Beyond the referendum: “2016 should be the year in which Scottish devolution grows up”


It has now been a year since the vote on Scottish independence. Jim Gallagher considers how divisions which emerged between yes and no voters during the campaign have persisted, and the challenges this creates. He argues that Scotland now faces a different set of choices–not what country to belong to, but what sort of country it really wants to be.

Zhou Enlai is said to have quipped that 200 years was too short a time to judge the effect of the French Revolution. 12 months certainly isn’t long enough to assess the legacy of the Scottish referendum.

It was certainly an extraordinary process. For two years, Scotland talked about nothing but Scotland, and an unprecedented number of people eventually cast their vote, one way or another.

Energy and Division

The debate was extraordinary, sometimes energising, but also deeply divisive. Not just because people took opposing views. Yes voters – rationally or not – were hopeful; they wanted things to change and independence represented change. Many no voters were fearful; they had not asked to make this choice, and feared disruptive change would be forced on them.

The campaigning was unprecedented: the intensity of an election, but lasting two years. The opposing campaigns talked incessantly about Scotland, but hardly engaged with each other. The Scottish government’s doorstop of a White Paper was a partisan, not a government, publication. The relentless positivity of the yes campaign spoke primarily to the heart. Questions of economics or policy choice were airly dismissed as irrelevant, or establishment bluff. Better Together’s head was more firmly screwed on, but it’s hard to make saying no, even ‘no thanks’, sound positive. The UK government’s publications argued a case, but without much pizzazz.

The experience of yes and no voters during the campaign was strikingly different, as polling immediately afterwards showed. The overwhelming majority of yes voters felt free to express their views; three quarters of them thought the process had united the country. Half of no voters felt unable to speak out, and 9 out of 10 of them of thought the whole business left the country divided. So it is afterwards: nationalist supporters remain on a high: no voters are silent again, maybe relieved, but worried by the persistence of the nationalist movement.

Had the vote gone the other way, Scotland would now be six months away from the SNP’s target date for independence: a sobering thought. Rather too many of the risks of independence identified in the campaign have crystallised in the last 12 months, notably the collapsing price of oil. George Osborne’s austerity programme would be replaced by cuts of 20% or more in pensions, benefits and public services if a new Scotland hoped to come near to balancing its books.

Accepting the result

Some on the nationalist side have found it hard to take no for an answer. Given the commitment and enthusiasm individuals put into the campaign, maybe that is understandable. But they expected a yes vote to be decisive, and have to accept that no does mean no; the referendum according to the White Paper was a ‘once in a generation’ event. The electoral success of the SNP is the 45% yes vote turned into parliamentary seats but it’s no argument for running the referendum again. If anything, it shows more clearly than even how a first past the post electoral system can leave half a country unrepresented. But changing that is an increasingly distant prospect.

The cautious Nicola Sturgeon faces a dilemma. On the one hand, party enthusiasts demand that the people should be asked again, until they give the right answer (at which point, presumably, the questioning would abruptly stop). They are egged on by an increasingly detached Alex Salmond, who will suggest any unpopular government decision as a pretext for a referendum rerun. But she knows that even if another referendum could be legally secured, a different result is not guaranteed. A second defeat would surely be fatal. So she temporises, promising to say what circumstances would justify a further referendum. The people, it seems, would decide: but she is their augur.

But there is a more profound problem. Scotland is split down the middle, and a small yes majority in some future referendum will not cure that. A few cooler heads in the SNP realise that dragging a nation to independence with half the population resentful, resistant and fearful is a recipe for disaster. Some years ago, the SNP decided to call itself a ‘national’ rather than a ‘nationalist’ party. But the legacy of its referendum policy has been to create a nation divided into two: nationalists and everyone else. It’s not at all clear that a party driven by nationalism can unite it.

But what about Scotland now?

My nationalist friends (I do have some!) tell me it’s their predictions that have come true: Scotland is now in a UK where a Tory government is cutting public services and removing benefits. What has changed, and is changing further, is that the Scottish Parliament now has the power to do something about it.

2016 should be the year in which Scottish devolution grows up. This is a real challenge for all Scottish politicians: it’s no longer their job is just to spend the money and complain it isn’t enough. If the UK government wants to shrink the state to pay back the UK’s debts it can. But if the Scottish government wants to take a different course, it’s getting the tax powers–and soon the welfare powers– to do that. Soon 40% of Scottish taxes will flow to Edinburgh, not London. Scotland will be able to run a more generous welfare system. But only provided Scots politicians have the will to persuade Scots to pay for it.

It’s a comforting national myth that Scots are more egalitarian, community minded and generous than people in England. They are not, but myths like this matter, because they can influence political choices. If Scotland is willing to pay a bit more in taxes, it can have a more generous welfare system and spend more on public services. But people won’t do that voluntarily: it needs political leadership –and not the kind of dishonest politics that pretends we can have more public spending without the taxes to pay for it.

One year after deciding to stay in the UK, Scotland faces a different set of choices–not what country to belong to, but what sort of country it really wants to be. A much harder question. How will we answer that one?

About the Author

Jim Gallagher is an Associate Member of Nuffield College, Oxford, and visiting Professor of Government at Glasgow University. He advised the Better Together campaign.

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