Outgoing pro-independence Scottish first minister Alex Salmon

Photo Credit/Scottish Government

the newspaper first commented on Scottish independence in our May 2014 issue. With the referendum settled, we’ve decided to reflect on the issue once more.

On September 19th, Scotland awoke to a result that, until a few weeks before, had been widely accepted as inevitable. Though polls had been tightening over the course of the campaign, the pro-UK side’s mood had been one of muted complacency until, with only 12 days of campaigning left, a shock opinion poll put the “Yes” camp two percentage points ahead. From there the contest took on a frantic energy, with Scottish nationalists seeking to capitalize on their perceived triumph, while Westminster party leaders campaigned in person, making concessionary promises for greater autonomy for Scotland within the union.

Though the eventual result of 55.3 per cent to 44.7 per cent was a far more comfortable victory for “No” than had been expected, the UK that emerges from the referendum is set to be markedly different. Scotland’s nationalists may win many of their demands, and leave the Westminster parliament in a position of relative weakness.

Moreover, the referendum has had a galvanizing effect on other independence movements in Europe, such as the campaign for Catalonian independence from Spain,.

Of course, the greatest impact of the vote will be felt in Scotland. Nationalist First Minister  Alex Salmond has declared his intention to step down in November. For some, this was a puzzling step. Salmond, despite the defeat of the nationalist cause, had arguably run a strong campaign. He succeeded in nearly doubling his side's share of the vote from the earliest polls, as well as wringing more powers for the Scottish government out of the major party leaders during the panicky last days of the campaign.

In any case, the “Yes” campaign had always been larger than Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party, as it was comprised of a broad coalition of campaigns including the socialist “Radical Independence” movement and the artistic community’s “National Collective.” Despite the “No” vote, these groups will not simply disappear, particularly because they were united around class and political issues.

Since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership in the 1980s, Scotland has been deeply hostile to the Tory party, sending only one Conservative MP to London in the last election. A running joke amongst Scots is that the country boasts more giant pandas (two at the Edinburgh zoo) than Conservative MPs. Much of the rhetoric of the pro-independence side focused more on freedom from Tory governments in London, rather than the UK per se.

Far from dampening Scottish enthusiasm for independence, the referendum has drawn many Scots into this wider nationalist movement, as attested by a large increase in membership for the pro-independence SNP and Scottish Greens. The groups which have come together to support independence, along with a population energized by a unprecedentedly high voter turnout, may well affect the greater long-term change on Scottish political culture, steering it yet further from the neoliberal UK mainstream. If this happens, the question of independence is likely to recur sooner than suggested by Salmond and others, who suggested it was a “once in a generation” decision.

Though the “No” vote came as a relief to the UK political establishment, they are left in a weaker position. The “No” campaign’s hurried promises of more powers for the Scottish parliament on the condition of a no vote may prove difficult to redeem. The commitments were made with very little consultation of the mood of parliamentarians or the English public at large, both of which feel that Scotland already exercises a disproportionate influence within the UK. This problem is particularly acute for David Cameron, whose backbench MPs and grassroots party members are increasingly out of step with the leadership and sympathetic with the populist alternative right-wing party UKIP. Many also support proposals for an English parliament, which would entrench English power within the UK and traditionalists within the Conservative party, while further weakening Westminster and the modernizing Tory leadership.  

For independence movements outside of the UK, the effect of the referendum will naturally be much less than had it been successful. However, the example of an orderly and largely polite campaign accepted by both sides has already been cited by leaders of the Basque and Catalonian separatist movements in Spain. Though die-hard nationalists will be unsatisfied by the result, the re-energized political culture and greater political powers which Scotland has gained suggest that such an example would be one to follow, even if it does not lead to full independence. This renewed vigour in Scottish democracy contrasts with the UK Parliament to Westminster’s disadvantage; a broad consensus behind constitutional change short of independence, as well as greater political engagement, north of the border is matched by apathy and division in English politics.

comments powered by Disqus