk
From 10 Downing Street to Buckingham Palace to the Bank of England to the anonymous bettor who wagered £800,000 on a no vote in the Scottish referendum, there is an audible sigh of relief today. Except for the person collecting his winnings, there shouldn't be.
After all, when the vote was announced in March, 2013, a no result appeared a foregone conclusion and the British political elite went into a slumber. Complacency gave way to panic in the last few weeks as the yes side gained in polls, even briefly going ahead in early September, before no reasserted itself in the actual election. The campaign and the referendum result will be analysed by political scientists and historians forever, but in real world political terms it is wrong to see the result as a return to anything approaching the status quo and not just because more than 1.5 million people, including a majority in Glasgow, Scotland's largest city, voted to leave the United Kingdom.
That's because the status quo was not the option offered by either campaign. The yes side proposal of independence was clear, but the no side, prompted by a growing fear as the polls tightened and the pound sank, also put forward something radically different. Although an outright federal system has not been suggested, the open message to Scottish voters from the leaders of the three main British political parties is that unprecedented devolution in Scotland will occur. And that's why complacency will not be able to return anywhere in the United Kingdom.
For the British political elite the main problem ahead will not be in Scotland but elsewhere. In this respect, the Canadian experience, so typically ignored by the British media throughout the campaign despite two independence referendums and eternal struggles over federalism, can yield a lesson: If you promise powers to one political entity, then you'd better expect others to want the same. Already politicians in Wales and England, principally Conservative MPs in the latter where 84 per cent of the population of the UK actually lives, are raising questions about double standards and inconsistencies around greater powers going to Scotland without the other nations that make up the United Kingdom receiving them as well. David Cameron has acknowledged this asymmetric contradiction and the need for it to be dealt with decisively in his response to the referendum result this morning.
The demand for reform is only going to grow over the days and months of debate ahead as the United Kingdom enters a general election campaign in May, 2015. Even regions within England, such as Cornwall and Yorkshire, will be seeking more autonomy. Waiting in the wings is the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a rising populist political entity that has been feeding off English discontent. What they all have in common with the voters in Scotland is a rejection of a version of the United Kingdom dominated by a London-based political, economic, and media elite in which the rest of the country exists as an afterthought.
Although the impact of the Scottish referendum will be on the United Kingdom, it will, of course, not go unnoticed across the Atlantic. In Canada, both sides of the Quebec independence question will be heartened by the Scottish experience. The federalists will see a clear and direct question having, in the end, produced a solid no victory. For nationalists the acknowledgement by the U.K. government that the referendum result would be determined by a 50 per cent plus 1 result will be pointed to in any future effort to require a super majority for independence.
Canada's former mother country may still be worthy of the name United Kingdom, but the version that goes forward is increasingly going to resemble its Canadian child.