Where next for the UK?

So it’s all over and business as usual. Or not. While Scotland will remain one of the four constituent nations of the United Kingdom, the political landscape within the UK has changed utterly. The Scottish independence referendum – or ‘indeyref’ – has ushered in a long-overdue rethinking of the overall British constitutional arrangement.

The “people have spoken” mantra is being used by both sides and Alex Salmond has been graceful in defeat. Be under no illusion though – the feeling behind the ‘yes’ campaign is a movement that will continue to influence politics in Scotland and the UK. It’s not just a nationalist vote, it’s a protest vote against what they see as an out-of-touch style of politics. It’s a bit of a cliché but hard to avoid: the real winner in all this is the demos, and not just of Scotland but potentially of the whole of the UK. While the detail of the eventual advanced devolution settlement is still undecided, the level of political engagement, at 84.5% turnout, is unprecedented. Henry McLeish made the point that it will be a real shame if this civic engagement isn’t carried forward.

It seems ironic how the Spanish were fretting about the precedent that Scottish independence would have created for their own home nations, but now it seems that the UK may be taking a leaf out of the Spanish constitutional playbook by moving towards a highly federated state, with many more and significant powers handed over not just to Holyrood, but also to the assemblies in Cardiff Bay and Stormont. And in the context of the West Lothian question that greater devolved powers throws into greater relief, there is even talk of a dedicated assembly for England, or assemblies for the English regions.

Named for the consitutuency of the MP who first raised the question back in 1977, the West Lothian question addresses the constitutional anomaly of Scottish (and Welsh and Northern Irish) MPs being able to vote in Westminster on certain laws that will affect just England, whereas English MPs cannot vote on the same issues which are devolved to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies.

It hasn’t taken long for the big three UK parties to start playing politics with the result and, dangerously, with that much-needed constitutional reform. In his statement on Friday David Cameron clearly linked further devolved powers for Scotland with the ‘English votes’ issue and said the two must progress in tandem.  Cameron’s move was widely interpreted as a sop to his own rightwing backbenchers, a tactic to prevent UKIP hijacking the issue as its own, and a neat way to lock Labour out of effectively governing England. Labour leader Ed Miliband was over the weekend critical of constitutional reform drawn up on the back of a fag packet, but Labour too is open to criticism of playing politics with the constitution for its own ends. Indeed Miliband is facing something of a Catch 22 situation: Labour has been proposing a constitutional convention, but this could take years rather than months; if the party is perceived to be delaying Scottish home rule in the name of coordinated constitutional reform, it could see a haemorrhage of its voters to the SNP, greatly reducing the number of Scottish Labour MPs, which could ultimately have the same effect of locking it out of an overall Westminster majority.

There are many serious constitutional questions facing the UK and the next weeks and months will be fascinating, and not just for political anoraks.

Serious politics aside, the Scottish independence vote has also been the source of some serious fun online last week. From signs of divine approbation to food for political thought, through to suggestions for a new flag for rUK and the Queen’s relief over her post-vote status. Here’s our pick of the week.

Some will see portentous symbols anywhere. The Mirror reported on 55 year-old Terry O’Neil whose KFC lunch resembled a truncated Britain without Scotland.

KF

Meanwhile another British holidaymaker, this time in Sardinia, saw the future written in the clouds. Metro online even provided helpful explanatory scribbles for those who didn’t have faith enough to see…

Clouds

A somewhat arcane subject for many, especially outside the UK, the intricacies of the Scottish vote were given extensive coverage online. While Last Week Tonight’s Jonathon Oliver gives a no-holds-barred explanation of the finer political points behind the independence debate….

youtube video

…the Guardian provided its own somewhat less acerbic but equally funny deconstruction for non-Brits:

#indyref

Poster granny for the Guardian piece, there was some breathlessness that the Queen had made a semi-political remark in inviting the Scots to “think carefully” about their decision, and the No campaign instantly jumped on it to indicate HM’s siding with them. While she would still have been head of state of a newly-independent Scotland, there’s no denying the SNP’s republican leanings, and one shall have been quite relieved on Friday morning. Something neatly captured in this meme doing the rounds on Facebook last Friday:

queen

She was probably right, head of state as she is of a country with no written constitution and a longstanding tradition of making it up as you go along. This has led to constitutional anomalies such as the West Lothian question discussed above, and much handwringing in the face of a potential yes vote as to how rUK would be organised – indeed, what it would be called (you can see the extensive thought that had already gone into that subject given that, er, rUK has been the standard knocking around the media for months).

Speaking of standards, the UK’s flag was the subject of much speculation, questioning whether the Union Jack would be stripped of the Saltire, leaving a rather naked combination of the crosses of Saints George and Patrick:

stgeorge

Possibly thinking that this may be too clear a visual representation of the UK stripped bare, the Guardian suggested some other design ideas…

allflags

The poor Welsh only seemed to be getting a look in on the national flag in the event of the Scots vacating their spot. This seems to have been instantly forgotten the minute it was clear that Scotland would stay. The satirical Daily Mash took a suitable dig at the online flag hysteria and the hypocrisy of the centuries-too-late inclusion of Welsh symbols, leading with:

UK spared idiotic flag with a dragon on it

dragon

 

George Candon is a Senior Director at FTI Consulting Brussels

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