The result of the referendum on Scottish independence (1) was conclusive — 44.7% in favour of independence and 55.3% against, and with a very high turnout of 84.6%, compared with only 60.4% for the devolution referendum of 1997. Is this the “settled will of the Scottish people” as British prime minister David Cameron, borrowing a phrase from John Smith (Labour Party leader, 1992-94), suggested in his statement the day after the referendum, before adding that there would be no second chance?
The tone of his speech was in marked contrast with his emotional appeals to the Scots only 10 days earlier, when a wind of panic shook the British political class after a poll gave the yes vote an edge over the no. In the busy days after that poll, all sorts of promises were made, seemingly contradicting the traditional reluctance of the Conservatives to envisage greater powers for the Scottish parliament — a parliament they did not want in the first place. “Devo max” or even “devo supermax” (as proposals for the extension of further powers to the Scottish government have been called) were the order of the day, with new fiscal or welfare powers to be given to Scotland. The British parties agreed to what had not previously seemed self-evident: that maintaining the constitutional status quo was not an option if Scotland was to remain in the Union.
The idea was to win over the many undecided voters at the end of the campaign, with a package of much greater autonomy that would make the call for independence redundant: power without risk. At last the leaders of the unionist parties had come up with the carrots, after wielding the stick for months. All sorts of catastrophes had been promised for an independent Scotland: capital and jobs would flee elsewhere; the Scots would not be allowed into a sterling monetary union; Scotland would be isolated internationally and expelled from the European Union; retirement pensions would not be paid and prices would rise steeply; Scotland would turn against its immigrants and Anglophobia would be rife (a Scottish journalist ironically suggested that there might be an asteroid attack on Scotland if the Scots voted the wrong way).
Cameron’s speech of 19 September sounded like a return to a more authoritarian past after his earlier softly-softly approach. Although he maintained his proposal for greater fiscal powers for the Scottish parliament, this was accompanied by a threat. In Cameron’s new devolution package, Scottish MPs in Westminster would no longer be able to vote on certain English matters, and would logically also be excluded from certain ministerial responsibilities. This proposal has been borrowed from Ukip (see Ukip’s surprise party line), which, in keeping with its xenophobic stance, has demanded English votes on English questions. Were such a measure to be introduced, creating an inequality between elected members of the British parliament and forcing some to quit the House of Commons during certain votes, it would be a constitutional nightmare. Unstable majorities on certain issues would become a feature of British parliamentary politics. And in the case of a Labour government (UK elections are due in 2015), the absence of Scottish MPs could mean a change of majority in the House.
This is not business as usual
If we try to move beyond initial reactions on both sides of the debate — the triumphalism of the no camp and the immense disappointment of the yes supporters — the historical lessons to be drawn from the referendum result do not legitimate a business-as-usual reaction from British political leaders. For things have fundamentally changed in Scotland over the last two years, since the signing of the Edinburgh agreement by Cameron and Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), who announced his resignation when the referendum results were in.
The movement in favour of independence now has far deeper roots within Scottish society. Since the emergence of the Scottish question in the 1970s, support for independence as registered in opinion polls, with only one notable exception in the early 1990s, has oscillated between only a quarter and a third of the Scottish electorate. The democratic conversation initiated by both sides during this campaign, and according to most observers vivified by the diverse yes camp, has generated a much higher level of support for an independent Scotland. Not enough to win the referendum but significantly higher than ever before, even during the Thatcher years, which were hard times for the Union in Scotland. Independence is no longer a fringe issue and Salmond is surely right when he suggests that the base camp has now moved up the mountain.
The referendum campaign has demonstrated that support for independence goes far beyond the traditional confines of the SNP vote. There is a considerable body of opinion in Scotland that now believes the only way to escape the neoliberal consensus of Westminster politics is to break away from the Union. It is argued that Scotland offers a greater range of political possibilities than England: political Conservatism has vegetated in Scotland since the 1980s and the Labour Party has been in difficulty there since New Labour opted for continuity with Thatcherism domestically and Anglo-American belligerence abroad. There is a space and an audience for alternative politics that do not bow to the market.
