Scotland’s devolution: ‘Settled will’ or a broken UK?

As the decision to bomb Syria further exposes tensions between Scotland and England, the UK’s future remains unclear.

British Irish Council Meeting
With a projected majority win for First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's pro-independence SNP party in the next parliamentary elections, Scotland's constitutional future remains uncertain [Will Oliver/EPA]

Glasgow, Scotland Last week’s vote in Britain’s House of Commons to endorse air strikes in Syria may have seen the United Kingdom join its French and American allies in their attempt to defeat the scourge of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – but it also reopened wounds a little closer to home.

With all 56 pro-Scottish independence MPs – out of 59 Scottish constituencies – voting against action, the continuing tension between Scotland and the rest of the UK was again exposed. Indeed, Scotland may have voted to remain in the UK in its independence referendum more than a year ago – but debate about its political future rages on.

Last month, the Scotland Bill passed its final stage in the Commons on its way to becoming law. The bill, known in Scotland as “The Vow”, is based on a pledge made only days before the September 18, 2014, referendum by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and the leaders of two other pro-union political parties. The intention was to beef up the powers of the devolved Scottish parliament if Scots voted against independence from the British state. It is currently being scrutinised by Westminster’s second review chamber, the House of Lords.

But, with support for independence continuing to exceed the 45 percent secured by the defeated pro-independence campaign in the referendum, the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) on track to win another majority in next May’s Scottish Parliament election and disquiet surrounding the bill itself, Scotland’s constitutional future remains far from certain.

James Mitchell, a codirector of the Academy of Government at the University of Edinburgh, told Al Jazeera that the Scotland Bill was unlikely to settle the issue of the nation’s place within the British union. This issue has seen Scots, who contend that resource-rich Scotland – divorced from overall British control – would become a successful, small, sovereign nation-state, clash with others who bristle at the thought of a broken-up UK.

“The ‘settled will of the Scottish people’ was supposed to be when the Scottish parliament was established in 1999, but if you want to go even further back, [so was] the establishment of  the [now defunct UK government department] Scottish Office in 1885,” Mitchell said. “So, anyone who thinks that this bill is the end of the story, doesn’t know their history.”

Anyone who thinks that this bill is the end of the story, doesn't know their history.

by James Mitchell, University of Edinburgh

A pledge delivered

New financial powers, including those on tax and borrowing and control over abortion law, are due to be handed from London to Edinburgh’s Scottish parliament – which already has jurisdiction over health, education and law and order, among other things – in the Scotland Bill. For many supporters of the union, the powers contained in the bill, which, say its proponents, will make the Scottish parliament one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world, is a pledge delivered.

Yet, many have questioned the bill’s robustness. A House of Lords committee identified seven problems with it, stating that the future of the UK “could well be at risk” if they were not solved.

Paul Cairney, a politics professor at Scotland’s University of Stirling, told Al Jazeera that “if you were designing a more powerful taxation parliament, it wouldn’t be this [settlement]”. He described it as more “incremental” in nature rather than substantive in being able to make a real difference to people’s lives.

“Constitutional settlements that last the test of time generally all have one thing in common: they don’t look like a [complete mess],” agreed pro-independence blogger James Kelly of the Scot Goes Pop! blog. “This one fails even that most basic of tests … We’ve ended up with a more or less random combination of unconnected powers,” he says. 

“The Scottish government will be able to fiddle around the edges, but won’t be able to seize any problem by the scruff of the neck and solve it comprehensively.”

With a recent Ipsos Mori opinion poll showing that a majority of Scots believe their country will become independent within the next decade, constitutional politics remains at the heart of Scottish public life.

Duncan Hothersall, a pro-union supporter, told Al Jazeera that, while he hoped this settlement bill would have “decades to be tested before further tweaks were made”, he is almost resigned to the prospect of a never-ending push by pro-independence advocates to further increase the autonomy of the Scottish parliament.

“I’m happy that we’re able to debate the issue – but what I worry about is that we’re not debating anything else,” said Hothersall, the editor of Labour Hame, an online discussion platform aligned with the pro-union Scottish Labour party, which sits in opposition to the SNP government at the Scottish parliament. “The irony is that I would never have described myself as a unionist; my politics has never been about the constitution. I’m interested in equality and social justice.”

A very different place

British Prime Minister David Cameron leaving a meeting with SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon in Edinburgh in May 2015 [Robert Perry/EPA]
British Prime Minister David Cameron leaving a meeting with SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon in Edinburgh in May 2015 [Robert Perry/EPA]

Scotland has moved on rapidly since devolution began in 1999. After Labour’s iron grip on the land was broken by the SNP’s maiden success in the Scottish parliamentary election in 2007, a commission was launched in 2009. In its recommendation to devolve more powers to the Scottish parliament, this commission led to the Scotland Act 2012.

In the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election, the SNP secured an unprecedented majority, leading to an independence referendum three years later. The SNP may have been chastened by their 55-45 percent defeat – but with the current Scotland Bill looking likely to pass, despite reservations, and the SNP’s victory in May’s UK general election (where they won 56 out of 59 Scottish seats) still fresh in the memory, modern Scotland is a very different place than it was just a few short years ago.

“There are some unionists who are quite happy to come to terms with much that is going on – but [many others] are struggling to come to terms with the Scotland of today,” said Mitchell of the SNP’s rise. “It’s difficult to come to terms with something that you oppose, and an [SNP] party that you’ve spent your life campaigning against … [Some unionists] have not come to terms with [the] modern Scotland.”

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s SNP first minister, told the Scottish parliament the day after the December 2 House of Commons’ vote to bomb ISIL targets in Syria that she was “troubled by the decision of the UK government to take the country into conflict … against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Scotland’s MPs”. In seeking to flag another point of contention between Scotland and the rest of the UK, Sturgeon also recently indicated that if Scotland were to be taken out of the European Union against its will in the forthcoming UK-wide EU referendum – scheduled for sometime in 2017 – then a second Scottish independence poll would be “unstoppable“.

As such, and despite their independence referendum victory last year, Scotland’s pro-unionists remain uneasy, said Mitchell. “If you listen to both sides, there’s no doubt that those who think independence is coming are much more optimistic than those who support the union,” he stated. “The unionist side is not a happy side – it hasn’t been for a long time. But that doesn’t mean to say that the optimism on the Nationalist side is justified.”

Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi

Source: Al Jazeera