Curbing the secessionist impulse

Scottish voters have saved themselves and others in the United Kingdom from uncertainty and worse by voting against independence yesterday. The economic and financial consequences of going it alone would have been severe for Scotland, while a Scottish departure could have initiated the eventual break-up of Britain. It certainly would have weakened the rump United Kingdom as an international player, fed into a mood of embittered insularity in England, and deepened the sense of unease in Britain's relations with Europe.

Those dangers have been averted. What is particularly notable is that British unity has been preserved, not through the force of arms against a secessionist region, but through a referendum which put the idea to the test and upheld it through a massive expression of the popular will. Britain's maturity as a democracy is a key winner in the referendum.

However, its results are a warning against complacency as much as they are a celebration of the fundamental rationale of British unity. Scottish grievances that resulted in the drive for independence need to be assuaged through the extended and speedy implementation of a devolution of powers from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament. The three main UK parties - the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats - must now deliver on their promises on devolution with the same sincerity with which they joined forces to keep Scotland in the union. New fiscal arrangements will lie at the heart of political reconciliation in post-referendum Britain.

Nothing would be worse than a display of triumphalism in the corridors of power in London. Canada learnt that lesson after the 1980 referendum in Quebec, when triumphalism reignited separatist anger, which nearly succeeded in breaching the defences in the second referendum in 1995. Beyond taxation and spending, reconciliation would involve reiterating the cultural respect upon which relations between England and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland must be based. The constituent peoples of the UK have proud histories, all of which have claim to the national present. None of them should have reason to believe themselves marginalised.

The Scottish referendum sheds light as well on the worrying incidence of secessionist movements from Catalonia to Pattani and to Xinjiang. While the historical origins and concrete political causes of the movements differ, what they have minimally in common is a demand for political recognition and cultural respect for their quest for identity. Politically, federalism offers a framework of autonomy that may help keep secession in check. Scotland in Britain offers a formula for the future elsewhere.