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September 19, 2014

Still together, but not so closely?

The arrival of referendum results from the early hours of this morning made sleep impossible. The spectre of the destruction of the United Kingdom receded only after Glasgow declared. It voted Yes, but not decisively enough to offset all the Nos from smaller councils, and Glasgow's turnout (75%) was low compared with the 90+% in some areas. High turnout (85% overall) testified to how strongly Scottish voters had engaged with this campaign, in stark contrast to the apathy that greets local, European and even General elections.

Clackmannanshire declared first, and 53.8% for No, but until large numbers of votes came in from the urban areas, the Union seemed to be hanging by a thread. But although Dundee predictably voted Yes, other traditionally strong SNP areas (Angus, Moray, Perth and Aberdeenshire) all voted No. The final outcome was 2 million No versus 1.6 million Yes, so 55/45 overall. This came as a huge relief for those who value the synergy that the Union brings to its member countries. For full results, see the Guardian website.

But the detail of the results is revealing: the four councils that voted Yes (Dundee 57.3%, Glasgow 53.5%, West Dunbartonshire 54.0% and North Lanarkshire 51.1%) are all foremost among Scotland's council areas with extensive urban deprivation. Traditionally Labour strongholds, they voted for independence, whereas the traditional SNP areas failed to deliver the expected Yes vote. In effect, Scottish voters rejected party politics and cast their votes on more personal grounds. Perhaps this isn't surprising: if life seems chaotic or hopeless, the Independence blank cheque may seem more tempting, whereas if you are aspiring and optimistic, perhaps the risks and uncertainties posed by independence seem more offputting. And the cliff-hanging nature of the latest polls must have put pressure on No voters to get out in force: there was no room for complacency.

However the last-minute devolution vows thrown in by a panicking No campaign have huge implications for the rest of the UK who must by now be heartily sick of Scotland's demands, the Barnett formula and anti-English sentiment. Why shouldn't England and its regions also enjoy devolution of powers? Why should MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland be allowed to vote on purely English matters and not vice versa? It was in 1977 that Tam Dalyell raised the "West Lothian question": he asked why he, the then MP for West Lothian, was able to vote on matters affecting Blackburn, Lancashire, but not on Blackburn, West Lothian?

It has never been answered, yet it is fundamental. Given the hasty timetable under which Lord Smith of Kelvin is to firm up proposals for more devolution on tax, spending and welfare, it seems unlikely to receive serious attention. If addressing this asymmetry leads the UK to consider a fully federal approach, then what began as a Scottish issue may lead to constitutional upheaval throughout the UK.

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