Today’s result came as a relief to many but it is not an excuse for complacency. Jim Gallagher writes that both Westminster and Holyrood must consider the lessons learned from the campaign and start delivering politics for Scotland, not just about Scotland.
Well it’s over. 2 years of campaigning. 5 years of shadowboxing before that. Acres of newsprint, millions of social media posts. TV debates, and family arguments. Street stalls, and chanting mobs outside the national broadcaster. Oh, and truckloads of academic analysis. It’s been a fascinating, exhilarating but also worrying campaign.
But Scotland has finally made a decision. Independence has been rejected, and the UK affirmed. In an extraordinary democratic act, 97% of the population registered to vote and 85% of those voted. The authority that gives the decision is overwhelming. The choice is made.
For many people the overwhelming feeling will be one of relief. They didn’t demand a referendum, and were never part of the Yes project. It was not campaigning that made them worried about the risks. They are Scots who were comfortable in their own constitutional skin, and have now been found to be the majority.
Looking back, there are many lessons to take. One lesson is: a referendum is a rotten way of making a decision. It may be a good way of affirming a decision which already has substantial majority support. But this process has been painful and divisive. It has split Scotland down the middle. The Yes campaign’s relentless assertions of optimism were of course a conscious campaign tactic. Combined with the use of the powers of the devolved government to influence public and private sectors alike, they have left a sour taste. Of course the better together campaign wasn’t perfect either, but it had a thread of commitment to telling the truth, even if unpalatable. However you describe the campaign, it’s left a fired up but disappointed minority, alongside a relieved majority.
For the constitutional anoraks amongst us, it’s produced plenty to reflect upon and do. Under the pressure of the campaign, commitments to further devolution for Scotland became more concrete. The UK government launches a process to draft legislation today. There is substantial common ground between the parties – more tax powers, some welfare powers for Holyrood. That previously exclusive society, the Friends of the Barnett Formula, has just gained some influential new members. But there are some tricky points to be agreed: just how much tax devolution, and what are the implications for Westminster? West Lothian voted No, and became a question again.
The effect on the UK as a whole is significant. The argument in the referendum has shown up much more clearly the nature of the union, and the UK as a territorial state. In acknowledging that Scotland is nation free to choose to leave, the UK has defined itself as a voluntary union, and as a multinational state, and one of which devolved legislatures are a permanent part. In defending the union the UK has articulated a case not just for political union, but for both economic integration and social solidarity. In proposing more devolved powers, it has accepted the idea of maximum devolution consistent with maintaining that sort of union.
Now is the time to follow the logic of these commitments. More powers for Scotland, certainly, and on the timetable promised. But it is surely also time to set out more clearly and explicitly that the UK now has a territorial constitution, and what that is. And the principles which have been articulated for Scotland, as much devolution as is consistent with the union we have defined it, apply in the different circumstances of Wales, Northern Ireland and – in a radically different way – for England too.
For Scotland the challenge will be different. Nationalists will grieve, but will have to accept the verdict of the people; and after a seven year constitutional excursion Scottish politics will have to get back to its long neglected knitting, and deliver on the promise of devolution – politics for Scotland, not just about Scotland.
Jim Gallagher is Gwilym Gibbon research fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, and visiting professor of government at Glasgow University. He advised the Better Together campaign.