Why on earth did the Scots, largely quiescent as part of Great Britain for three centuries, suddenly become the mouse that roared?
It wasn't because they became besotted watching re-runs of Braveheart or Rob Roy, or even because they coveted more of a share of North Sea oil revenues. No, the Scots got sick and tired of Thatcherite policies imposed from London.
Thanks to the partial form of federalism known as "devolution" provided by the Labour government of Tony Blair in 1997, Scotland got to keep such progressive policies as free higher education and an intact national health service, while the rest of the U.K. partly privatized the health service and began compelling young people to go into debt to finance college like their American cousins.
But as long as progressive Scotland, with just one Conservative M.P. sent to the national parliament at Westminster, remained part of Great Britain, its own policies were in jeopardy. So the near-miss referendum was one part revived Scottish pride, one part observation that a dozen small nations are members of the European Union and do just fine, and one very big part revulsion against Tory policies -- most recently those of the hapless current prime minister, David Cameron.
Now commentators all across the spectrum are pronouncing that the old United Kingdom is as good as dead. The independence referendum failed, but in order to placate the Scots, London will have to concede far more regional autonomy. The regional parliaments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland will gain far more power, leaving the awkward question of whether little England should get it's own parliament too.
The Brits can thank Maggie Thatcher for all that. It was Thatcher who set the U.K. onto a course where British extremes of inequality rival those of the United States, and where valued public institutions are being tossed on the rubbish heap. It was policies set in motion by Thatcher and her successors that finally promoted the Scottish revolt.
And while the Scots are more anti-Tory than the rest of the U.K., it's not really fair to blame the voters of the other parts of Britain. For even in the era of Thatcher, the Tories never won a popular majority. The most Thatcher ever got was 43.9 percent. The Tory current prime minister, David Cameron, never got more than 36.1 percent.
The anti-Tory vote gets split between Labour and Liberal Democrats, and because of Britain's "first past the post system," the Tories manage to govern despite an anti-conservative majority. In the two most recent elections, the Liberal Democrats, previously to the left of the Tories on some issues such as financial reform, were so eager for a turn in government that they agreed to a coalition with some cabinet portfolios -- without getting in return their long sought electoral reforms.
And so the conservative dominance continues, despite the fact that most British voters are anti-conservative. With a new, more robust form of federalism, the Scots and the rest of the Celtic fringe will be free to protect their own, more progressive policies. But it's a pity that electoral reform keeps eluding the rest of Britain.
One has to hope that the tremors set off by the Scottish independence referendum will continue to produce sweeping change, until the rest of the U.K. becomes more of a democracy.
Robert Kuttner's new book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos, and teaches at Brandeis University's Heller School.