In its independence referendum, Scotland voted to remain in the United Kingdom by 55 versus 45 per cent. An expert panel looks at what happened, and where it leaves the UK and Scotland.
Neil Blain, Professor of Communications, University of Stirling
The main problem was the currency. The doubt over the currency led to doubt about quite a few other things that were connected with it. One of the things it’s done is persuaded a lot of people that we are inextricably entangled with the union and can’t do without it.
But I do think it’s remarkable that Yes polled 45%, given the onslaught, particularly from a media that was almost entirely hostile and given the offer of more powers at the last minute.
If further powers for Edinburgh now become entangled with the question of devolution for England, the debate could go on until 2050. It’s important that Scottish politicians try to preserve the separate argument here, though if I’m hearing David Cameron correctly that’s going to be difficult. Whatever the make-up of the next Westminster parliament, I don’t see how it can be bound by any pledges which are made just now.
One of the signals I would be looking for in the next day or two is where the press stands. The Scottish media may get behind the pledges in a similar way to what happened in the 1990s. But at my more pessimistic, I still think we could be heading for the long grass. I would love to believe that nothing will be the same again, but another part of me says, “in your dreams”. There are a lot of people in the Labour and Conservative parties who for different reasons don’t want a federal England. If the Scottish question is closely associated with that, it would get in the way.
Nicola McEwen, Senior Lecturer in Politics, University of Edinburgh
Although the referendum produced a clear victory for the No campaign, the UK government and the UK parties may want to reflect on what is an historically significant level of support for independence. As much as 45% of the population did not give their consent to the union. That should make politicians sit up and take notice, and should ensure that the issue of Scotland’s constitutional future continues to be the subject of debate.
It’s perfectly possible for the UK government to fulfill the campaign promise to give Scotland more powers. But if that was to happen in the timescale set out in the campaign, it would likely mean a set of proposals that looked more like the Labour party devolution commission’s more modest proposals than the more ambitious Conservative or Lib Dem proposals – it’s easier to settle on the lowest common denominator. It would be extraordinarily difficult for Labour’s internal party politics to go much further.
Of course now that the SNP government seems set to be involved in these discussions too, we can expect them to push for a more extensive set of devolved powers. The SNP will not abandon its commitment to independence, but we will see the party revert back to a more gradualist strategy, in keeping with its recent political history, trying to push the UK parties further down the road of Scottish self-government.
The debate over Scotland’s place within the UK won’t go away. It’s perfectly feasible that there will be another constitutional referendum in my lifetime, but I think it would emerge in a different way: not as a result of a top-down initiative – a political opportunity created by an election victory – but more because there is popular demand for a referendum from the bottom-up. The first minister, Alex Salmond, talked about this referendum being a once-in-a-generation opportunity. I don’t expect the SNP to put another referendum in their manifesto in 2016.
It’s interesting to see how quickly the debate has moved on to thinking about the English question. We know from the “Future of England” survey that there is growing discontent in England with the way it is governed, and in particular of the fact that Scottish MPs can continue to vote on areas like health and education, despite these responsibilities being devolved to Scotland. Indeed, there appears to be a greater sense of grievance about the way that England is governed than there was in Scotland before the referendum.
Paul Cairney, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, University of Stirling
The referendum didn’t go wrong. It was as good if not better than expected. It was 60-40 in favour of No for such a long time, so 45% Yes seems OK to me.
I think 45% is a good number because it’s not so close that people are bitter about how indecisive it was, but it’s also powerful enough to make progress, especially since the three major UK parties got together and said they would hand over extra powers to Scotland and keep the Barnett formula.
That has to be part of the explanation for the gap between Yes and No. There is some sort of onus on the UK parties to deliver what they were talking about now.
Saying that, I don’t think the extra powers to Scotland will be that extensive. It will be more income tax, more powers over welfare, and they will emphasise that we’re getting more responsibility.
Barnett will be tricky. The thing about it is that the UK government kept it over the years because no one talked about it, but it becomes harder now that it’s the focus of attention. They have to satisfy two audiences, one in England and one in Scotland. The problem for the English audience is that Barnett is supposed to help economic disparities to converge, but there has been no difference in the gap in per-capita spend since the 1970s. That means there is a strong argument to get rid of it.
But Barnett means that the two governments don’t have to negotiate spending every year, which keeps it out of the public spotlight. I think they’ll do whatever they can to keep it, even if they have to rename it. It’s the least worst option for holding everything together. Otherwise it becomes a broken promise to Scotland that stores up potential tensions, so it’s going to be very difficult.
What does 45% mean for Scottish independence? You can’t have another referendum for at least ten years. Five years would be long enough to find out if the maximum devolution that Scotland gets is adequate in people’s eyes. That then gives you the opportunity to put it back on your manifesto again.
