Scotland's voted 'no.' Now what?

Independence is off the table and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has resigned. But questions remain about just what powers Westminster will give Scotland, and when.

Danny Lawson/PA/AP
Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond looks down during a press conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Friday. Mr. Salmond announced his resignation today, after Scottish voters rejected independence and decided that Scotland will remain part of the United Kingdom.

In one sense, the result of Thursday’s independence referendum could not have been clearer. Scots voted no – 55 percent to 45 percent – and the country will remain a part of the United Kingdom.

But, in another sense, where Scotland – and indeed the UK itself – goes from here is anything but straightforward.

On Friday afternoon, Alex Salmond announced his intention to step down as both leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Scotland’s first minister. Mr. Salmond, the guiding spirit of Scottish nationalism for three decades, said in his resignation statement: "For me right now there is a decision as to who is best placed to lead this process forward politically."

Earlier on Friday, British Prime Minister David Cameron promised new devolution powers across Britain, including the transfer of new measures from Westminster to the devolved Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, a move favored by a majority of Scots.

Salmond had been widely expected to play a leading role in any devolution negotiations, but now that role is likely to be filled by his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, who is widely expected to assume control of the SNP.

Regardless of who is at the helm of Scottish nationalism, the focus now will be squarely on how the British government delivers on it promise of more powers for the Scottish parliament.

On the eve of Scotland’s referendum, the leaders of the three biggest British parties – the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats – delivered a "vow" to give more power to Edinburgh if Scotland voted no. But actually fulfilling this pledge could prove tricky, with each party’s proposals differing substantially, especially on the key issue of setting income tax.

Earlier this month, in a similar effort to halt the advance of Scottish nationalists ahead of the independence referendum, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown set out a timetable for devolution. Lord Smith of Kelvin, a former member of BBC's Board of Governors, will oversee the implementation of more devolution on tax, spending, and welfare. A new draft devolution law would be published by Jan. 25. However, with a British general election due in May 2015, the legislation would not be passed until the new parliament began.

Scotland’s referendum may have settled the question of whether or not the UK would break up, but the prospect of more devolution for Scotland has implications far beyond Glasgow and Edinburgh. Any change in Holyrood would need to be accompanied by constitutional reform across the UK, including in the devolved Welsh and Northern Irish parliaments and in England itself.

Speaking today, Cameron made clear that increased powers for the Scottish parliament would depend a settlement that would exclude Scottish MPs at Westminster from voting on issues confined to England – a move fiercely resisted by the Labour party.

For some, Scotland’s defeated referendum is an opportunity to transform where power lies across the UK – if the nation’s politicians can grasp it.

“The UK could become as exciting and dynamic a political place as Scotland has been for these last couple of years, and will hopefully remain,” wrote Scottish columnist Deborah Orr in the Guardian. “But Cameron has already made it clear that Westminster will be doing the talking and debating, and that the electorate will be doing the listening. Our political leaders seem to prefer indifference, even contempt, to opportunities to promote and revive our ailing democratic system.”

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