Scottish Saltire flags fly from fence posts near Portree on the Isle of Skye September 17, 2014.
Scottish Saltire flags fly from fence posts near Portree on the Isle of Skye, September 17, 2014.
Cathal McNaughton / Courtesy Reuters

The United Kingdom, for now, has been saved. On September 18, residents of Scotland voted 55 percent against creating an independent country versus 45 percent in favor of sovereignty. Prime Minister David Cameron and opposition leader Ed Miliband greeted the news with muted delight. The issue of Scotland’s place in the union had been “settled for a generation,” Cameron remarked, or “perhaps for a lifetime.” Alex Salmond, who recently stepped down as Scotland’s First Minister and will soon end his tenure as leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), was less definitive. Most Scots had spoken against forming an independent country, he conceded, but he qualified the result by adding “at this stage.”

As I described in an earlier article for Foreign Affairs, Scottish nationalism is a resilient force. The referendum has created a deep divide in Scotland and in the wider union that will not be easily repaired. The margin of victory for the anti-independence camp (those who voted “No” in the referendum) was greater than recent polls had predicted, but the long-term trends show a narrowing gap between Scots favoring independence and those backing continued union. The sizeable undecided camp -- as well as the “silent unionists,” as some observers have called them -- seemed to turn out in force for the “No” side, apparently finding the prospect of permanent independence less enticing than London’s promises of greater fiscal powers. By 2016, the Scottish Parliament’s privileges will be expanded to include the power to design and install its own tax regime north of the English border. The mere fact that the referendum took place and the strong “Yes” showing have now produced something approaching devo-max, or maximum devolution of policy prerogatives short of independence, for Scottish institutions. 

For all these reasons, the Scottish question is by no means settled. Indeed, the referendum marks the beginning, not the end, of a debate on a range of questions for the entire United Kingdom about its constitutional order, its party system, its territorial configuration, and its relationship with Europe. The short-term defeat for Scottish independence advocates masks a longer-term triumph for both the SNP and other forces seeking to transform British politics.  

The SNP will interpret the substantial “Yes” turnout as a signal that, with sufficient time and opportunity, the majority of Scots will eventually support independence. And the SNP has already hinted that the referendum will not mark the end of its aspirations for full sovereignty. The SNP has gone from being a party committed to greater powers for Scotland inside the union to being an explicitly nationalist party. Like the Parti Québécois in Canada or the Convergence and Union alliance in Catalonia, it will continue to have independence as its long-term aim, even as it seeks greater powers for Edinburgh within the United Kingdom. 

Cameron has promised to present the House of Commons with draft legislation on devolution by January, which will spark major debate on the territorial and parliamentary structure of the United Kingdom as a whole. In his press statement immediately after the Scottish vote, Cameron insisted that enhancing the powers of the Scottish Parliament must proceed “in tandem with, and at the same pace as” enhanced powers for England, Northern Ireland, and Wales. This is a potentially explosive idea. Scotland will expect quick delivery of new authority over taxation and welfare policies, yet in England’s case, there is not even a comparable legislative body -- an English parliament, as it were -- to receive greater powers. If Cameron slows down devolution to Edinburgh, the Scots will accuse him of backtracking. 

Party politics could also end up re-opening the Scottish question sooner rather than later. It is hard to overstate the sheer weirdness of the British party system at the moment. Scotland is governed by a party that wants the United Kingdom dissolved. The United Kingdom as a whole is governed by an uncomfortable coalition -- Conservatives and Liberal–Democrats -- whose dominant partner has little support in Scotland. In Europe, the United Kingdom speaks in part through the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a party that demands the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU. (UKIP won a plurality of the country’s constituencies in the 2014 European Parliament elections.)

It’s not hard to imagine how these party dynamics could create a constitutional crisis. The next House of Commons election is slated for May 2015. If the Conservatives win, Cameron has promised a national referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU by the end of 2017 (if he remains prime minister). The move was a way of stealing the thunder of the UKIP -- which has about 20 percent support among the British electorate -- and of placating the most Euro-skeptical members of Cameron’s own party. But this is a risky proposition: A sizeable portion of the population, even if not a majority, is determined to vote in favor of Brixit, or a British exit from the EU. 

However, between the 2015 general election and the promised 2017 referendum comes another vote -- the 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections. The SNP can be expected to do well in that election, bolstered by this year’s strong-but-not-quite-enough vote on independence and the promises of devolution extracted from London. The Edinburgh government -- pro-European and social-democratic -- may well decide to hold a new referendum on independence before London can hold a referendum on leaving the EU. Exiting the United Kingdom could be presented as Scotland’s guarantee of staying in Europe. Such framing might just push the vote count for independence past the 50 percent mark. London would almost certainly try to block a repeat referendum -- or “Never-endum,” as certain observers have called it. But there are precedents for a restive region organizing an unsanctioned vote: Spain’s Catalonia, for example, will do so on November 9 of this year.

It’s worth noting that the greatest democratic products of British imperialism -- Australia, Canada, India, and the United States -- are all federal systems. Now, the Scottish referendum has pushed the United Kingdom toward becoming a federation, too, in fact if not in name. More powers will be devolved to Scotland; a debate will soon begin about empowering England and enhancing the prerogatives already enjoyed by Wales and Northern Ireland. 

But the slide toward federalism has not been accompanied by a serious discussion about reforming the central institutions of the United Kingdom, especially the House of Commons and House of Lords, in order to keep pace with the outflow of power away from London. In the absence of such reforms, an unintended consequence of quasi-federalization could be the weakening of the very institutions that are meant to hold the union together.

The United Kingdom -- a country with one of the world’s largest economies, most capable militaries, and deepest democracies -- is not the same place it was before September 18. All the old questions are still there, and the “No” vote on Scottish independence has only increased their urgency. How does London relate to the historic constituents of the wider union? Should there be some form of self-government for England, now that Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland may soak up more of the center’s old prerogatives? And what happens when political ideology, national identity, and social values no longer seem to align? Simply raising these issues has been a victory for the SNP, which remains, for better or worse, the country’s most exciting and visionary political party.

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  • CHARLES KING is Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University.
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