Britain is on borrowed time: the future of Scottish independence

The British state has bought itself some precious time. If it does not use it wisely, this debate will be back in a decade and Scotland will produce a second referendum.

Gerry Hassan
20 September 2014

Scotland voted No to independence. In answer to the question, ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’, 1,617,989 voted Yes (44.7%) and 2,001,926 voted No (55.3%) in a massively impressive turnout of 84.6%: the highest ever anywhere in the UK in post-war times.

The result, and campaign, will be rightly mulled over and analysed for years, but in the fast moving aftermath it is important to lay down some thoughts and calm-headed thinking. Scotland has changed and shifted in how it sees itself and its future, as a political community, society and nation. Crucially, how others in the rest of the UK and internationally see Scotland, has dramatically and permanently moved.

It has made and unmade political careers. Alex Salmond who brought the SNP to victory in 2007 and 2011 has resigned one day after the vote; Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is the clear favourite to take over the leadership. David Cameron after facing the prospect of political defeat in the last few days, knew he was fighting for his very political life and that Tory plotters were out to get him. Despite the No victory there were continued Tory maneuverings, anger and lack of comprehension over the deep-seated crisis of the union.

The arc of this long campaign involved three distinct phases: the phony war from the election of the SNP as a majority government in May 2011; the slow boiling of November 2013 from when the Scottish Government’s White Paper on independence was published to August 2014; and the last hectic, frenetic, chaotic period leading up to the vote.

Each of these was very different. The first saw the negative framing of independence by its opponents; the second the cautious case for independence find a platform and audience; while the last witnessed the rollercoaster of the late Yes momentum, intervention of the British political establishment and corporate and banking classes, and then late emergence of Gordon Brown and the myth that ‘he saved the union’.

There were epic moments. When Yes briefly took the lead in one poll two Sundays before the vote something fascinating happened. People in Scotland reflected and became aware that they had a collective power that they could use, that frightened the British establishment. They quite liked this feeling, and took some pleasure in seeing an out of touch, insular and arrogant elite, quake and quiver. This was a fundamental shift in how people see themselves, irrespective of the result.

There were the multiple proposals from the British political classes in the last few weeks. Scottish mythology has a pivotal place for former Tory Prime Minister Alec Douglas Home’s intervention in the 1979 devolution vote in which he said ‘no is not a no’ and supposedly undermined the devo vote. That appears miniscule to the rush of pro-union initiatives as the vote approached – which came to the sum total of four.

In this there is the mantra of ‘it was Brown wot won it’ put forward most enthusiastically by the great man himself. Brown came forth several times into the long campaign, like Sinatra making serial comebacks from retirement. Particularly in the last two weeks he offered his own timetable for further devolution (which all the pro-union parties agreed to) and then found his old style voice - evangelising and preaching the old socialist gospel. This went down a storm with Labour Party audiences, had traction, and yet also illustrated a deep disjuncture between actions and words.

The independence referendum showcased the narrow appeal of all Scotland’s traditional parties. This is true, for all the hype and self-promotion, the limit appeal and reach of the SNP machine and how it does politics and political engagement. Yes Scotland, the official independence campaign, were in reality an extension of the SNP, the same strategists, advisers and priorities defining both.

There was a lack of warmth, humanity and acknowledgement of doubt in the SNP’s version of independence. This could be seen in the absence of lived stories, experiences and language, with the exception of the occasional intervention from Nicola Sturgeon. This resulted in people being offered a prospectus which required being taken on faith and being a true believer, while often talking the discombobulated language of the management consultant.

What has fundamentally changed is the boundaries and characteristics of Scotland’s political community. The record turnout of 84.6% has to be seen against the backdrop of two factors: the first the previously low turnouts in Scots only referenda (1979 63.6%; 1997 60.4%); the second being the long run of truncated electorate contests which began with the ascendancy and domination of New Labour and which has left a toxic legacy of cynicism, lack of trust and contempt of politicians.

The idea of the public as passive, inert spectators and with it the notion of politics as a minority report pastime, no longer holds. Instead, across the country a new energetic, dynamic political culture emerged which reshaped public debate and conversations.

It could be seen in the massive turnouts which saw poorer and disadvantaged communities turn out in record numbers. What I called ‘the missing Scotland’ – the voters who haven’t voted in a generation or more – re-emerged as a potent political force which has the potential to reshape long term politics. It was also seen in the re-imagination of public spaces, the emergence of flash mobs and protest, and a culture of celebration and carnival on the Yes side.

