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United Kingdom Remains Intact But Not Unchanged

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The Scottish independence referendum is over and the United Kingdom remains intact, intact but not the same as it was. Earlier this week, Prime Minister David Cameron promised that a vote against Scottish independence would also be a vote for change. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports what that means for the future of the U.K.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The day after this long fight for independence, Scotland's first Minister Alex Salmond admitted he had lost. He said he was stepping down from the leadership of the Scottish National Party and that the fight was not over.

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ALEX SALMOND: We have now the opportunity to hold Westminster's feet to the fire, on the vow that they've made to devolve further meaningful power to Scotland. This places Scotland in a very strong position.

SHAPIRO: Prime Minister David Cameron insisted he will keep the promises he made to Scotland in the days leading up to this vote.

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DAVID CAMERON: The three pro-union parties have made commitments, clear commitments, on further powers for the Scottish Parliament. We will ensure that those commitments are honored in full.

SHAPIRO: He said Scotland will have more control over its taxes, spending and welfare. Tom Devine is one of Scotland's most prominent historians and he supported independence.

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TOM DEVINE: This is a watershed. The union effort has now changed. It still exists but it's not the same union as was signed in 1707.

SHAPIRO: Devine says this union started to change when Scotland got its own parliament in the 1990s. And now...

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DEVINE: What they've promised to do, over the next few months, will change even more - even more significantly. So this is why, you know, the man in the street who thinks well still dealing with the same old thing. No they're not. The situation has changed quite dramatically.

SHAPIRO: Prime Minister Cameron has no choice in the matter really. This two-year battle exposed deep dissatisfaction with the status quo. And that sentiment only grew as Scotland approached Election Day. John Curtice is a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde.

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JOHN CURTICE: Twelve months ago, you could still find around a quarter to a third of people saying they were happy with things as they are at the moment. That proportion has now gone down to less than 20 percent. So the public pressure for change has intensified. They've heard the arguments and they're being convinced that they may not want independence but they do want change.

SHAPIRO: So everyone says a change is going to come. Scotland will get more autonomy. But dig into the specifics and it becomes more complicated. Take taxes for example. Right now, London collects taxes and uses a complicated formula to redistribute benefits to people all over the U.K. Professor Jan Eichhorn of the University of Edinburgh says it doesn't have to be that way.

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JAN EICHHORN: That could be a rule that, for example, 40 percent of income tax is raised directly in Scotland, stays there. And they can do with it what they want, rather than everything being allocated.

SHAPIRO: That 40 percent number is totally arbitrary, though. And nobody agrees on what the real number should be. The Scottish National Party wants a higher number, more local control for Scotland. Political parties in London want lower numbers, less control for Scotland. But even those parties in London disagree amongst themselves. To make this not even harder to untangle, consider that every part of the U.K. wants the autonomy Scotland is about to get. Here's professor Eichhorn.

EICHHORN: Wales, other parts of England, Northern Ireland, are going to put so many pressures on that we're going to go through a process that's not going to be dealt with in a few months. But it's going to fundamentally change, I think, the constitutional setup of the UK.

SHAPIRO: And this morning, Cameron did promise that Scotland won't be the only part of the U.K. to gain greater autonomy. So big picture, the U.K. may be inching towards a system like the U.S., with one central federal government and less powerful state governments. But professor Michael Keating, of Edinburg University, explains the U.K. is different from the U.S. in an important way.

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MICHAEL KEATING: England is 85 percent of the population. And it's very difficult to have a federation where one bit of it is so much more important than all of the others put together.

SHAPIRO: This is an obstacle course that prime Minister Cameron must traverse. And he's given himself a tight deadline to achieve it. He has asked draft legislation by January. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Edinburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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