Griff Witte, EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND : The decisive rejection of Scotland’s independence referendum set off an instant scramble Friday to fundamentally reorganize constitutional power in the United Kingdom, with Prime Minister David Cameron citing a chance “to change the way the British people are governed.”
With Thursday’s “no” vote, Cameron avoided the eternal stigma that would have come from allowing Britain to break up on his watch. But with parliamentary elections due next spring, the prime minister still faces a raging anti-establishment tide that helped to fuel the Scottish independence bid and has penetrated all corners of the United Kingdom.
Within minutes of results showing that the union had been saved, Cameron was in front of cameras at 10 Downing Street on Friday to announce a response to the growing outcry that would make the United Kingdom more like the United States.
That means power over taxes, spending and welfare shifted away from the central government in London and toward the regional administrations that govern the nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Crucially, Cameron said that the English — who do not have their own assembly — would also get more say over their own affairs.
The effort represents what could amount to a radical rethinking of power in the union, bringing it closer to the local and regional levels.
Britain has long had one of the most centralized governing structures in the Western world, with London-based officials controlling some 95 percent of all taxes. That fact rankled the Scots enough that 45 percent of them voted on Thursday to ditch the union.
But the anger has not been limited to Scotland. It extends to just about every part of Britain beyond the rarefied halls of power in the booming megalopolis that is London.
“The establishment nearly lost the union,” Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones said Friday in a statement calling for an immediate start to talks on a new plan for power-sharing. “The people of these nations must now rebuild it.”
The unionist victory in Scotland was an eleventh-hour salvaging of the 307-year-old bond at the heart of the United Kingdom. It came only after the “no” camp squandered a comfortable lead in the campaign’s final weeks.
Cameron was forced to hustle up to Scotland just days before the vote to promise a substantial transfer of power from London to Edinburgh on an aggressive timetable, with draft legislation due by January.
The “no” victory may have killed off hopes of Scottish nationalism for a generation or longer. But greater power at the local level could be one of the enduring legacies of Thursday’s vote, if politicians can agree on a plan for how to make it happen.
“The only thing we know for certain is that the queen will be kept,” said Tony Travers, a political scientist at the London School of Economics. “Everything else will be up for grabs.”
But Travers said that officials were working on “a very short timescale to try to reorder a whole country’s constitution.” And with a general election coming up in May, he said, politics is likely to intervene.
The United Kingdom has no single written constitution and is composed of four nations, each with its own history, laws and traditions. Unlike the United States, where no individual state dominates, England makes up 85 percent of the British population and is also home to a capital city — London — that is several times larger than any other U.K. urban center.
For years, calls from the periphery have been intensifying for London to share the country’s wealth, and its power. British leaders have only reluctantly loosened their grip, and the process has been haphazard, with varying degrees of control in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.
Scots have had their own devolved Parliament here in Edinburgh since 1997, and over nearly two decades its authority has grown to include broad discretion over health, education and welfare policies. But the Scottish government can’t raise its own money, making it dependent on whatever officials in London decide to provide.
In the final days of the independence campaign, Cameron joined with Labor leader Ed Miliband and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg to promise a package of new powers for Edinburgh.
The vow may have helped sway wavering voters to the “no” side. But it was light on specifics and has left many here skeptical over whether Britain’s three biggest parties can reach a deal on meaningful changes — or whether they will have incentive to do so now that the threat of separation has passed.
“I would be stupid to disregard history. Anyone who has failed to take their independence has been totally squashed,” said Schaun Shirki, a hotel worker who was on the streets of Glasgow on Friday, sporting a kilt.
Thomas Lundberg, a political science lecturer at the University of Glasgow, said Edinburgh may win some limited new powers, including possible control over income taxes. But he said it will be a long way from the sort of autonomy that many in Scotland crave.
“I’m very skeptical. I don’t think we’re looking at much at all coming along,” he said.
Part of the problem, Lundberg and others say, is that any attempt to grant Scotland significant new authority risks spawning a backlash in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, where residents will wonder why they are not getting the same deal.
Cameron tried to head off such concerns Friday morning, announcing his intention to strengthen regional power centers across the United Kingdom.
“Just as the people of Scotland will have more power over their affairs, so it follows that the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland must have a bigger say over theirs,” he said.
In some ways, the English are some of the least represented people of all in the United Kingdom, with no assembly to call their own. By announcing that they would be included in any devolution plan, Cameron was likely trying to blunt criticism from English members of his own Conservative Party, as well as leaders of the far-right U.K. Independence Party, who have accused the prime minister of trying to bribe Scots to stick with the United Kingdom at England’s expense.
It is unclear how the English might be given new authority. But one proposal has been to exclude Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh members of the British Parliament from having a say in votes that directly affect English finances.
That proposal is unlikely to win approval from Cameron’s main rival for power in next year’s election, Miliband, because it would limit the power of Scots and the Welsh in the British Parliament — a large number of whom are members of Miliband’s center-left Labor Party.
“Cameron needs to show that he’s looking out for England,” Lundberg said. “But he may be setting a trap for Labor.”
:: (Washingtonpost) Karla Adam in Glasgow contributed to this report.
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