Scottish independence: Old kingdom, new settlement

This extraordinary referendum has revitalised British democracy – and left all parties in terra incognita

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The Independent Online

For the whole British political class, this is the morning after the night before. Washington may heave a sigh of relief, and European leaders from Madrid to Brussels rejoice that secessionist urges across the continent have now been held in check. But no such complacency is appropriate  here. Despite the decisive scale of the No victory, this extraordinary and historic referendum, which prompted political participation on a level never seen before, has landed all parties and all leaders in terra incognita.

Alex Salmond, despite nearly doubling his party’s support over the two-year campaign, has stepped down as Scottish First Minister and leader of the SNP, accepting that his life’s work has now ended. David Cameron, bounced into making extravagant constitutional promises on the hoof to attempt to salvage the No campaign at the 11th hour, is now required to make good on those pledges to an impossibly tight timetable.

Meanwhile, Ed Miliband, who has rarely looked more uncomfortable and unconvincing than when trying to whip up support for Labour across the border, found himself comprehensively upstaged by his miraculously rejuvenated predecessor, Gordon Brown.

And if Mr Cameron carries through on his promise to balance increased powers for the Scottish Parliament with more votes for English MPs at Westminster on specifically English issues, the Labour leader could face the dizzying prospect of winning the next general election yet then being unable to pass key measures as a result of being deprived of the votes of Scottish Labour MPs.

Nor is this disorientation, the sense of having been pitched into a brave and baffling new world, confined to professional politicians. It will take all of us a while to get our bearings. In the process, some of our most settled habits will have to change. In the first place, London will have to get used to the fact that it is not the centre of the world and the only place that really counts. Yesterday morning, the Cornish and Welsh nationalists wasted no time in demanding a Cornish assembly and more powers for Wales, respectively.

The metropolitan instinct is to flick such irritating voices away like so many midges. But it is that sort of arrogance and sense of entitlement that led directly to the panic and desperation of the past month – the sudden realisation that the Scots were in earnest, and might actually get what they wanted and break away.

Metropolitan conceit has paved the way for the rapid and apparently irreversible centralisation of power that we have witnessed in the three and a half decades since Margaret Thatcher came to power. The UK is now one of the most centralised states in the rich world, with more of its public spending coming from central government than practically any other OECD country. Its local government is weaker than any comparable country, including France.

Scottish devolution, rushed through by Labour in an effort to shore up its own support across the border, was the great counter-tendency to that, but as all Labour’s most potent politicians hitched their wagons to the Westminster star, this only ended up fuelling Scotland’s long-simmering sense of resentment and undermining Labour’s Scottish hegemony.

The concomitant of the increasingly metropolitan focus of politics was a steady drop in the turnout at elections, a steep decline in the membership of parties, a gnawing and corrosive apathy and a pervading sense that politicians are all the same, all to some extent corrupt and equally remote from the concerns of the people. This slow, steady process of estrangement of the public from politics is extremely dangerous. But it is an ailment which can be cured – as this referendum campaign has demonstrated.

It has been an amazing example of democracy in action, with hundreds of thousands of normally apolitical people caught up in the debate and finally queuing in staggering numbers to make their mark. As Leanne Wood, the head of Plaid Cymru, put it on Thursday night: “This debate has been about where power lies.”

It’s time for the rest of the country to say very clearly that it lies with the people. If we say that with sufficient vigour, and invest the same sort of passion that the Scots have shown, it will be the first step towards making our democracy fit for the future.