Scotland votes No: what happens next?

Scotland voteScotland has voted No in yesterday’s landmark independence referendum, by a margin of 55% to 45%.

The turnout was an unusually high 85%. In the final days of the campaign, the pollsters converged on a margin of victory for the No side of 52% to 48%. The result was within the margin of error (three percentage points), but there will be questions asked of the main polling companies and their methodologies.

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has reacted to the result by stating a “balanced settlement” is needed for the whole of the United Kingdom. He has announced that work will start immediately on proposals to answer the ‘West Lothian question’ – that is, the situation whereby Scottish MPs can vote in Westminster on issues that only impact England, while English MPs have no say over matters devolved to the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood.

The Prime Minister hopes to deliver this in tandem with greater devolution to Scotland and other regions of the UK. Some English MPs have made it clear answering the West Lothian question will be crucial to secure a majority in the House of Commons for greater devolution.

Once an agreement is reached – and it is unclear at this stage how widely David Cameron has consulted on this strategy – this will mean a substantial transfer of power from Westminster to Holyrood. Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister and a key figure in the ‘No Thanks’ campaign in the final weeks, has argued that effective ‘home rule’ for Scotland will be delivered.

Early indications are that the Government are not prepared to go this far. Furthermore, the members of the House of Lords are highly sceptical of any far-reaching constitutional change. A deal that involves devolution and restricting voting rights for some MPs will face much scrutiny in Westminster’s Upper Chamber.

David Cameron will have a brief respite. The Union has not, after all, been ended – though it was an almighty scare. He has declared the question of Scottish independence settled for “a generation”. Many Conservative MPs are unhappy with the Prime Minister for how the No campaign was conducted, despite it being led by the Labour Party, which commands much greater support in Scotland than David Cameron’s Conservatives do.

Cameron’s immediate position is safe, but in the examination that follows this result, he has some serious work to do to reassure his party he can deliver on his promise to successfully renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the European Union by 2017 as well as take on domestic constitutional changes.

Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour Party, has also been undermined by this campaign. It fell to Gordon Brown to lead the final weeks of the pro-unionist argument, injecting much needed passion into the debate. Though Miliband will not be ousted, it will play to the fears among some Labour MPs that he cannot deliver a Labour majority in the UK general election in May 2015.

Miliband also faces a tricky problem in calibrating his party’s response to the West Lothian question. He does not want to see a Westminster Labour Government without the Scottish votes to pass their manifesto commitments. Overnight a number of his MPs announced the need to settle the question along the lines the Prime Minister outlined this morning, which will put further pressure on him to make his views publicly known.

Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland, emerges – along with Gordon Brown – with his reputation intact. Even though he has not delivered independence, Salmond will likely secure some form of further devolution. The additional powers that Scotland receives will play an important part of the May 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections, and could have far reaching implications for tax rates and the regulatory regime north of the border. Although he hinted at a second referendum on independence in the future in his concession speech this morning, it is highly doubtful this will take place in his political lifetime.

Timeline

  • 19 September: Work immediately starts on a new Scotland Act, in consultation with the Scottish Parliament
  • September: A cabinet committee will be set up by William Hague, Leader of the House of Commons, “in the coming weeks” to focus on the implications of the referendum vote on Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This will be done in collaboration with the other main political parties
  • 13 October: Gordon Brown’s debate on extending devolution in the House of Commons
  • 31 October: ‘Command paper’ to be published by the UK government, setting out all proposals
  • 30 November: White paper to be drawn up by the end of November, after a period of consultation, setting out the proposed powers
  • December: Ongoing negotiations, including over increased powers for other parts of the UK and over an answer to the West Lothian question
  • 25 January: New draft Scotland Bill published providing new powers to Scotland
  • Post-General Election 2015 (7 May): Bill to be introduced in May 2015

Stephen Day – Burson-Marsteller UK