This has been reflected, however modestly, in the SNP’s refusal to accept across-the-board privatisation, and its defence of the National Health Service. Leftwards separatism is not about nationalism — one of its determining factors is a refusal of xenophobic British nationalism, as in the policies of Ukip and its Conservative allies. This has been one of the most interesting developments since the beginning of the campaign: non-nationalist arguments in favour of Scottish self-determination have emerged. That was already the case for the Scottish Greens or the small Scottish Socialist Party, but the current has grown in strength and diversity.
In the intellectual field, the argument in favour of independence is now quasi-hegemonic. There are still some proponents of the Union among Scotland’s writers and intellectuals — the Conservative novelist Allan Massie or Labour supporter J K Rowling — but a large majority of their colleagues have opted for independence. The movement is diverse and includes an impressive array of political positions. Glasgow writers associated with the left of the left, such as Jim Kelman, Alasdair Gray or Tom Leonard, have now been joined by more staid members of the intellectual establishment often associated in the past with the Labour Party, including the detective novelist William McIlvanney or the historian of Scotland Tom Devine, who recently came out in favour of Scottish independence and has described the UK as a failed state. Nationalist thinkers like Tom Nairn or Cairns Craig at the University of Edinburgh no longer have a monopoly on the argument in favour of self-determination, although their influence has been strong. A younger generation of social movement activists, well represented in the Common Weal network, have added new voices to the independence movement. Reflecting a more general trend, in which Scotland’s minorities rally to self-determination, “new Scots” writers have also been prominent in the debates, including Suhayl Saadi, author of Psychoraag, who is from a Pakistani background, and Meaghan Delahunt, an Australian novelist who lives in Edinburgh.
Salmond’s decision to resign this November came as a surprise. With the possible exception of Cameron, who publicly congratulated Alistair Darling (Labour MP for Edinburgh South West and former UK chancellor) on the Better Together (no) campaign he led, most observers, and certainly most foreign observers, agree that the yes campaign was the more dynamic, and that Salmond played a significant role in it. One might question the ambiguities of his political stance, his oscillation between social democratic rhetoric, borrowed largely from the Labour tradition before Tony Blair (1997-2007), and his admiration for the Celtic Tiger model of labour market deregulation and fiscal dumping, but his skills as a political leader and orator are unarguable. This was shown in his second television debate with the uninspiring Darling, which he won hands down. Salmond’s resignation sends out the wrong message and corroborates the unionist opponents’ presentation of the independence campaign as a failure. At a political level, his departure is likely to damage the SNP. (This was already true after his first withdrawal from the SNP leadership because of internal party tensions between 2000 and 2004.)
The referendum has revealed a new configuration of Scottish politics. The issue of independence, and the desire to break with the British consensus, will not just go away, whatever the stance taken by the coalition government or the threats of punishment for wayward voting. The Conservative Party and its Liberal-Democrat coalition partner will have to live with the fact that there is precious little support for their policies north of the Tweed, and that the rightward drift of English politics can only aggravate this. This has been, and will continue to be, grounds for independence.
The Labour Party in Scotland will also have to come to terms with the fragmented character of its electorate, since more than 30% of traditional Labour voters opted for independence against their party’s position. And many other Labour supporters who took the end-of-campaign promises seriously will be waiting for these to be delivered.
The independence movement outside the SNP — in which a great number of young people are invested — promises to make a significant impact on tomorrow’s Scotland.
Keith Dixon is Honorary Professor of British Studies at Lyon University. He was a founding member of the Raisons d’Agir group and is the author of Les Evangélistes du Marché, Raisons d’Agir, Paris, 2008.
(1) See Keith Dixon, “Scotland decides”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, September 2014, and Chris J Bickerton, “Antipolitics of the Scottish referendum”, Diplomatic Channels, Le Monde diplomatique website, 19 September 2014.
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