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The Scots could change everything

Tony Travers
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We are now seeing the long-term consequences of operating the world’s most centralised democracy

So devolving political and tax-raising power within Britain is a good thing, after all. As the major political parties patch together a last-minute package of proposals to allow Holyrood to become, in effect, an entirely federal element within the UK we can now see in glaring detail the long-term consequences of operating the world’s most centralised democracy.

Britain faces its most profound constitutional challenge in modern times. As opinion polls in Scotland show a sudden and dramatic shift towards independence, the old parties are left wondering how it can have come to this.  ‘Britain’ may be a week from being little more than a historical curiosity.   

David Cameron knows his party’s reputation is so toxic north of the border he must steer clear of a high-profile role in the campaign. Ed Miliband and Labour are also seen as embodying the out-of-touch Westminster elite. Indeed, no English politician can intervene without the risk of adding to the ‘Yes’ vote.

Celebrities such as David Bowie and Eddie Izzard, with their ‘we love you’ message to the Scots probably got closer than the ‘No’ campaign to the emotional heart of the issues raised by the independence referendum. But the underlying problem remains: the UK is so centrally run that its political class has lost touch with large sections of the electorate. 

Within England, UKIP is progressing by similarly convincing substantial numbers of voters that Westminster and Whitehall are cut off from most people’s lives.

Gordon Brown, representing the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, has put forward a timetable for further devolution of tax, public service and welfare powers. Yet this must be seen against the backdrop of successive governments refusing all forms of tax-raising autonomy for sub-national government. 

From the Layfield report onwards, Westminster has rejected increased local fiscal powers and moved relentlessly towards the control of 100% of taxation and spending in the UK.

Whatever happens next Thursday, nothing will be quite the same again for the United Kingdom. The question of whether the Westminster political class can bring itself to relinquish substantive tax-raising power remains unanswered. National politicians have been traumatised by a sudden realisation of their own frailty. The Scots can change everything.

Tony Travers, director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

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