Constitutional change within the United Kingdom in light of the recent Scottish Referendum

Photograph of the Scottish Parliament building.

Professor Charlie Jeffery, Senior Vice Principal at the University of Edinburgh delivered an engaging lecture on constitutional change within the United Kingdom in light of the recent Scottish Referendum.

Those living in Scotland have recently experienced the most significant civic conversation ever undertaken in the run up to the vote on the 18th September which asked the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

Of course we know the outcome of the referendum, 55.3% of voters elected to keep Scotland as part of the United Kingdom, but does that put the question to bed? And what impact will the referendum and consequently a no vote have on Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom? As Research Co-ordinator of “The Future of the UK and Scotland” research programme, Professor Charlie Jeffrey looked to address these questions during the Our Changing World Lecture.

Professor Jeffrey firstly offered some thoughts on the referendum, describing the whole process as a model example of have how states and citizens should deal with constitutional change. The Edinburgh Agreement, between the UK and Scottish Governments established the terms by which the vote would take place, with both Governments agreeing to respect the outcome of the referendum. This is remarkable when you consider the recent unofficial independence vote in Catalonia, where an agreement between the Spanish and Catalonia Governments was not achieved and is extremely unlikely to in the future.

Secondly, the referendum vote extended the voting franchise with the inclusion of 16 and 17 year olds, with many taking the responsibility to vote seriously and informing themselves before they voted. The positive contribution made by young voters during the referendum has led to the case to extend the franchise for other elections.

Scotland also experienced a desire by those individuals who could vote in the referendum to get their names on the electoral register – 97% of the electorate registered for the referendum vote, a breath taking figure. The turnout on the day of the vote wasn’t bad either as 85% of the electoral voted, with many areas experiencing turnouts of over 90%.

So overall the referendum as a model to determine constitutional change, and the way citizens engaged with this process was a success, but what Professor Jeffery wanted to highlight was that the referendum, even though there was a no vote, had triggered a constitutional change reaction which will have significant consequences for the United Kingdom.

On the back of an opinion poll that showed a lead for the Yes vote in the run up to the referendum, the leaders of the three main Westminster parties promised further powers for the Scottish Parliament following a no vote. This sparked calls for “English Votes for English Laws”, as advocated by Prime Minister David Cameron the morning after the referendum.

The Conservative and Unionist Party will make this part of their General Election campaign as it will cause trouble for the Labour Party, it will protect the right of the party from the rise of UKIP, and it’s popular with the electorate. This can perhaps be described as an attempt by a political party to use constitutional change as a way to win votes.

Constitutional change within the UK has so far been improvised, open-ended with no clear direction, and this is likely to continue. The outcome of the General Election could lead to a referendum on continued membership of the European Union if the Conservative and Unionist Party remain in government, could this be the vote that leads to ever looser union?

Our Changing World lectures look at global challenges facing society and the role of science and academia in addressing them. See the Global Academy website for more details of the upcoming lectures.

Note: Thanks to the student volunteers who helped with ushering and running the microphones for the question and answer session on the evening.

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