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The UK has survived, comfortably; the UK in its present design is dead, possibly. The outcome of the referendum on Scottish independence is as cloudy as that, even if its arithmetical result was decisive.

Scots affirmed the union by a margin of 55 per cent to 45 per cent. The rush of nationalism that showed in the polls at the turn of September was not enough; wavering voters cleaved to the status quo. A unionist campaign that was traduced by armchair strategists for subjugating romance to cold scepticism turned out to be effective enough. Pollsters say that unanswered questions about an independent Scotland’s economy – its pensions, its lure to business and above all its currency – were what ultimately told.

Yet the result is the start of a constitutional wrangle, not the end of it. That more than two in five Scots – and their biggest city Glasgow – have voted to leave the UK is no small matter. The separatist movement will have to be assuaged with new powers for the Edinburgh parliament. The most sanguine unionists used to expect barely 30 per cent to plump for secession. Had Alex Salmond managed expectations more deftly of late, the nationalist first minister of Scotland would now be written up as a man of pluck and derring-do who pushed a 307-year union to the edge of oblivion. Instead, he has resigned, a visibly dejected man.

He wants his eventual successor to press Westminster to honour its big but unspecific promise of another round of devolution to Scotland. Fleshing this promise out, getting it through the UK parliament and then balancing it with new powers of self-rule for England could be the work of years, not months. There is no clean answer to the governance of the UK, no rationalist blueprint that pleases every part of a multinational kingdom in which one nation, England, is so preponderant. Imagine if Bavaria accounted for 85 per cent of Germany’s population.

Still, the first few steps along this tortuous path can now be discerned. In a statement on Friday morning, David Cameron, radiant with relief, said he wanted English votes for English laws. This seems to mean that only MPs with constituencies in England can vote on legislation that affects only England: healthcare, education, aspects of welfare and possibly some fiscal policy. Because the Tories are the biggest party in England, the implications are heavy. It is possible that Ed Miliband will win next year’s general election for Labour but have no majority on some basic matters of government.

A referendum that could have done for the prime minister has ended up putting his opponents in an invidious position. There is no answer to the English question that does not compromise Labour. True, the party would have won in 1997, 2001 and 2005 without Scottish seats but that was under the leadership of Tony Blair, who had freakish political talent and a laser eye for the centre ground. How many Blairs do Labour have?

Yet to oppose constitutional redress for the English would be incendiary. Labour could lose England, especially the south east, for a generation, as voters there come to see it as a high-handed Celtic lobby. Labour MPs such as John Denham and Frank Field are counseling their party against an outright rejection of Mr Cameron’s proposal.

Of course, a proposal is just that. The prime minister must get it through parliament. But his hand is strong. Further devolution to Edinburgh has to happen because anything else would constitute a heinous breach of promises by all parties. And Tories will only approve this divestment of power in return for concomitant arrangements for England. The internal logic of the process is inescapable.

And if Labour scupper devolution to Scotland to avoid English self-rule, the political cost will not be borne by Mr Cameron. His party have little esteem to lose among Scots. Labour, by contrast, would risk evisceration at the hands of the Nationalists for failing to honour promises made by one of their own – Gordon Brown, the former prime minister – just last week. South of the border, meanwhile, the Tories would cast Labour as anti-democrats.

Those close to the prime minister say he is serious about English votes for English laws. Question his ability to deliver it and the reply is crisp: “He will. Don’t worry about that.” He has vigilant backbenchers to please and, in the UK Independence Party, a rival for the emerging English demos.

Mr Cameron is a conventional man who does unconventional things when he is cornered. His failure to win the last election outright led to the formation of Britain’s first coalition government since the second world war. This referendum was another brush with political mortality and it has summoned another intrepid gesture from him. At stake is his grip on his party, and his place in history.

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