But remember that the only reason the referendum happened is because the SNP has a majority in the parliament. So you’ll need to have a majority of pro-independence parties if it’s to happen again. That’s the main obstacle.
Arthur Midwinter, Visiting Professor of Politics, University of Edinburgh
My view all along was that it would come down to whether people felt they would be better off or not. Even though there was that wobble in the middle, it came back to that in the end.
The Yes campaign never made a coherent economic case. There were too many big guns against them. I know the campaign wasn’t just the SNP, but really it was Salmond and Sturgeon against the world. The bankers and business and the bulk of academics didn’t believe their figures.
I never understood why the vote narrowed a few weeks ago. I always thought there would be many people that would vote No that would not tell pollsters if they were asked. One side was very noisy and one side was very quiet. It’s what you call the silent majority. I didn’t have a single neighbour in Falkirk who said they were going to vote Yes.
Brown was just magnificent these past few days. Is he going to run the show now over extending powers? He certainly made the difference. I don’t know if he saved the union, but the poll figures certainly suggested that either side could have won. Brown made the case for more devolution in a much more coherent way than anybody had until that point.
I would love to see Brown standing for the Scottish parliament. Whether he will or not, I don’t know. His whole life has been politics. Brown against Salmond would be exciting, that’s for sure.
But there is the issue that it doesn’t make sense to devolve a lot more powers. If your working assumption is that it’s an integrated economy, devo max is just not possible. Labour originally wanted to devolve all income tax control, but all the advice in the Calman consultation was that it wasn’t possible.
So I don’t know how negotiations will go, but I’m fairly confident that the agreement will end up being the Labour position from earlier this year with a few changes. That will make it difficult to navigate in Scotland, but it can be done if the country is governed differently. If the Conservatives had remained a one-nation party, they would still be doing much better in Scotland.
Karly Kehoe, Senior Lecturer in History, Glasgow Caledonian University
Westminster will have to look at this result and address the fact that 45% of people are unhappy. The three main UK-wide parties are now going to have to deliver on the promises they have made.
I was so impressed with the voter turnout. Approximately 84% is extraordinary. If I was the No campaign I would be grateful for the result, but not elated because it’s not an enormous victory. About 45% of people voted for independence – that’s a clear indication that something is seriously wrong.
Alex Salmond’s speech was very good, saying it’s important for the nation to come together, to recognise that this is what the people who live here want, and to focus on moving forward so that we can have the best society. You can feel very sad or you can think, right, now what do we do ensure we get the kind of society we want?
David McCausland, Head of Economics, University of Aberdeen
The United Kingdom has had a lucky escape. The economic effects of independence would have been damaging and irreversible. In the short term the increased uncertainty would have pushed up the cost of the borrowing, undermined trade, and reduced investment.
One of the biggest headaches avoided is the currency question. All of the possible configurations would have had a serious disruptive impact at least in the short term. The mismatch between spending ambitions and variable revenue streams may have led to permanent austerity.
So with the cloud of independence now lifted, what for the future? Increased powers over taxation and spending, and the retention of the Barnett formula, through which Westminster sets Scottish spending, have all been promised: devo max by proxy.
Scotland could therefore have come out quite well. But calls for political reform and a hardening of attitudes south of the border may eventually erode the influence of Scottish MPs in Westminster. And the political fallout may have a substantial impact, not just on the governing elite in Westminster, for whom polls in the last few weeks were a bit too close for comfort. But closer to home, also on Scottish Labour, and where they position themselves. In short, this was a close shave (though not as close as predicted), and a welcome outcome for Scotland’s economic future.
John McKendrick, Senior Lecturer, Glasgow Caledonian University
The turnout was phenomenal. That makes me optimistic. It got close for a nanosecond when Dundee came in followed by West Dunbartonshire, but then it slumped back to that familiar pattern. It was just a matter of time after that. You can look at it wryly and say it’s almost another one of those glorious Scottish defeats like the ones we get in football, where we pride ourselves on never quite getting there but celebrating coming close.
It was always going to be the case that the work starts now. The vote was only a constitutional matter at the end of the day. The issues that were there for the people of Scotland are still there. There is a cynical view that some of the offers might begin to unravel because after all, it was politics and not a firm policy commitment. There is certainty a degree of uncertainty there.
But I don’t think that Westminster or the Scottish government will be able to shirk the fact that they have to do more now. We can talk about devo max, but we’re also going to have to learn to do more with the tools that we have.
Gavin Phillipson, Professor of Constitutional Law at Durham University
After the night’s events and David Cameron’s statement this morning, the proposal that Scottish (and perhaps Welsh and Northern Irish) MPs should in some way be debarred from voting on legislation affecting only England has rapidly shot up the political agenda.
The “English votes for English laws” solution is attractive because of its simplicity: a single procedural change would effectively bring into being a new, but intermittently existing English parliament within the Westminster parliament; the latter would morph into the former whenever an “English bill” was being considered.
