Published: 4th September 2014
Listen carefully to broadcast news in the UK and from time to time you will hear the phrase “in England” or sometimes “England and Wales”.
Some developments do not apply everywhere in the UK. That’s because Scotland is different. And will remain different even if voters vote NO to independence from the rest of the UK in the referendum that is to be held in Scotland on Thursday 18 September.
Scotland was once an independent kingdom, as was England. After the death of Queen Elizabeth of England in 1603, the two kingdoms came together under one monarch, King James, who is remembered as James I in England but James VI in Scotland.
In 1707, politicians decided to merge the kingdoms politically, with Parliament in London instead of separate parliaments in London and Edinburgh. But the Treaty of Union of 1707 recognised that Scotland is different, so confirmed the continuation of a separate Church of Scotland, separate education, different local authority structures and Scots Law.
Various ways of applying the Scottish difference were used down the years. The Victorians set up the Scottish Office to administer matters on behalf of the London government, at first through premises in London at Dover House on Whitehall. Later years saw administrative devolution to offices in Scotland, including St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh.
Scotland’s different status was acknowledged for many years in the House of Commons through the Scottish Grand Committee, which consisted of the MPs who represented Scottish constituencies.
After a referendum in 1997, political devolution came in 1999 when the Scottish Parliament was established in Edinburgh to exercise powers that Westminster devolved to Scotland. Those powers have since expanded to include railways to a greater extent than before.
That’s why the ScotRail franchise and the new Caledonian Sleepers franchise are decided in Scotland and Network Rail has its own Scottish financial information.
The Scottish Government – Ministers from the Scottish Parliament – exercises road, rail and ferry responsibilities through an agency, Transport Scotland. Scotland has become notable for reopening closed railways, the most recent project being for the Borders line where trains are due to start running in 2015. The Department for Transport continues to be responsible for arrangements for cross-border rail services that link Scotland with England via Berwick and Carlisle.
Most leaflets published for and against Scottish independence make no mention of railways. Official agencies and departments are maintaining a formal silence on making announcements during a four-week “purdah period” in the run-up to the referendum. However, back in February, Scotland’s Transport Minister, Keith Brown MSP, told a conference in Edinburgh that transport already makes a major contribution to Scotland’s wellbeing under devolution but “we could do more if we had the full powers of independence”.
In a leaflet entitled “Your Choice. Opportunities in an independent Scotland”, the Yes Scotland campaign group looks forward to how an independent Scotland might look six years from now. It imagines an English-born person moving to Scotland to live but travelling by train to visit family in Manchester and finding that independence has made no difference to the rail journey, with “no border controls, or customs posts” and no need for a passport.
What actually happens depends on the outcome of the referendum in which voters aged 16 and over who are registered in Scotland are being asked to vote YES or NO to the question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
In a joint statement the Scottish Government and the United Kingdom Government agree, in the words they have shared with every voter in Scotland:
“If more people vote ‘Yes’ than vote ‘No’ in the referendum, Scotland would become an independent country.”
And: “If more people vote ‘No’ than ‘Yes’ in the referendum, Scotland would remain a part of the United Kingdom.”
There would be no immediate change if Scotland votes YES. Independence would only follow negotiations between people representing Scotland and people representing the rest of the UK.
This is where the two governments disagree, as well as agree. They agree that things would stay the same at first and they agree that various things would be negotiated including “the allocation of assets and liabilities.”
They disagree over when Scotland would actually become independent. The UK Government has not made any date public. But the Scottish Government believes that independence should come in March 2016, when the election campaign for the next Scottish Parliament is expected to start.
Both agree that a Scottish Parliament election is “due to take place in May 2016” but that statement carefully avoids confirming the definite date for the election. If Scotland has voted NO in the referendum, that Scottish Parliament would continue to exercise powers devolved to it from Westminster.
But if the referendum majority is for YES, that Scottish Parliament would have its own full powers – although crucially not until “after the date of independence”, which might not be when the current Scottish Government wants it.
The joint statement summarises the powers in Scotland of the UK Parliament and Government in the event of a majority for NO, as continuing to be “defence, security, foreign affairs, pensions, benefits and most tax powers”. The Scottish Parliament and Government would continue to be responsible for health, education, justice, rural affairs, housing and transport.
But it is worth noting that under the Scotland Act of 2012, the two parliaments have agreed already that the devolved Scottish Parliament will have new powers to borrow money and to set a separate Scottish rate of income tax from April 2016.
At present, the overall budget for Scotland is limited to a percentage of UK public spending although decisions on how to allocate the money within the devolved figure are taken in Scotland.
In future, even if Scotland remains part of the UK, the Scottish Parliament will have more financial responsibility than it has now. The three main political parties covering Great Britain have also said that a NO vote would mean the devolved Scottish Parliament getting more powers than now.
So whatever happens in the referendum, Scotland will continue to be different. And that difference will include railways.
Lets imagine that voters vote FOR independence, then what could happen?
The UK Westminster rail franchise system would certainly lose the Scottish Franchise which would be taken over by Scottish authorities.
But, as most English and Welsh rail franchises are operated by subsidiaries of mainland Europe and further afield government owned train companies such as SNCF and Deutsche Bahn, would the ‘Scottish Railways Authority’ bid for franchises south of the border, an intriguing thought! Profits from Westminster would flow to Scotland to help pay for the Scottish transport network.
Would a devolved Scotland take ownership of Network Rail Scotland and create one company to run the infrastructure with a subsidiary company running the trains?
Food for thought indeed!