Scotland decides to remain part of the UK

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In a historical referendum held on September 18, 2014, the Scottish people voted by a majority of 55% against breaking the 300-year old political Union with the rest of Great Britain. Had “YES” votes prevailed, Scotland would have become an independent country and would have separated from the United Kingdom.

The outcome of the referendum had been given for granted until August. In fact, until then, the “Better Together” campaign -which opposed Scotland’s secession from the UK- seemed to enjoy a comfortable advantage in the opinion polls. However, in the month preceding the referendum, the gap narrowed considerably, to the point that most experts believed that the ballot’s result was “too close to call”, with some surveys reporting a narrow “YES” lead. The shift has been attributed by commentators to the ineffectiveness and lack of leadership of the “Better Together” campaigners, which had failed to create momentum in the last televised debates and had generally seemed to be less passionate.

The turnout at the referendum was incredibly high by Scotland’s standard, as 80% of voters participated in the polls.

The referendum had been granted by means of the “Edinburgh Agreement”, signed between Prime Minister David Cameron and the Scottish Prime Minister Alex Salmond in 2012. On one occasion, Cameron had stated he had conceded the referendum because he was sure the Scottish people would have voted to remain in the UK.

Mr. Salmond is the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), which currently holds a landslide majority at the Scottish Parliament and advocates an independent Scotland. Before joining the SNP in the 1970s, he had been a Labour Party militant, but had left on the grounds that Labour did not give enough support to a devolution of Governmental powers from Westminster to Scotland.

As a politician, Mr. Salmond has always supported left-wing policies, with a strong emphasis on welfare provisions, which are very popular with the Scottish electorate –unlike the rest of the UK, Scottish residents benefit from measures such as very low tuition fees for University students and free nursing homes for the elderly; all such measures were introduced under Salmond’s leadership. For this reason, many former Labour voters, unhappy with the new political course the party had followed since the leadership of Tony Blair, have defected to the SNP. Even the involvement in the Iraq war had cost New Labour many Scottish supporters. Thus, Salmond’s pledge to promote more welfare policies –which would have been financially supported also by the revenues of the oil pits off the Scottish coast in the North Sea- and to provide support for local and small businesses, including farmers, had proved extremely popular with voters.

Under the leadership of Mr. Salmond, the SNP had obtained a referendum for a devolution of powers in 1997, which had led to the creation of a Scottish Parliament and of a Scottish Government, led by a First Minister. The Scottish Parliament may enact statutes in the areas not reserved to the Westminster Parliament by the Scotland Act 1998 and may levy certain taxes. The Scottish Parliament, however, acknowledges and upholds the principle of the Sovereignty of the English Parliament. This latter may therefore revoke the powers devolved to Scotland and in practice overrule any Scottish law.

As a result of the 2014 referendum, Mr. Salmond announced he would step down as party leader and First Minister. By converse, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that a new devolution of powers to Scotland would take place.

Mr. Cameron referred to a new package of reforms, which would reorganise the structure and governance of the UK’s four nations -England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland. In fact, all nations have representatives sitting at the Westminster Parliament, and all of them except England also have devolved Parliament. The paradoxical consequence is that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs have a right to vote over laws affecting England, while English MPs have no say over the laws not reserved to Westminster and affecting the other nations.

It seems therefore plausible that the new structure of the UK will address this anomaly with the creation of a new Parliament for England, while Westminster will probably remain as the UK’s “federal” Parliament.

(Altalex, 22 September 2014. Article by Stefano Biondi)

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