Devolving a United Kingdom [Commentary]

As revolutions go, Scotland's recent independence referendum was pretty mild stuff. Eligible voters — legal residents of Scotland — were given a simple, straightforward choice: Should Scotland be an independent country, yes or no?

I am a diaspora Scot. In 1763, my seven-times great grandfather arrived in western Pennsylvania. At age 6, I begged my parents for a kilt and a few years later, I began to play the pipes. My first trip to Scotland was at age 12, and since then I have made several more including a sabbatical at St. Andrews University. When I first got wind of the independence referendum two years ago, I knew I had to go. What I didn't expect was that I would arrive in Scotland on the very day of the vote.

Scotland and England have been one since the union of the crowns in 1603 when, in a quirk of history, James VI of Scotland became James I of England. The marriage has not been without its share of squabbles, but by and large, the Scots and the English have managed to cohabitate on a tiny island for more than 400 years. Still, there is an abiding feeling in many Scots that Scottish culture is sufficiently distinct to warrant independence from England. In the common parlance, the referendum would provide for a conscious uncoupling that would leave England and Scotland friends, but not partners.

The Yes campaign was led by the Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland and head of the Scottish National Party. The No campaign — more kindly called the Better Together campaign — was captained by Alistair Darling, a Member of Parliament representing Edinburgh since 1987. The campaign was cordial enough, but as the day of the historic vote grew near, the tone of the debate changed. David Cameron, Prime Minister, made it clear that England would fight to preserve the United Kingdom, promising to devolve more political powers to the Scottish Parliament if a No vote prevailed. Voting day in Scotland is different than voting day in America. Polling places are out-of-bounds for activists, and the press is enjoined from making predictions based on 1 percent of electoral returns. Votes are still counted scrupulously by hand. For the Independence Referendum, a record 84 percent of eligible voters turned out; the vote was expected to be exceedingly close.

By 7 a.m. the following morning, it was clear however that Scotland and England would remain "Better Together." Only 4 of Scotland's 32 districts had voted Yes. The final tally was 55 percent No, 45 percent Yes. The history of English-Scottish relations certainly puts Mr. Cameron's promise to Scottish voters in question. In the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden in 1746, which finally put down the Jacobite Rebellion, England extracted cruel vengeance on the Highland clans. The Duke of Cumberland (known as "The Butcher" in Scotland) executed all the surviving Scottish prisoners, and edicts were issued banning everything from the wearing of tartan to playing the bagpipes. For more than 30 years, no Scot could legally carry a weapon.

So one wonders: Is Parliament likely to be in a charitable mood when it comes to the modern issue of devolution? In the wake of a surprisingly clear "No" mandate in Scotland, it seems unlikely that promises made in the heat of battle will be kept. And if more power should devolve to Scotland, what happens when Wales or Northern Ireland come banging on the doors of Westminster saying, "What about us?" Some English Members of Parliament are already saying that maybe it's high time for England to have its own measure of devolved power. After all, if Scotland doesn't want English members of parliament (MPs) voting on Scottish issues, why should Scottish MPs have a say on issues affecting England? Maybe the United Kingdom isn't so united after all.

The problem is that English intransigence may well breed renewed Scottish discontent. If middle-of-the-road Scottish voters were swayed to the No side by promises of greater political independence without the concurrent risks of Scotland going its own way, then political recrimination is unlikely to bear sweet fruit. Five years from now, what will the mood in Edinburgh be if Mr. Cameron is no longer in office and more conservative voices have their hand on the Speaker's box?

There is something of an anomaly in Scottish politics: Scotland's devolved policies tend to be progressive while its electorate is inherently practical and cautious, "canny" in the Scots vernacular. Time will tell if real and meaningful political reform within the United Kingdom is possible. Until then, I wouldn't throw away the Yes/No signs just yet.

Jamie Kirkpatrick, an accomplished bagpiper, is a former history teacher and administrator at The Landon School. His email is Jamie_Kirkpatrick@landon.net.

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