The other dimension found expression in ‘the third Scotland’ – the self-organised, independent minded supporters of independence – who have had a very different and distinct politics from the SNP. These groups: Radical Independence Campaign, National Collective, Common Weal, Women for Independence and several others, saw independence not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end.

They brought DIY culture, network politics, flat organisations and part of a new generation of young people into public life. They did things which were messy, fuzzy, creative and fun. They staged happenings, art installations, and national tours across Scotland, and in the case of Radical Independence they door stepped and challenged Nigel Farage when he came to Edinburgh last year. All of this contributed to a different kind and feel of politics which circumvented the ‘official’ version which was a high bound to command and control as any part of Westminster.

Scotland has finally become a democracy which is a watershed moment and transformation. Previously Scotland had never had what could be called a democratic moment. Pre-union, it had been an absolutist pre-democracy; post-union, it was defined by the ‘holy trinity’ of three elites: the Kirk, law and education which shaped autonomy for most of the 18th and 19th centuries.

That institutional gridlock morphed into the expression of a quasi-corporate state from the 1920s and 1930s onwards which formed the foundation of the post-war welfare state settlement. This gave Scots an anchor into a progressive British citizenship, resistance to Thatcherism, and a place for an elite support for devolution to grow and be nurtured. Yet, for all its avoidably centre-left sentiment this was never a culture or practice of democracy; in recent times this order has weakened and in places collapsed.

The new political dispensation will, with the demise of the old order, be less predictable and controllable. It raises the question of what will Scotland’s new radicals and progressives do in this new environment post-indyref? Is there sufficient room beyond the panglossian Yes and pessimism of No. Can the managerial, technocratic SNP find a different way of doing politics? And what of the Scottish Labour Party who found themselves on the winning site, but who seem to have learned little about how to do campaigning and understand the terrain of politics and their opponents? Then there is the attachment of a large swathe of voters to Britishness and the union, some of whom might constitute a culture of ‘shy Noes’ and a supposed ‘silent majority’?

The challenge to the new radicals will be if, and how, they can give voice to the new energy and dynamism. One option is to form a new left orientated party which will face the challenge of how it finds form and looseness which does not constrain or control its potential too much. Some of this will be more difficult and have less room for manoeuvre in the light of the No vote.

In the aftermath of the vote things began to move very quickly. From Scots Labour MP Tom Greatrex came the observation that despite the No victory it represented ‘a last chance’ for the union; similar language was used by Tory right-winger Bernard Jenkins.

Welsh Labour First Minister Carwyn Jones declared that ‘the establishment almost lost the union’ and that ‘the old union was dead’. Constitutional expert, and pillar of the British liberal elite opinion, Vernon Bogdanor stated that the indyref ‘was meant to close a debate, but instead it has opened one’, or more accurately several ones: Scotland, England, Wales and the future of the UK.

One Labour MP pronounced to me in the morning after that it was ‘back to normal’, oblivious to the lack of the normal across Scotland, the UK and most of the West. The head of state, the Queen, resisted calls during the campaign by Cameron and Tory supporters to be dragged into the debate, and then proclaimed after the vote, ‘we have in common an enduring love of Scotland, which is one of the things that helps to unite us all’.

Scottish society and politics is in a profound state of flux and change. The SNP will remain centrestage post-Salmond and their project of self-government and independence will reconfigurate and re-emerge in a new form, content and language. The party will undoubtedly under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon shift to the left, focus more on the West and Central Belt, and speak in a way aspiring to win over more former Labour voters.

Where does this leave Scotland and the UK? The close vote is not a bold reaffirmation of the union. Within hours of the polls closing and the result becoming clear, the three party pro-union deal of Labour, Tories and Lib Dems fell apart, as Cameron announced that any further Scottish devolution plans would be conditional on addressing the English question, without consulting Lib Dems, and with Labour’s Ed Miliband indicating his opposition.

This gives the union a significant open window in which it has the chance to change and embrace far reaching reform. That has to be about more than ‘more powers’ to the Scottish Parliament, or dealing with the English question by bringing in ‘English votes for English laws’. It is about more than constitutional reform and change; it is about breaking free of what is now widely seen as the ‘failed state’ of Westminster.

It is going to be touch and go whether the British political class has the intelligence and insight to realise the scale of the crisis it faces. If it does not the movement for democratisation and social change which has offered so much vibrancy and hope north of the border will be back more mature, astute and knowing how to build even better, more sustainable alliances and networks. The British state has bought itself some precious time. If it does not use it wisely, this debate will be back in a decade and Scotland will produce a second referendum rather different from the first.

Britain is on borrowed time. Scotland’s moment has begun.

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