On April 18, 1949, bells and celebrations erupted in Ireland. Thirty-three years after the beginning of the Easter Rebellion, the Republic of Ireland Act came into force, severing the last constitutional link to England and the British monarchy. This was followed by the Ireland Act of 1949, in which Britain conceded its former role and acknowledged the independent state of Ireland.
Sept. 19, 2014, was supposed to have seen a similar result. Scottish separatists were poised to celebrate the creation of an independent nation, dissolving a union that had lasted for over 300 years. However, despite a surge in polls leading up to the vote, the independence movement was rejected; Scotland’s people chose to remain part of the United Kingdom.
After the referendum failed, a collective sigh of relief was noticeable across the United Kingdom. Politicians returned to London; the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) announced his resignation, signaling acceptance and a peaceful resolution; and markets rallied as investors were quick to return after withdrawing due to fears of instability and confrontation.
And yet, even with the prospect of an independent Scotland gone, the question remains: what next? Notwithstanding the political victory, it is still important for politicians in the United Kingdom to realize that 45 percent of Scots, more than 1.6 million people, voted to leave the union. To put that in perspective, if the same percentage of Americans voted for independence, it would total almost 145 million people wanting to separate from the country. These voices demonstrate a powerful set of interests and opinions that need to be considered in the coming years.
A first crucial step for the United Kingdom, and the government in London, will be to follow through on promises made to the people of Scotland. Promises of devolution, more autonomy from the central government, and greater distinction between English and Scottish legislation, must be kept to maintain legitimacy in the aftermath of the vote.
Another key component to a more stable relationship going forward will be how England responds to the main SNP arguments that convinced so many people to join the independence movement. One key issue will be the mining and use of North Sea oil deposits. While the economic benefits are likely not as large as optimistic independence projections made them out to be, there is still significant potential for shared revenue and economic growth if handled correctly.
Along with this, England, and especially the Bank of England, needs to help Scotland with funding its social policies. Influenced by the welfare economies in neighboring Scandinavia, Scotland has a more robust and expensive welfare system than England. This higher price tag will have to be covered by funds from the rest of the U.K. in the years to come. With lower productivity per worker and an aging population, the time to resolve this issue is now, especially with the vote out of the picture.
In the end, independence aside, England, Scotland, and the entire United Kingdom can claim victory following the referendum. Despite the powerful emotions and rhetoric on both sides of the debate, the aftermath has been one marked not by violence, but by peace. In stark contrast to recent elections in Iraq, current protests in Hong Kong, and civil war in Syria, the British people have maintained order and calm. While there are many disappointed voters in Scotland, they should still celebrate what has been a banner moment for Britain, and a triumph for democracy.
John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development.
Ben Young, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.