The problem with Scottish MPs’s presence in Westminster is that legislation that fails to command a majority among English MPs can sometimes still be passed with Scottish votes. This is precisely what happened with to two notoriously controversial pieces of legislation introduced by the Blair government: foundation hospitals and top-up university fees. Because of large Labour backbench rebellions, the then government needed the votes of Scottish MPs to get these policies through – even though neither would apply in Scotland.
Since much of the important work of Westminster consists of dealing with bills mainly or exclusively affecting England, this, it is said, would fatally undermine any government that depended on Scottish votes for its overall majority.
However, this problem has been overstated. The scenario would only really arise with the election of a Labour government (or Labour-led coalition) with a very small majority. More importantly, however, the objection is wrong in principle. If a government cannot muster a majority of English MPs for legislation that only concerns England, why should it be able to pass it?
In reality, all this objection amounts to is the observation that a Labour government with no majority among English MPs (which has only rarely happened) would no longer be able to impose legislation upon England without the support of a majority of its representatives. This sounds like an advantage rather than an objection.
There are obviously many practical problems to consider, but at least as a temporary and easily implemented measure, “English votes for English laws” could be a simple and economical solution to the West Lothian question.
Thom Brooks, Professor of Law and Government at Durham University
The referendum vote is a great result for Scotland and for the United Kingdom. It is easy to see the appeal of independence at first glance. Dissatisfaction with politics is high, and there are widespread calls for more consideration for local concerns.
One major problem for the independence campaign from the start was making a clear and compelling case for Scotland to go it alone in an increasingly interconnected world.
So while it may be popular to challenge immigration policy as the SNP have done, such matters can still often be impacted by other sovereign states: one country alone cannot dictate whether there are controls on either side of every border, for instance.
Or take defence and security: it may be popular to argue against retaining Trident in order to find savings to fund other programmes, but this raises issues about whether Scotland would be more secure as an independent country than it would as part of a united country sharing security services.
The Yes campaign failed for many reasons, but among them, it found out to its cost that launching a new independent country is far more difficult than its leaders might have thought (or wanted to think) in our globalised world.
Meryl Kenny, Lecturer in Government and Politics at University of Leicester
Thursday’s No vote – while closer than many commentators had initially anticipated at the start of the referendum campaign —was decisive. But it does not represent an end to the matter, nor does it represent a return to the constitutional status quo.
Record numbers of Scots turned out to vote in the referendum; the majority of them favour enhanced powers for the Scottish parliament, and almost half of them voted for full independence on the day. The outcome of the referendum, then, is still a vote for change, albeit change within the structure of the Union.
Indeed, this is what the No campaign promised in the end stages of the campaign – with the three main parties (pushed by Gordon Brown) committing to a fast-track timetable towards new powers for the Scottish Parliament in the event of a No vote.
David Cameron pledged to honour these commitments immediately after the referendum, promising draft legislation by the end of January 2015. Questions remain, however, as to whether he will deliver. There are significant differences between the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrat proposals for new powers – and it is difficult to see how they could be resolved in the short space of time offered.
Cameron will also probably face significant backbench opposition to further devolution. Worryingly, and in sharp contrast to the more inclusive processes that existed in the run-up to devolution in the 1990s, this expedited legislative timetable also leaves little to no scope for public consultation. That has prompted calls for a citizen-led UK-wide Constitutional Convention.
Questions also remain for Labour, and for the future of left politics more broadly. Much of the coverage of the independence referendum has reported on the debate through the lens of political nationalism, but this fails to acknowledge the numerical reality: there simply were not enough nationalist supporters to win a Yes vote on their own.
The relative closeness of the outcome, along with Yes victories in traditional Labour strongholds such as Glasgow, suggests that a significant proportion of Labour voters also voted for independence.
Meanwhile, as part of his proposals for a “new and fair” constitutional settlement, David Cameron has pledged that English matters will only be voted on by English MPs, a proposal that could effectively undermine a future Labour majority in the House of Commons.
Uncertainties remain, then, as to what lies next for Scotland and the UK – but all sides are agreed that the status quo is no longer an option.
The experts are: Paul Cairney, University of Stirling; Arthur Midwinter, University of Edinburgh; Gavin Phillipson, Durham University; John H McKendrick, Glasgow Caledonian University; Karly Kehoe, Glasgow Caledonian University; Meryl Kenny, University of Leicester; Neil Blain, University of Stirling; Nicola McEwen, University of Edinburgh; Thom Brooks, Durham University, and W David McCausland, University of Aberdeen
As an adviser to Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, Arthur was appointed chair of the party’s Welfare Commission, which is putting together a series of proposals for the future of Scotland.
Gavin Phillipson, John H McKendrick, Karly Kehoe, Meryl Kenny, Neil Blain, Nicola McEwen, Paul Cairney, Thom Brooks, and W David McCausland do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.
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