Cambridge Letter: Referendum repercussions

The Scottish referendum result will lead to significant changes in the relationship between Scotland and its neighbours, and significant changes in how things are managed in England.

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:28 pm IST

Published - September 29, 2014 12:38 pm IST

When I wrote in my Cambridge Letter in March about the campaigning, which had begun on the referendum to decide whether Scotland would remain in the United Kingdom, I noted that the balance between those in favour and those against was more fluid than people had initially expected. I suggested that this reflected the fact that the Scottish independence issue had not only economic facets but also a large emotional element and, as the campaign progressed, this was ever more apparent.

Now, six months later, the referendum has happened, and the result has shown a difference of about 10 per cent between those who voted to remain within the U.K. and those who voted for independence. Most of the opinion polls taken during the campaign suggested a much closer result than that.

I did not feel that I was sufficiently well in touch with opinion in Scotland to make any prediction. Now that the result is known, however, I believe that for Scotland to remain within the U.K. is good — and I believe that the fact that the result was unequivocal was also good; a close result would have led to continuing argument, with ill feeling.

What is quite clear, however, is that the balance between Scotland and the rest of the U.K. will change. What is also clear is that there will be important implications for England, and Wales and Northern Ireland, the other U.K. members.

Much less clear is what will be — indeed can be — done about those implications. At first glance, the idea that MPs representing Scotland in the U.K. Parliament should not have the right to vote on matters affecting only England has much to commend it. It is, however, not as simple as that. Many of the Labour Party U.K. MPs represent Scottish constituencies and, if their right to vote on such issues were withdrawn, the Conservative-Labour balance within the U.K. would be dramatically changed, to the detriment of Labour.

The fact is, of course, that England is much bigger in population than Scotland, and bigger also than Wales and Northern Ireland. Treating all four countries equally where voting on U.K. issues is concerned is therefore not at all straightforward, and certainly not as simple as it might seem on an initial view.

One of the possibilities being mooted in some quarters is that more independent power should be given to the English regions. For those living in Manchester, or the north-east of England — or indeed in Cornwall — that may seem to have a lot to commend it. Few people, however, are likely to be keen on the creation of yet more centres of bureaucracy, so how might it be achieved?

Finding a workable solution to this variety of problems is certainly not going to be easy. Already there have been complaints from Scotland that David Cameron, the U.K. Prime Minister, is back-tracking on undertakings that he made during the last stages of the referendum campaign.

I do not believe that any of the political leaders involved has any intention of reneging on undertakings. The fact is, however, that meeting the undertakings is not going to be as straightforward as it might initially have seemed.

What is clear beyond doubt is that the referendum result will lead to significant changes in the relationship between Scotland and its neighbours, and significant changes in many aspects of how things are managed in England. Quite how that will happen, on the other hand, is very far from clear. The discussion will undoubtedly continue for months to come, and the arguments will not all be quiet and rational. Among the important factors that will have to be taken into account is the forthcoming — 2015 — United Kingdom general election. There are already substantial strains on the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. As already mentioned, Scotland is important for the Labour Party, many of whose MPs represent Scottish constituencies, whereas Conservative representation in Scotland is minimal.

In short, there are difficult political issues to be solved, which will have to be tackled against the background of party differences. These issues will have to be discussed against the constitutional reality brought into existence by the referendum.

It is easy to identify the difficulties, and easy to recognise that their solution, however essential, will not be straightforward.  It is easier to accept that difficulties exist than to invent workable solutions. I am certainly not going to attempt precise predictions, but I shall observe how things develop with great interest.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. E-mail:

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.