During the summer vacation I spent some time with the Yes campaign for the Scottish Referendum. Apart from enjoying the experience of what more experienced campaigners have called the most exciting, vibrant political campaign in Scotland's history, the most important takeaway for me was the completely different perspectives of the Referendum of people down here in England and people in Scotland. Here, there was a massive sense of bewilderment. Some common reactions were "Really, you want to leave? Surely you know it will be a disaster." "The Union has been great, let's not throw it away."
Compare this with the reaction in Scotland. National identity has undergone a huge change in Scotland in the the last 40 years. After WW2, the main institutions holding together support for the Union were: memories of the War, the big nationalised industries (Coal, Steel, Shipbuilding etc) and the Trades Union movement and even with the SNP's first by-election victory in 1967, Nationalism was a fringe movement. English people cannot begin to understand the damage to the concept of a British Union that the Thatcher government caused. A government that was (and still is) widely revered in England, wrought devastation across large swathes of Scotland. She may have thought that the monetarist policies, high interest rates, de-industrialisation and the weakening of the Trades Union movement, were a price worth paying but it demonstrated to many Scots that they have a different political and cultural outlook to their cousins down South. The Conservatives (who until the 1970s went by the name The Conservative and Unionist Party) are still paying a price to this day. One of the most quoted jokes during the campaign was that there are more Pandas in Edinburgh Zoo (2) than there are Scottish Tory MPs (1). Failure to recognise the extent to which Scots have, in the main, a different set of cultural and political values leads to the surprise and bewilderment that we have just experienced.
|Thatcher: wrought devastation in Scotland|
Scots wanted more control over government because they felt they would make different decisions and make different judgements. Being 8% of the total population of the UK they were not surprised that they would frequently get a government that they felt did not represent their views, but they wanted that to be different. The most compelling phrase from Alex Salmond was that with independence, Scotland would always get the government it voted for. The movement for some form of devolution became irresistible and a Scottish Parliament was re-constituted after another referendum in 1999. At that point, most people in England thought the issue was settled but they failed to notice what was happening across the border.
For generations, the Labour Party had dominated Scottish politics. In fact, one of the main reasons behind using a Proportional Representation system for the Holyrood parliament was to prevent a permanent Labour majority. Indeed, the first couple of Scottish Governments were run as coalitions. From the 1999 referendum, the SNP started building what even one senior Westminster Tory described as "the best political machine in Western Europe". But this was not just based on superior organisation. They were able to build on a growing sense that Scotland, a nation of 5 million people with substantial mineral wealth and an educated population, could be a successful independent country. Against all the odds, the SNP won an outright majority at the last elections for the Scottish Parliament. That was the key event that led to the recent Referendum.
|Salmond and "the best political machine in W. Europe"|
The 2 year campaign was compared to an unhappy marriage. First the wife says "I want a divorce" and for a while, the husband ignores her. Then after more discussion, the husband gets angry and says "Well, go if you want, but you'll lose all your friends and you're not getting any money". Then, when the wife is half out the door, the husband calls out "Wait, I love you! How can I make it better?" Despite the dire apocalyptic warnings, 45% of the people in Scotland voted to leave the UK and set up a new country. A large number of the No voters were people who liked the idea of an independent country but thought the risks were too great. A significant number of these voters were also convinced by "The Vow", a commitment by all three Westminster party leaders to devolve sweeping new powers to the Scottish Parliament. It is clear now that this was a commitment thrown out in panic after the famous Sunday Times/YouGov poll without thinking through the consequences. Anyone who thinks the victory of the No campaign means the status quo has been validated is repeating the same mistake that England has made for 40 years. A fundamental change in the UK has been set in train and cannot be reversed. Voters in England will demand equal treatment to that being offered to the Scots but no-one knows how this can be done. Whatever the UK was before 18th September, it's going to be something quite different in the future.
new First Minister of Scotland
The whole of Scotland was hugely motivated and engaged by the campaign and there was a 2 year discussion about what kind of country Scots want to live in. Now it is England's turn. Without the comfort blanket of "Britishness" and with an EU Referendum on the horizon, England needs to go through the same process. The Empire has gone and the Scots are moving away a bit, so what is England, really? I hope they go about it with the same positive engagement we have just seem from the Scots. For decades, England assumed that Scotland was as committed to the Union as they were. They got a very nasty shock when they realised that might not be the case. The price they paid to save the Union was a commitment to fundamentally change the constitution. How will this end up? I have no idea but I'm fascinated to watch.