EDINBURGH/LONDON — Former prime minister Gordon Brown urged British leaders on Saturday to keep their promise to grant further powers to Scotland after it voted to remain in the United Kingdom, as a consensus between London’s main parties evaporated.
All the three biggest parties had promised to rapidly expand Scotland’s autonomy in a last-minute push to shore up support for the union just days before Thursday’s referendum, which came down 55-45 against independence.
But within hours of the result, Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron had reshuffled the cards by promising not only to fulfill the pledge to Scotland but also to make it part of an overhaul of the balance of powers across the rest of the United Kingdom, within the same timeframe of a few months.
He vowed to produce “a balanced settlement: fair to people in Scotland and, importantly, to everyone in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as well.”
The announcement quickly shattered the pre-referendum consensus among London’s main parties.
Labor opposition leader Ed Miliband said plans for constitutional change on that scale needed to be put to members of the public through a convention in autumn 2015, after the next parliamentary election – which Cameron’s Conservatives said amounted to kicking the issue “into the long grass.”
Labor’s Brown, who had helped to rally fellow Scots behind the United Kingdom, told supporters on Saturday in Fife, Scotland, that “the eyes of the world are upon the leaders of the major parties in the United Kingdom.”
“These are men who have been promise-makers and they will not be promise-breakers,” he said, “and I will ensure as a promise-keeper that these promises that have been made are upheld.”
Although the referendum result was clearer than expected, the fact that 45 percent backed secession attested to a dissatisfaction with London’s politicians that reaches from the divided streets of Northern Ireland to impoverished former mining villages in Wales, and not least to struggling parts of northern England that feel a million miles from the relative prosperity of London and the southeast.
With Scotland having put regionalism high on the agenda, Cameron and the other London parties are under pressure to demonstrate that England — which unlike Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland has no regional government of its own — is not disadvantaged in financial or democratic terms.
“We can’t allow there to be a different process of devolution to Scotland and a different timetable for England, we have to do the two together or not at all,” said Conservative lawmaker Andrew Percy.
“The English cannot be fobbed off. I don’t think the English public will stand for it,” he told BBC radio.
But senior Labor lawmaker Hilary Benn said giving more powers to England could not be decided under Cameron’s timetable.
On the eve of the Labor party’s annual conference in the northern English city of Manchester, Miliband said living standards were top of the agenda for voters in next May’s election.
“Constitutional change matters, but we know something else matters even more,” he told supporters. “This country doesn’t work for most working people and we, the Labor Party, are going to change it.”
With polls suggesting that the election will be a tight contest, Cameron may fear Scots’ wrath over a possible delay to their increased powers less than that of his own lawmakers in London, who have seen support bleed away to the rising anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP).
His initiative would seek to address the constitutional conundrum of Scottish members of the British parliament voting on UK policies – for instance, on health or education – that do not apply to self-ruling Scotland.
But while Cameron’s Conservatives won just one parliamentary seat in Scotland at the last election – part of the reason why many Scots felt under-represented in London – Labor has 41 Scottish MPs, and every reason not to reduce their influence.
Just before the Scottish referendum, Brown appeared to be making government policy in announcing that laws granting further devolution to the Scottish parliament would be drafted by the time Scots celebrate the birthday of their most revered poet, Robert Burns, on Jan. 25.
During the campaign, Cameron, Miliband and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg for their part all promised to guarantee Scotland high levels of state funding and greater control over healthcare spending.
Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond on Friday announced his resignation after defeat on the issue to which he had devoted his political life, but told his supporters:
“We have now the opportunity to hold Westminster’s feet to the fire on the vow that they have made to devolve further meaningful power to Scotland.”
Despite cross-party calls for reconciliation after the vote, six people were arrested in Glasgow late on Friday when police had to divide hundreds of secessionists and unionists waving flags and chanting national hymns.