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Britain gets credit for smooth handling of Scotland debate

Both Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom got a chance in recent days to focus minds on life in a balkanised Britain thanks to opinion polls that warned that the ‘Yes’ campaign was inching ahead, after trailing for months.

comment Updated: Sep 20, 2014 01:34 IST
scotland independence referendum

The UK stays together after a nail-biting referendum, but the political churn is not over

Scotland rejected the independence option in the referendum on Thursday. The ‘Better Together’ campaign won the day with 55% of the vote but it was a close shave for the Union. Both Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom got a chance in recent days to focus minds on life in a balkanised Britain thanks to opinion polls that warned that the ‘Yes’ campaign was inching ahead, after trailing for months.

The Scottish National Party argued for independence on grounds that Scotland must no longer be ruled from Westminster and remain subject to the vagaries of social and economic policy dictated by London. This was a vote, in its view, for self-respect, self-determination and freedom from Tory rule. The ‘No’ campaign cleverly focused its efforts on the unworkability of Scottish independence. Scots would not get to use the British pound, Edinburgh would have to negotiate its entry into the European Union, and North Sea oil revenues would be inadequate to shore up the nation’s finances. Moreover, dividing economic, military and diplomatic assets would be messy and tear apart communities. The three main British parties also aggressively wooed Scotland in the last days to preserve the Union. Leaders of the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats signed a pledge promising extensive powers to the Scottish parliament and assured that the latter will have a final say on funding the National Health Service, an area Scots and Tories disagree about. The British parties’ move to come up with such a pledge just a few days before the referendum — when they had years to prepare — was a desperate but ultimately effective tactic.

British Prime Minister David Cameron will be hugely relieved. He would have been held singularly responsible for breaking up the Union had Scotland voted Yes — as he refused to offer the third option of further devolution in the referendum. Mr Cameron’s struggles will continue. His government has so far persisted with unpopular austerity measures to tackle debt and he has had to pander to the Right on Europe. Now he has to balance the interests of all regions while striving to deliver on the promises of more devolution to Scotland. Britain will hereon see charged debates on internal autonomy for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, while Scotland pushes for ‘devolution max’ that potentially weakens constitutional prerogatives accorded to Westminster. That’s for the future though. For now, Britain must be applauded for conducting this torturous debate with a civility, nuance and depth rarely seen in democracies. May such engagement continue.