The only prediction that was one hundred percent certain about the referendum on Scottish independence was that the 18th of September would leave a considerable number of voters disappointed with the result. And so it has come to pass, with fifty-five percent voting for No and forty-five percent for Yes. Nevertheless, as politicians, pundits, campaigners, and journalists were quick to point out, the referendum has seen significant changes in Scotland’s political culture. Putting aside the polarising nature of the campaign itself, the referendum has had a clear impact on political participation and also has profound implications for party politics in Scotland. That being said, while post-referendum politics has not seen a return to business as usual, some old grievances have re-surfaced at Westminster and stand to make devolution for Scotland (and the rest of the UK) that much harder.
Firstly, the level of participation in the referendum has been exceptionally high. In terms of voting, the referendum saw a turnout that was even higher than the general elections that followed World War Two, reaching 84.59 percent. The addition of sixteen and seventeen year olds to the electorate has also been a significant development, particularly given their levels of turnout and the interest many Scottish politicians have shown in expanding the franchise for other kinds of election. Activism has also been high on both sides of the campaign, with many party and non-party groups pledging to remain active– most notably among the Yes camp, with groups like National Collective and RIC (Radical Independence Campaign) stating their intent to remain politically active despite the No vote. The campaign also saw considerable engagement on social media, and one could argue that the campaigns have been some of the most social media savvy in recent years.
The Scottish Government has suggested that the level of democratic engagement has changed Scotland for good, but whether or not magnitude of participation signals a newly galvanised electorate in the long term is difficult to tell. The historic question that was on the ballot may have prompted those who are usually politically apathetic to show up to the polling stations, and we may see some attrition of this re-invigorated body politic as political affairs return to those issues that may be less engaging to Scottish voters.
One clear example of sustained engagement is the surge in membership of parties that supported a Yes vote. The Scottish Green Party have reported a rise from 2,000 to 6,000 members following the referendum, and the SNP has laid claim to the title of being the third largest political party in the UK with an increase from 25,000 to 80,000. Without further information it is difficult to tell how many of these new members are actually defecting from other political parties, but the numbers as they currently stand suggest that independence alone is not the sole motivating factor, but also the policies these parties envisioned for Scotland. Memberships surges and conference halls still full of energy despite defeat should be a clear message to the other parties in Holyrood about the dangers of complacency and returning to ‘politics as usual’ too soon.
Scottish Labour, still learning from the lessons of an SNP victory in the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary election, has the most to be concerned about in the face of these trends. The referendum saw independence campaigners chip away at its heartlands by the Clyde and near Dundee. Glasgow voted 53.49 for Yes and Dundee City returned the largest Yes majority across all Scottish councils, with 57.35 percent of voters marking the upper box of the ballot paper. If the problem stems from specific policies, Labour will have to move beyond its more targeted form of campaigning and spend an equal amount of effort keeping its grassroots and long-term supporters engaged. The 100 Days tour by Jim Murphy and Gordon Brown’s late intervention in the campaign demonstrated the necessity of strong Labour personalities in Scotland. The lack of strong personalities to counter the charisma of Salmond and Sturgeon in Holyrood is one of many weaknesses to have been brutally restated by the necessity of big names like Brown and Murphy[i].
The Smith Commission may offer Scottish Labour an opportunity to frame themselves against the other Scottish parties, which is as much about disentangling itself from the referendum alliance with the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives as offering a radical alternative to the SNP proposal of maximum devolution. Lord Smith has already suggested that the work of the Commissions will be difficult, and a glance at the proposals made by the Greens, Conservatives, SNP, Labour, and Liberal Democrats definitely give substance to his claim[ii].
How the main Scottish parties aim to manage and negotiate the Smith Commission can be inferred somewhat from their own press releases and statements. The SNP proposals advocate ‘maximum devolution’ of a more radical kind than Labour, although both seek devolution while retaining the Barnett formula of funding for Scotland, something the Conservative leadership in Westminster has appeared keen to reassess. One battle line that seems to have been drawn in the documents submitted to the Smith Commission by the latter two parties concerns the decentralisation of power as opposed to what they term SNP centralisation. Labour have specifically stated that rather than let the Scottish Parliament continue to “accumulate powers upwards”, more powers should be devolved to a local level as well. Where new devolved powers rest, in the hands of the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament, or Local Authorities, will certainly be a feature debated as much as Welfare and Tax powers.
It is easy for Yes supporters to continue making political capital by warning about delays to the process of further devolution and raising doubts that the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats can be trusted to stick to the commitments they made prior to the referendum[iii]. Not only is this because any ‘real’ moves on devolution are unlikely to take place until the 2015 general election, but also because Scottish devolution is becoming entangled with debates about further devolution across the whole of the United Kingdom. To say that Scotland has changed and Westminster has not is a very rudimentary argument that fails to account for the difficulties that constitutional change creates and encounters in the UK Parliament. Devolution is being discussed. But the charge of ‘same-old Westminster’ is not wholly incorrect. Partisan politics south of the border has meant that debates on Scottish devolution are being tied to older arguments, especially the West Lothian Question.
Returning in the guise ‘English Votes for English MPs’: the West Lothian Question has been lumped together with discussion of constitutional reform by many Tories including David Cameron, a move which is opportunistic and anything but constructive. Given the Labour Party’s opposition to such a move, British politics has now reached something of an impasse when it comes to devolution. Gordon Brown, who previously called for a timetable for devolution, has warned of a new constitutional crisis arising as a result of attempts to add new conditions to devolution[iv]. Scottish devolution ought to be debated as a separate issue, but English MPs from the party that is the mainstay of Her Majesty’s Government are intent on raising the issue when they can because it will disadvantage Labour. While it is wrong for Yes campaigners and politicians to presume that change ought to happen overnight, it is equally wrong for others to delay the process of devolution longer than necessary because of partisan bickering (it remains to be seen what kind of bickering takes place in the Smith Commission).
For many Better Together campaigners like myself, achieving a no vote was never about the status quo. We campaigned for, if one will forgive the campaign-speak, The Best of Both Worlds For Scotland. The idea that we can have a strong Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom is a pragmatic one, and certainly a very achievable one that the Smith Commission is intended to deliberate upon. There was talk of the result being the settled will of the Scottish people, but there is no sign of a political settlement being reached soon.
Post-referendum Scottish politics will still be dominated by the referendum until the Smith Commission makes its recommendations and the government of the day (before or after 2015) begins legislating. In a situation where Westminster politicians conflate Scottish devolution with other issues and where Yes political groups can sustain their support, the more likely it is that we will have to live with the uncertainty and acrimony of a ‘neverendum’. The politics of Scotland have changed and political parties north and south of the border have to catch up, be they Conservative, Labour, or Scottish Nationalist.