I wasn't surprised the Scottish referendum produced a "no" result, because I never bought the idea that Scotland was a social democratic nation. It's by no means the whole story, but I suspect it was the determination of pensioners and rentiers to protect their assets that produced the larger than anticipated margin of victory, which suggests an instrumental continuity with the original "parcel of rogues". Ironically, the deindustrialisation that has stimulated independence has also undermined it by exporting the more progressive young and leaving the country older and more cautious. The politically pivotal cohort throughout the union has been the modest middle class, not the more demographically fluid working class of the industrial belt. Salmond has resigned because he knows the Labour voters successfully attracted to yes were outnumbered by the SNP voters who quietly chose no.
The opportunism of the Tories in flipping the debate on devolution to party advantage was as predictable as Labour's confusion, but it has at least served to marginalise liberal fantasies of federalism and an elected senate. Timothy Garton Ash is already pleading "Let's not fear the F-word". Like most liberal historians, he prefers myth to reality: "In crafting our new federal kingdom, we will have a lot of international experience to draw on. One of the many peculiarities of Britain is that, while repeatedly spurning federalism, it has both left behind numerous federations across the English-speaking world (Canada, Australia, India) and currently exists inside a European Union which contains many federal countries and itself has federal elements. Britain is like a man who has left a trail of puddles behind him, and lives at sea, but keeps insisting that he doesn’t like water".
Far from "spurning federalism", the UK (or whatever it's called this week) has tried various forms of constitutional federation since the Parliament of the Lordship of Ireland in 1297, and the results have not been edifying. The key point to bear in mind is that federalism has nothing to do with democracy: it is a compromise with geography and local elite interests. Protestant Ireland had its own parliament till the "union of the kingdoms" in 1800, while Northern Ireland enjoyed home rule at Stormont from 1921 till the imposition of direct rule in 1972 (and a degree of autonomy in excess of devo-max, including control of a paramilitary police). Though Scotland lost its parliament in 1707, it retained autonomy over law, the church and education, which made up a large part of government's domestic concerns in the age before income tax and welfare spending.
The gift of federalism "across the English-speaking world" is the legacy of empire and the need for an intermediate layer of government to coordinate regional security. The original 13 colonies of America were federated to the UK and, despite the self-serving myth of "salutary neglect", were politically cohesive with the mother country until the Seven Year's War eliminated the French and Spanish threats. The vainglory of the organic emergence of federalism in 1776, with its legitimation through appeals to Republican Rome, Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution, was in reality an aggressive management buy-out. The common theme in this history is the design of regional authority to entrench sectarian and elite privileges, which can either be achieved in concert with or in opposition to the centre. The Scottish swithering between independence and union, and the role that elite financial interests played in the campaign, is typical.
The creation of a formal four-state federation for the UK would be problematic because of the 800 pound English gorilla, which again highlights the inconsistency of federalism and democracy. The demand for a "fair" settlement of legislative authority and public spending (aka the West Lothian Question and the Barnett Formula) would mean a relative diminution of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which would make the federation divisive from day one. A sub-division of England into regions has some administrative merit, but is unlikely to happen due to Tory suspicion of the "interventionist state" being recreated at regional level, the reservations of Labour centralists and Whitehall civil servants, and the distraction of antiquarianism (the dubious case for Yorkshire, Cornwall, Wessex etc).
The fundamental imbalance of the UK is about capital not current expenditure. The disadvantage of the North of England is not in higher deprivation and welfare spending, which is symptomatic, but in capital formation. This is probably visible in a street near you. Over 30 years, we have recycled national capital from the regions into property and other assets that have predominantly benefited the South East. Related to this imbalance in physical capital, the period has also seen a redistribution of human capital to London and its immediate hinterland (the Head of Transport for London chooses this moment to tell us that we must invest more or risk riots). As in Scotland, this has made the other regions of the UK relatively older and more conservative. While this has produced a bleak and reactionary temper in the marginal towns that UKIP now targets, it has also encouraged a bland conformism in much of the North outside self-consciously "buzzing" city centres.
Some Labour neoliberals are sincere in wanting to reverse this process, but are incapable of thinking beyond the managerialist poetry of "the larger cities and their travel-to-work areas". Principles such as autonomy are submerged beneath integrated transport strategies and local enterprise partnerships. This willingness to promote devolution after three decades of aggressive centralisation does not reflect a democratic counter movement. Rather it indicates the completion of the neoliberal project, which was to knit business and government so closely together that they could not be separated. For all the talk of civic pride and "regional powerhouses", modern devolution means CEO-style mayors, unelected "leadership boards" and the continued privatisation of services. A devolution plan that does not centrally address the City of London is just a bid for an enhanced dole.
The Tories have a preference for an English parliament over regional devolution, largely because this would maximise an assumed conservative majority in England and entrench English dominance within the union. But rather than create a new tier of government, that assembly would simply be a subset of the national parliament with the lesser breeds periodically excluded. Even without my sarcasm it has a patronising tone to it, not least because it is being advanced by the likes of John Redwood, a former colonial governor of Wales. The language employed over the West Lothian Question - the appeal to "fairness" - is that of a petulant narcissist. The decisive votes on all matters at Westminster are those of English MPs. There is no democratic deficit. In truth, an English parliament is less a serious proposal than a means of keeping UKIP at bay and Labour flustered.
Libertarian rightists like Daniel Hannan are as susceptible to fantasy as Timothy Garton Ash, imagining devolution as anti-government: "We could have pluralism at local level, with the freedom to innovate, to trial new ideas, to copy best practice. We could have tax competition, leading to downward pressure on rates. We could restore honour and purpose to local democracy, attracting a higher calibre of candidate. And then – a delicious bonus – we could let the House of Commons become a part-time assembly of citizen legislators, meeting for no more than 40 days a year, its MPs compensated for their time rather than paid salaries". This is reactionary ancestor worship: full-steam ahead to 1776.
What the last few weeks have shown is that the British constitution is contingent and plastic. This should not come as a surprise, given that it is unwritten and few citizens have even a vague idea of the contents of the 1689 Bill of Rights. This also reminds us that the role of the monarchy is to provide a veneer of stability and the mythos of traditional continuity where too often we have a profitable vacuum (Kate's bump will soon edge Scotland off the front pages). Cameron's Friday morning announcement briefly revealed the cynical calculation and jockeying that is normally obscured by this spectacle, but what it also suggested is that we're some way off a "constitutional moment" and that revolution isn't imminent. No wonder share prices bounced up.