By Chris Doyle
After an exhausting campaign, Scotland has decided by 55 to 45 per cent to stay within the United Kingdom. Relief echoed around the whole country but further afield, where so many allies of Britain, from the United States to Australia, had urged Scotland not to go solo.
The United Kingdom has been challenged to its core with its biggest most serious constitutional test since Irish independence. The world’s sixth largest economy was facing splintering with the possibility of an independent Scotland paving the way for greater powers for Wales and Northern Ireland. Other countries watched with major concerns, not least Spain, which has its separatist challenges in Catalonia and the Basque country and Belgium with its French and Flemish areas. Who knows which separatist movements would have been inspired, from Quebec to Greenland?
So many, naively and complacently perhaps, had thought that the referendum on Scotland’s independence would be a sure-fire win for the No campaign, a clear rejection of independence from the United Kingdom. Yet weeks before, a poll showed the Yes campaign ahead. That one dramatic poll scared and shocked the unionists in Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom into major action.
The referendum may be over but the issue of the future of the Union is more alive than ever
It may well have been that one rogue poll that drove an extraordinary high turnout. Scots turned out in droves to determine their futures and that of the United Kingdom with a turnout as high as 84.5 per cent. People who had never voted turned out aware of the genuinely historic nature of the event. Every community, every family in Scotland had for weeks been absorbed into an unparalleled national political conversation that was all consuming.
The poll had galvanized a major last-minute reaction in London. All three major party leaders, including the prime minister, abruptly left Westminster and headed up to Scotland. For too long, the No campaign had been weak and complacent, accused of negative campaigning and scare tactics. This contrasted with the image of positive, possibly too rosy, idyllic picture that the Yes campaign painted. The Scottish Nationalist leader Alex Salmond even claimed somewhat remarkably that an independent Scotland would “start as one of the richest countries in the world.”
This sums up the essence of the campaign. There is no question that Scots have a very strong identity, a proud people who never take kindly to being lectured to by Westminster-based politicians. This is why Scotland has a devolved Parliament and a separate education and legal system. It has pretty much a different media too. The Yes campaign could make an emotional appeal to this, whereas the No campaign had no romantic appeal. It had to campaign on hard realities and tough choices. So, the key debates were largely about the economy as to whether Scotland would be financially and economically better off on its own. Could it have its own currency, keep the British pound or join the Euro? When would Scotland’s oil run out and would major businesses relocate further south? The various announcements from big businesses in the last weeks of the campaign that they may have to relocate their headquarters or that costs would go up no doubt had an impact.
Above all, the result emphasizes just how disconnected Westminster has become. This has already been evidenced in low turnouts at other elections before but increasingly the Scottish referendum simply highlighted that the Westminster establishment is discredited. London is often seen as too powerful and not just in Scotland. People across the United Kingdom want a greater say in decision-making and to challenge the political status quo.
And this is the real result of the referendum. All three party leaders have pledged on the front page of one of Scotland’s major newspapers to support additional powers to Scotland within a given timeframe. It was a last-minute fudge that had all the hallmarks of a desperate bribe, but one which they will have to honor.
But giving Scotland such powers inevitably means addressing all the parts of the Union. With less than nine months to a general election, David Cameron has to trigger one of the most revolutionary constitutional rearrangements in the 300-year-old history of the United Kingdom. It will define where power lies in the country. England will want its say on matters relating to England so English members of Parliament alone will want to vote on English matters. Do Wales and Northern Ireland get more powers? Already there are angry Conservative politicians furious that such a drastic pledge was made without proper debate, who are demanding a fair division of the nation’s resources.
The referendum may be over but the issue of the future of the Union is more alive than ever. A great and fantastic exercise in democracy that every Scot should be proud of has been brought to a close. In an imperfect fashion, rushed and half-baked, the United Kingdom is stumbling towards a new federal arrangement. It is clear that the Scots want to run their own affairs, even if under the protective embrace of the larger United Kingdom. So rather than settling matters, this referendum has just ushered in a new stage about the future of the state. All of this will be a precursor to the next debate, and the next great referendum in the offing as to whether Britain will remain in the European Union, a debate that Scotland will now be a key part of.
All this may suggest a United Kingdom in crisis. One and a half million Scots, after all, voted to leave. Yet this debate was required. At least for a generation, the issue of Scottish independence has been laid to rest. This grand political exercise has shown democracy at its finest, imperfect but the way such an inclusive and dignified campaign was carried out can teach lessons across the globe. It bodes well that such fundamental questions that touch on sensitive identities can be handled in such a way and that is why Britain will be the stronger for it.