An act of faith throws open the gates to nationhood, but what comes next?

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"Resounding, massive, decisive!" That's how the media described the outcome of the Scottish referendum. Tramping brave-hearted to the poll, the people of Scotland are supposed to have raised an irresistible Hampden roar of "Yes!Yes!" as they affirmed their will to nationhood. Well, yes and no to that. Edinburgh on Friday had a peculiar, stunned atmosphere: not a hangover, not the blissful repose of warriors after victory, but a silence of blank astonishment. Did we really do this? What happens now?

In itself, the result is clear. The gates to the next step - legislation for the Scottish parliament - have been thrown open. The aim of the referendum was to give the White Paper on Scottish devolution a popular mandate, to cow Westminster opponents. This mandate has been won with a completeness which vindicates two bitterly criticised decisions: to put the White Paper to the people, and to put it in the form of two separate questions. Tony Blair and Donald Dewar took a gamble which has paid off triumphantly - though largely thanks to the energy of the SNP as Labour's campaign allies. Both men deserve praise for their courage. But what does this vote tell us about the real will of the Scots? More than meets the eye.

I spent the four days before the vote travelling about Scotland and listening. For the most part this was small-town, back-country Scotland, though I also went to Dundee and Aberdeen. And wherever I went I found an unexpected mood: people preparing to vote "Yes" and "Yes" - but with all their doubts intact.

Asked what they hoped for - what sort of Scotland - and what they feared, they replied with temperate hopes, with intelligent anxieties. These anxieties were much in line with some of the themes of the "Think Twice" campaign - except that the "No" campaigners exaggerated them so hysterically that even their supporters stopped listening. Again and again "Yes" voters told me that they were worried about the survival of the United Kingdom, that they were still nervous that the parliament would be dominated by old-machine politicians from the Central Belt at the expense of rural Scotland, that they were uneasy lest Scotland's world might become narrower rather than broader.

Remembering all those doubts, I see now that the outcome of Thursday's referendum was something far more startling than a mere upsurge of patriotism. It was an act of faith.

Veteran Scotland-watchers were stunned. This was the electorate which had developed to a fine art the skill of balking at open doors and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. There have been times in the last 20 years when it has seemed that Scots wanted devolution to be forcibly crammed down their throats by London, so that they could avoid responsibility for it.

On Thursday that era ended. The Scots decided - as a Church of Scotland friend of mine put it - "to vote for their aspirations rather than for their fears". Well aware that they, the Scottish people, will carry the blame if devolution miscarries, they still chose to take the risk.

Scotland's political class, in other words, is being trusted not to let the people down. The politicians are exhilarated this weekend. But they carry a far heavier burden of responsibility than they realise.

It was the leaders - Donald Dewar for Labour, Jim Wallace for the Lib- Dems, Alex Salmond for the SNP - who constructed a common Yes platform strong enough to last for a week. But at the grassroots the Yes campaign scarcely existed. In Aberdeen, 36 hours before the polls opened, I did not see one single poster. Labour activists especially - who had worked their guts out for the May election - ignored appeals and stayed at home. Their dog-bristling hatred of the SNP, which has become a substitute for ideology, was too strong.

As a result the voters took their information almost exclusively from staged TV "debates". The No campaign had the opposite problem. Determined Tory ladies put out leaflets at the grassroots, but the leadership was so half-hearted that tens of thousands of No-No supporters despaired and did not bother to vote.

Was it about Scotland or about Britain? Tony Blair would like to reinvent the result as a call to reform the whole constitutional structure of the UK. He said in Edinburgh on Friday that "the era of big centralised government is over". The truth is that the Scots voted for the repair and revival of their own nation; any thoughts they had about implications for Britain were inhibiting rather than inspiring. But they have raised a powerful head of steam which Blair will now use to turn Welsh and English wheels.

The Welsh Assembly vote this week now has a good chance of passing; the plan to restore democracy to London is powerfully encouraged; the gradual introduction of English regional devolution becomes more plausible. If unofficial schemes for the structures and procedures of the new Scottish parliament are adopted - unicameral, consensual, women-friendly, open to public inspection and suggestion - they will strongly reinforce Blair's ideas for reforms at Westminster to Lords, Commons and electoral law. So will the proportional voting system in Scotland - if it produces a "parliament of co-operation rather than confrontation".

The pretence that this is all part of a single New Labour design for a New Britain is harmless, for the moment. Blair long ago abandoned the dotty idea that British regionalism had to be done symmetrically, all in one piece and all to one pattern. This buys him time, while Wales and the English North-East, London and Cornwall slowly develop their own individual solutions at their own pace. If there is a pan-British concept here, it is adaptation to Europe: a British state with strong regional authorities fits far more easily into the European Union - and into the European economy, where small and medium business has found its real home in partnership with regional governments. The last British implication of Scotland's choice is about taxation and public opinion. Assuming that it would mean higher income tax rather than lower, over 1.5 million voters out of nearly 2.4 million registered a Yes to the second question on marginal taxation powers for the parliament.

Why did they do so? It was an axiom of the whole New Labour election campaign that the merest hint of additional taxation would send the voters stampeding over the horizon. The answer is that the idea impossibly called "hypothecation" - dedicating the proceeds of a tax to a specified objective - has quietly spread throughout society. Not everyone believes in it, but everyone now thinks he or she understands it.

In small-town Scotland people repeatedly said to me that better schooling and health services were well worth a few pence on the tax rate. Young people were unanimous about it. Nobody now remembers that this began as a Paddy Ashdown idea in the 1980s. It just seems "fair". It's a sound guess that English opinion is turning in the same direction. Margaret Thatcher preached that taxes merely nourished a thirsty swarm of politicians who in reality could change nothing. Many came to believe her. But now, since the May election, democratic politics has returned to favour. And with that comes rising interest in a "democratic" approach to taxation. Nobody likes paying more into the void. But if the money is genuinely earmarked for a good purpose, the taxpayer is consoled - and paid back in the currency of self-respect. In that sense, even the Inland Revenue may deserve an act of faith.

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