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.
Jim Gallagher reflects on what the Scotland Bill tells us about the Scotland-UK relationship and devolution more broadly. He argues that the Bill presents a challenge to the unwritten constitution, and that now is the time to clarify and codify the territorial aspects to make a statement about how and why the Union hangs together.
The Scotland Bill calls to mind, irresistibly, the aphorism of Lampedusa: if things are to stay the same, they’ve got to change. If it is to sustain itself as a Union, the UK must become a new and different one. The Scotland Bill should be the catalyst for change, but this isn’t only about Scotland. It is about how the UK understands itself as a territorial state. Like Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland understand the UK as a voluntary association bound together by common interests and shared experience, in many ways like a federal country. But too many at the centre of the UK see a unitary state with some untidy territorial edges. In essence this understanding is based on a half-baked notion of parliamentary sovereignty. If the UK wants to stay together, this has to change.
The Scotland Bill makes the nature of Scotland-UK relationship more explicit, and implies similar things about Wales and Northern Ireland too. The UK is a multinational state, an association whose membership is voluntary, and that is now very explicit for both Northern Ireland and Scotland. Scotland has always had its own institutions, separate from the UK’s. For first three centuries after the union, these were Scottish, but undemocratic. For the last 15 years, Scottish institutions have been accountable through the Scottish Parliament. The Scotland Bill puts it beyond doubt that this is irreversible. Devolution is permanent, and the Scottish Parliament is master in its own house: its power is paramount in devolved matters, and it controls its own composition. That is the point of the constitutional provisions of the Bill: statements of the obvious if you like, but that will be true of many constitutions–if you know how the institutions work in practice, you will find the constitutional legislation almost banal.
Brian Walker offers a comprehensive overview of the Stormont House Agreement, passed just before Christmas. Although it attracted little comment from the outside world, the Agreement sought to take action on longstanding issues underpinning the recent deadlock.
At first sight, apart from coinciding with great festivals of the Christian calendar, the contrast between the Stormont House Agreement negotiated by the Northern Ireland parties two days before Christmas and the historic Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement of 1998 (GFA) could hardly be greater. The GFA brought thirty years of violence to an end and the Assembly into precarious existence. Stormont House passed with little comment from the outside world and even at home. Although the executives of the two main parties the unionist DUP and the republican Sinn Fein endorsed the deal, it is far from clear what exactly has been agreed. True, the threat of breakdown was never far away in the outworking of the GFA. Towards the end of last year rumbles of impending collapse were heard again but this time they lacked conviction. No one has an interest in collapsing the system today. All the same, the need for a basic examination of power sharing had become pressing as relations had soured. With sporadic trouble in the streets and the continuing threat of violence from republican dissidents, the leading parties the DUP and Sinn Fein were torn between their roles as sectarian champions and their responsibilities as partners in government, with the former too often winning out.
The all-party consociational form of government the GFA introduced had indeed been successful in locking opposite political poles together. The big question for the negotiations at Stormont House, a residence for UK ministers, was whether the system could allow for breakout from the communal constraints to produce something closer to “normal” government for a “normal” society. So after weeks of talking about an extending agenda of deadlock, the parties seem to have felt they could not afford to walk away with nothing.