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Scotland's staying, but the UK still has a big problem

Watch what you wish for.
Watch what you wish for.
Mark Runnacles

Scotland has voted narrowly but decisively against becoming an independent country, but the debate over its status in the United Kingdom is far from over.

Part of the last-minute push by UK elites against Scotland's drive for independence has been a commitment by the country's three major parties to increase the authority of the Scottish parliament inside the context of the current union (this is called "devo-max" by British politics nerds), most likely by increasing the scope of the Scottish parliament's authority over tax revenue and housing funds.

It's an idea that sounds appealing in obvious ways, but it's also fraught with conceptual and practical perils — most notably the fact that, while Scotland currently has its own Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government that can be given extra powers, there is no English Government.

From 1707 until 1999, Scotland and England alike were governed by the UK parliament. But Tony Blair's government established a separate Scottish Parliament and devolved authority over a number of important matters to the Scottish government — including health, education, and housing. Most of the funds for those things are determined by a budget set in London. Scotland has a limited ability to raise some extra tax revenue, but lacks any kind of borrowing authority. In short, even though Scotland has its own flag and World Cup team, it has less governing power than Rhode Island or New Mexico. Hence the appeal of devo-max proposals.

But a huge problem with devo-max is there's no English Parliament. Instead, the matters on which the Scottish parliament makes policy are set instead by the UK parliament — a parliament that includes Scottish MPs.

This logical flaw — known as the West Lothian question after an MP from the West Lothian constituency who raised it in an earlier iteration of devolution debates — has been present since the initial late-1990s devolution move, was exacerbated when additional powers were devolved in 2012, and would be further exacerbated in any devo-max scenario. Further complicating things, there are also devolved parliaments for Wales and Northern Ireland, though they are less powerful than the Scottish one.

The problem could be solved by preventing Scottish MPs from voting on devolved matters. But the UK political system rests heavily on the idea of a Prime Minister and cabinet who enjoy majority support in Parliament. What would happen if a PM had majority support for matters on which Scottish MPs voted, but not on other matters?

Another possibility would be to create an English parliament with the same devolved powers as the Scottish one. But as England comprises 85 percent of the total UK population, this would in some ways fatally undermine the authority and prestige of the alleged central government.

Lastly, power could be devolved to a broad set of English regional parliaments — creating a more symmetrical form of federalism as seen in the United States. One problem here is that there's no indication that English people favor this kind of regionalization (it might also impoverish England's lower-income regions), so it would be a big lift just to make Scottish people feel better.

The other problem is that symmetrical federalism would actually end up denying exactly what devolution is supposed to recognize — the sense that Scotland is in some sense a special place that is not England. Full regionalization would put Scotland on a par with a region of England, not on a par with England itself.

Of course, one could simply ignore the logical problems and press ahead with asymmetrical devolution. It's not necessary for government institutions to be fully logical (in America, Texas has as many senators as Vermont; in the UK they have a Queen) to be workable, and devo-max might be workable.

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