Scotland vote just the start of a rough ride for U.K.

For those with long memories, the morning-after in Scotland — indeed the final days of the heated campaign — seemed an eerie replay of Quebec’s first referendum in 1980, writes Don Murray.

If United Kingdom thinks referendum settles things with Scotland, it doesn't know what it's in for

Scotland's first minister Alex Salmond announced his resignation after losing the referendum by 380,000 votes, with 55 per cent of voters rejecting independence. Salmond will step down in November. (Russell Cheyne/Reuters)

For those with long memories, the morning after in Scotland — indeed the final days of the heated campaign — seemed an eerie replay of Quebec’s first referendum in 1980.

There are differences, of course, some of them major, but consider: the loser, in conceding, hints at another referendum. 

Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party First Minister, said the people had not chosen independence "at this stage."  Thirty-four years ago PQ Quebec premier René Lévesque conceded, saying, "If I’ve understood you, ‘till the next time!"

Meanwhile, the winners wait until the last minute to promise huge constitutional  change. 

In 1980 the man with the promise was Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.  In Scotland it was another native son, this time former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He thundered into the campaign and galvanized the "No" camp with passionate speeches and a sweeping promise of "devo max" – maximum devolution, or in other words a major transfer of powers from London to the Scottish Assembly.

British Prime Minister David Cameron followed up Friday morning's news of the No vote in Scotland with a speech in front of 10 Downing Street promising fast-track reform. (Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters)

Brown had the green light from British Prime Minister David Cameron, who followed it up Friday morning with a speech in front of 10 Downing Street promising fast-track reform, with an outline constitutional bill ready by January.

But Britain, unlike Canada, has a misshapen federal structure which appears to have been worked out on the back of an envelope — or rather, two. 

The first envelope was the Barnett formula, which dictates how much England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland get in grants from the British treasury. 

To put it in Canadaspeak, it’s an equalization formula. And the big winners are Scotland and Northern Ireland, while England pays out.

The Barnett formula was the brainchild of a Labour minister in the 1970s.  Twenty years later a Labour prime minister, Tony Blair, decided to offer assemblies and limited powers to three of the four nations making up the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  England, by far the biggest nation, got nothing — but then, so the somewhat muddled thinking apparently went, it already had most of the power in the British parliament. 

Prime Minister David Cameron drew attacks from rival politicians after he said that plans to empower Scotland should be linked to constitutional reform in England. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

Now that devo max is on the table, the English backlash is growing. To be precise, the English backlash among ruling Conservative MPs. They complain bitterly that Scotland, and Salmond’s SNP, shouldn’t be rewarded for trying to break up the union. The Barnett equalization formula should, they say, be retired. The Scots have lived high off the hog for too long.

The Scots, or at least the SNP, reply that the Barnett formula has never properly compensated them for all the North Sea oil money London has pocketed over the years.

The backlash has a second string. Why, the Conservative MPs mutter, should Scottish MPs in London be allowed to vote on issues that affect England such as its health service and education? In Scotland these questions are reserved for members of the Scottish Assembly only. 

A recent poll showed that that view was shared by more than 60 per cent of English voters.

One British leader who has been listening is Cameron himself. Friday morning he said, “We have heard the voice of Scotland and now the millions of voices of England must also be heard. The question of English votes for English laws … requires a decisive answer.”

That could set the cat among the Scottish pigeons, with the SNP and its followers complaining that the promise of constitutional reform is simply a cloaked stick with which to beat the uppity Scots.

At the same time, amazingly for a country where all tax powers were completely centralized until 15 years ago, the main British parties in London are now talking about turning huge chunks of tax power over to Scotland’s assembly. The corollary would be the retirement of the Barnett equalization formula. 

In an amazing move for a country where all tax powers were completely centralized until 15 years ago, the main British parties in London are now talking about turning huge chunks of tax power over to Scotland’s assembly.

It feels like another back-of-the envelope moment, with little thought being given to what powers Wales and Northern Ireland should have, let alone England.

It seems safe to say that whatever is offered, the SNP will say it’s not enough.  Devo max, for them, would be total control over taxes – independence by the back door. 

And, like the Parti Québécois more than 30 years ago, the SNP could win another Scottish Assembly election and rule for another five years. It’s still Scotland’s most popular party.

And then … well, remember where Trudeau’s promises of constitutional reform led.  To the repatriation of the Canadian constitution, angrily refused by the Quebec government of Lévesque. 

Then another prime minister, Brian Mulroney, tried to cobble together a deal to satisfy Quebec.  This was the Meech accord, which unravelled.

It was followed by the Charlottetown accord and a countrywide referendum, which rejected the whole deal roundly. 

Three years after that, in 1995, a third prime minister, Jean Chrétien, found himself facing the potential meltdown of this country in a second Quebec referendum.

The Brits clearly don’t know what they’re letting themselves in for.

About the Author

Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.