A discarded Yes sticker lies on cobble stones along the Royal Mile after the people of Scotland voted no to independence on September 19, 2014 in Edinburgh. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After Scotland, something fundamental has to change - and will change

Our present constitutional settlement is not merely unacceptable; it is broken.

In the days after 5 September, when a poll put Yes Scotland ahead for the first time in the referendum campaign, we witnessed something remarkable, even unprecedented, in recent decades – the British political elite scrambling in panic as they belatedly understood that the ground beneath them was moving and drastic action was required. In response they began making policy on the run, hastily promising further powers to Scotland and mobilizing whatever forces they could, especially big business, to help pull the Union back from the brink.

Had Scotland voted Yes, David Cameron would surely have been forced to resign as the prime minister who lost Scotland and presided over the break up of Great Britain. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, might well have been forced to stand down as well in what would have been an ensuing constitutional crisis.

In the event, Scotland narrowly voted No and now an opportunity exists to reconfigure the multinational United Kingdom to the benefit of all of us living in these islands. Clearly the status quo is unacceptable, not only to the large number of people in Scotland who voted for independence. Our present constitutional settlement is not merely unacceptable; it is broken, as David Cameron acknowledged when he spoke outside Downing Street once the final result was known. Whether the UK is reconfigured as a fully federal or quasi-federal state, something fundamental has to change and will change. We are entering a period of profound constitutional upheaval.

It will not be enough to offer more devolution to Scotland as the three main party leaders did in the final, desperate days of the campaign, however inchoate. The question of devolution in England has to be addressed as well. Cameron spoke of the need to address the West Lothian question  – English votes on English laws -  but should we have an English parliament or perhaps the introduction of regional assemblies under a new federal structure? Cameron did not mention this but the House of Lords needs to become a fully elected second chamber or be abolished altogether. What too of further powers for Wales and Northern Ireland? These are momentous times.

One of the most startling interventions during the final days of the campaign was made of course by Gordon Brown, the former Labour prime minister, who returned dramatically to frontline politics as the cross-party Better Together campaign floundered. In a series of speeches, consciously echoing Gladstone, he promised “home rule for Scotland”, even if there was no consensus on what was actually being offered and how it would affect the other nations in these islands, not least England.  

At times it seemed as if the former Labour prime minister was dictating policy to his successor, who, because of the decisive defeat of the Conservatives in Scotland, was rendered virtually mute during the long campaign and was left at the end pleading plaintively with Scots “not to go”. It was desperate stuff and one expects Cameron’s party to punish his weakness in the months ahead.  

What we witnessed in Scotland during the campaign, especially in those final weeks, was an extraordinary democratic awakening. An ancient nation was asking fundamental questions about identity, purpose and sovereignty, and people were as animated as they were well informed. The SNP operates a formidable and disciplined campaigning machine but Yes Scotland amounted to much more than Alex Salmond and his happy band of followers; it was a broad, vibrant coalition of pro-independence groupings.

What the referendum campaign demonstrated was that, in the right circumstances and when people believe that something truly significant is at stake and that their vote matters, they care passionately. At a time when fewer and fewer of us are members of political parties, nearly 4.3 million registered to vote, 97 per cent of those eligible. Overall turnout was 86 per cent, testament to a nation’s engagement and a direct challenge to a broken political system.

But how now to capture and harness the energies that were unleashed during a referendum campaign in Scotland that shook the foundations of the British state, stunned a complacent elite and came so close to shattering the 307-year-old Union?

And this much I know: unless there is far-reaching constitutional reform, there will be a second Scottish independence referendum before too long. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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