After the Scotland referendum: What happens next

Scottish voters may have comfortably rejected the idea of independence, but that result is likely to offer little political comfort in the U.K. in the months ahead as politicians wrestle with the promises made during the campaign.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron promising draft legislation devolving more powers by January

Scots may have voted to stay with their 307-year-old union within the United Kingdom, but much political debate remains over promises to devolve more power to Scotland. (Scott Heppell/Associated Press)

Scottish voters may have comfortably rejected the idea of independence, but that result is likely to offer little political comfort in the United Kingdom in the months ahead as politicians wrestle with the promises made during the campaign.

In the waning days before Thursday's historic referendum, worried leaders in Westminster offered the prospect of devolving more powers to Scotland in a bid to keep the 307-year-old union together.

But promises made in the heat of a campaign are one thing — seeing them come to fruition is something else entirely.

"It will be a challenge with a minority government, even with all three parties at Westminster supporting further devolution and having committed to it … to get that through by January," says Daniel Woolf, principal and a professor of history at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

Two initiatives have been launched: one to look at how further powers in areas such as taxation, spending and welfare could be devolved to Scotland and one to examine how English MPs might be able to vote on English issues in Westminster.

"The devil of course is going to be in the details but I think progress must be made because the Yes forces will clearly be holding the [U.K.] government accountable to live up to the commitments that it's made," says Woolf.

Devolution of powers

Late in the campaign, the leaders of the three main U.K. parties agreed to devolve more powers to Scotland, following a plan that had been outlined by Gordon Brown, a former Labour prime minister.

Late in the referendum campaign, former British prime minister Gordon Brown outlined a plan to devolve more powers to Scotland. (Garry F McHarg/Associated Press)

A potential roadmap toward further devolution of those powers was also laid out by Brown.

According to that plan, which was adopted by the main U.K. parties, a "command paper" setting out proposals is to be published by the U.K. government by the end of next month, the BBC reported.

That would be followed by consultation and a white paper by the end of November. 

Draft legislation dealing with those powers over tax, spending and welfare will be published by January, Prime Minister David Cameron promised Friday morning.

Taxation could be a significant issue in the debate.

"One of the big issues is, should the Scottish parliament be allowed to set income tax rates and there is some difference of opinion between the governing Conservatives in London and … the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats," says Woolf.

But getting a sense of how any devolution might transpire is not easy.

"We have very, very few details other than the fact that there must be negotiations, that those negotiations should start pretty quickly and that first minister [Alex] Salmond and his supporters are expecting legislation by early in the new year," Woolf said, before Salmond announced his plans to resign Friday.

The West Lothian question

Former Conservative leader William Hague will lead the effort looking into what's come to be called "the West Lothian question," a thorny conundrum of U.K. politics.

Named for an MP who framed the question, Woolf says it goes like this:

"If you have Scottish MPs alone and solely voting on matters that affect Scotland, as has been the case since partial devolution in 1997, and will now likely be the case on more issues, for example, income tax, then what about English MPs voting solely on matters that affect England?"

And should Scottish MPs be allowed to vote on English affairs if English MPs can't vote on Scottish affairs?

"So that's a question that's going to have to be settled as well," says Woolf.

The issue could also arise with politicians in other parts of the United Kingdom.

"Many in Wales and Northern Ireland will also ask whether they should be getting more powers," BBC Scotland political reporter Andrew Black wrote on Friday.

Alex Salmond and the SNP

Alex Salmond, Scotland's first minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, quickly answered any questions that might have arisen about his future.

Alex Salmond announced his plans to step down as Scotland's first minister just hours after the referendum results became known. (Russell Chayne/Reuters)

Just hours after the referendum results became known, Salmond said he will step down as first minister and leave the party helm.

But Salmond and the party made their mark during the campaign.

"I … don't think the No vote should be regarded as a defeat for the Scottish National Party," says Woolf.

"They've moved considerable distance now that they are actually in effect a governing party in Scotland and not simply a fringe independence movement. They have gotten an awful lot of concessions out of Westminster that I think would not have been possible without this referendum."

According to the BBC, deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon is "the clear frontrunner" to succeed Salmond in the SNP leadership contest.

Outside the halls of politics

While politicians will face the fallout of the referendum vote through debate, Scots themselves will also have to move on after months of discussion and discord.

"Politics is always as much about the local as the national or global, so no doubt there are going to be some hard feelings and I think we'll see that played out over the next few months in particular, as we get into the aftermath and the debate over further devolution," says Woolf.

I think it was a much politer referendum than some people might have anticipated, so there will be some healing but I don't think it's a huge rift.- Scott Henderson

On Sunday, there will be an attempt to bridge some of discord. The Church of Scotland is planning a "reconciliation service" at St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. 

Whatever discord there is, few observers see it as insurmountable.

"I think it was a much politer referendum than some people might have anticipated, so there will be some healing but I don't think it's a huge rift," says Scott Henderson, a professor of popular culture at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.

But Scots will be watching closely as the political negotiations continue over the next few months, and Henderson is curious about how the referendum vote split — 55 per cent No, 45 per cent Yes — will be read.

"Is that 10 per cent gap enough of a signal to Westminster and to David Cameron … that he doesn't need to be as a generous as he was trying to be or how much is he going to be held to all these promises of further discussions on further aspects of devolution and more power to Scotland," asks Henderson.

And if there's any backtracking, Henderson expects "you're really going to start getting some increased anger among a lot of Scots, a lot of Yes voters, but I think even some Nos who would think they were duped."


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