Scottish independence: Whatever the result of next week’s referendum, a looser and more federal country is upon us. Make the most of that


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The Independent Online

In Gladstone’s time, in the context of Ireland, they called it Home Rule. Nowadays, in the case of Scotland, it goes by the uglier label of Devo Max, and, in its latest, stronger form, Devo Max Max. It amounts to much the same thing, however: the end of the United Kingdom as we have known it, as the price for keeping Scotland in some version of a British state.

That sounds unpleasant, but it need not be, provided the peoples of the kingdom are pragmatic and willing to improvise. That way we might more easily get used to the untidiness and occasional illogicalities of the new, looser kingdom. New asymmetrical constitutional arrangements, all lying somewhere between a properly federal system and the old unitary model, will develop – we hope organically. It is right that, given the strong preference expressed by the Scottish people when directly consulted about their future for the first time in history, Scotland should be the starting point for a new, and radically different, settlement.

How “max” will Max Max be? Further than the Westminster parties would have wished, having been spooked by the strength of the Yes campaign and some of the opinion polls. More of the sinews of sovereignty will need to be exercised in Holyrood than originally envisaged if we are to answer the legitimate aspirations of the Scottish people. Much broader powers over the economy, public services and business would seem the most appropriate. If it is Scotland’s oil, then they should determine how to spend the revenues. Scots should not have to suffer the economic consequences of a government at Westminster they never elected. That may be the most difficult challenge of all, but it is clearly the task that has been set for politicians north and south of the border.

Still, Devo Max Max is unlikely to go as far as the Quebecois example. In 1995, with parallels to the current Scottish experience, the separatists narrowly lost the referendum on independence for Quebec. The Canadian federal authorities granted virtually everything that independence would have delivered, including a separate immigration regime and laws that discriminate in favour of French speakers. Only the armed forces are shared with the Anglophone provinces; Quebec has even opened up its own diplomatic representation abroad.

The obvious next steps are greater powers for Wales, Northern Ireland and those parts of the UK that do have a clearly defined identity. The great cities such as Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester, and most obviously London, could develop their system of local government into a closer approximation of the city states of the past – thriving entrepreneurial centres supporting bold architecture, lively arts scenes and a cosmopolitan citizenry.

We could start to address historical grievances felt in Cornwall; the Edinburgh government, in turn, should think about granting more autonomy to its own more remote regions in the far north and west – Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles. Working out how, in turn, those arguments then mesh with existing local authorities and semi-independent NHS trust hospitals and free schools, which have little democratic control or oversight, will also be hugely vexing.

What seems certain is that the traditional “national political debate” will be a much more narrow affair if such issues as tax and pensions will no longer be collectively determined by British voters in general elections. We may well hear fewer Scottish and Welsh voices in Parliament. A kingdom is being untied – but that is better than letting it unravel.