One year on, a fragile but democratic Union

Posted on 18 September 2015 - 1 Comment

One year on from Scotland’s independence referendum, the state of the United Kingdom is fragile.

The history books faithfully record that Scots chose to remain in the United Kingdom, by 2 million votes to 1.6 million. But the question who really won and lost during the independence referendum of 2014 now seems more complicated than that, writes Sunder Katwala.

Nicola Sturgeon has spoken about the “utter devastation” she felt on the morning after the result, having believed that the Yes surge had done enough to win, yet the SNP landslide of 2015 proved quite some consolation prize, making the pro-independence party Scotland’s dominant political force for the foreseeable future.

The Better Together campaign achieved its core objective, delivering the votes they needed to win the referendum, by the clear majority verdict of 55% to 45%. The  campaign kept the UK together, yet did so by demonstrating its fragility too. Campaign strategists took a long, well-informed look at the Scottish electorate – and soberly decided that there was no appeal to shared identity and allegiance that would persuade most Scots to reject independence. So the campaign executed, successfully, a “head over heart” strategy to persuade enough Scots that, however much they might like to make the leap, it was not worth the risk while too many questions remain unanswered about the practical realities of how it would work.  Scotland had said No, Thanks – or not this time at least – but the act of preserving the Union acknowledged its increasingly transactional character

Yet the campaign to dissolve the Union, paradoxically, did more to illuminate the enduring strengths of British identity. Elizabeth would still be Queen of Scots. The shared history of Remembrance rituals and the ‘social union’ of family across these isles would be cherished too.  “Its Scotland’s Pound” became a surprising nationalist slogan – while “Save the NHS” was the central theme of the last two weeks. The message seemed to be that Scots could only save everything they cherished in the British story told by Danny Boyle if they chose to go it alone.

There was a strategic logic here too. Independence could never be won with the minority who think of themselves as being Scottish, not British. Scots do feel more Scottish than British, but independence depended on appealing to the majority for whom both identities do matter. Nor was this just a matter of how to win the vote. Had a nation been born into independence on a 51% mandate, engaging with British as well as Scottish identity would have been essential, as the conciliatory tone of Alex Salmond’s undelivered victory speech – published this week, and given to Edinburgh University’s archive – recognised.

Might Nicola Sturgeon be dusting off that speech, just a few years from now? It is quite possible – but both sides have a lot of work to do to win a majority in a future vote.

The Yes side fought a brilliant campaign, but they lost the referendum. There has yet to be a particularly robust inquest, in public at least, about why they lost. In large part, this is because it no longer feels so much like a defeat to those who lost. As with a Highlands league football club on a fairytale giant-killing run before losing the Scottish Cup final to Celtic, pride at what the Yes campaign achieved, and surprise that it came quite so close against the odds, have trumped any sense of recrimination about why the campaign failed in its ultimate objective.

Expectations will be very different next time. The campaign for independence will be favourites – rather than underdogs. Yet that could make the scrutiny still tougher and the task harder. It means that the stakes for the independence movement will be much higher too.

There has been much talk about “neverendum” scenario– a coinage derived from the Canadian experience. But that does not reflect what happened in Quebec. It seemed that the 60% to 40% vote against independence of 1980 would be reversed in the second vote. In 1995, on the day of the referendum, it seemed that the forces for independence had won. Instead, they lost on a knife-edge, by 50.6% to 49.4%. Another generation on, the Quebec voters could hardly be clearer that they do not want to be asked to make up their minds a third time.

A second defeat could destroy the campaign for Scottish independence too – hence Nicola Sturgeon’s strategic caution. It would be a reckless gamble for the Yes campaign to go into another referendum with a 51% strategy for victory, as they had in 2014. They could sneak over the line – but a similar result would be quite possible too. Sturgeon should be looking for a 66% strategy for independence – which means fundamentally reconstructing the case beyond the pitch which was made last year.

There is good evidence from the Scottish Social Attitudes data on attitudes to the campaign issues that Yes won the campaign without winning the arguments. Above all, a more credible economic platform would be necessary next time – and that would probably entail a different approach to the vexed question of an independent Scotland’s future currency too.

Alex Salmond played the tactical referendum politics of the currency issue well, but he would have found delivering his Plan A – a new Currency Union for Britain – much harder. Conflating the “pound in your pocket” argument that Scots could use the notes and coins anyway with the case for a Currency Union, he persuaded many Scots that Westminster politicians were bluffing. But there is every chance they were not. What Scottish opinion rarely appeared to consider was the sheer difficulty in securing political and public support for a Currency Union from the rest of the UK, especially when a Scottish vote to leave would have done enormous damage to the public reputation and credibility of all of the main Westminster politicians and parties. Even had they wanted to advocate for a currency union, their ability to persuade the public would have been much diminished.

The Westminster parties should handle the question of currency differently in future. ‘No’ was a reasonable choice: anybody can get divorced, but it takes two to tango if you want to form a civil partnership to share a central bank afterwards. But only saying no turned it into a poker stand-off.  If a Currency Union were proposed again, the Westminster parties should guarantee that any new currency arrangements – whether a proposal to join the Euro, or a new sterling union with an independent Scotland – could only happen with a referendum across the rest of the United Kingdom, as well as in Scotland. If a Currency Union is self-evidently in the interests of both Scotland and the rest of the UK, as Alex Salmond argued, then a referendum would ratify it comfortably.  Having watched the Euro crisis from the outside, many would take much persuading that a currency union without a shared government is a recipe for economic or political harmony.

It is likely that Alex Salmond’s best bet was also a two vote strategy for independence: a referendum on the principle of independence, and a second vote to ratify the deal. Psychologically, it seems highly unlikely for a nation which crossed the rubicon on independence to reverse course over the details. The case for this approach goes beyond trying to provide reassurance to wavering voters. It could also have been a vital source of political legitimacy and trust in a new nation – in the event that a significant part of the platform, such as the shared currency, proved impossible to deliver.

The future of the United Kingdom remains uncertain. It may or may not survive over the decades to come, as a revived Union, a looser federation, or as neighbours beyond the UK. Those should be our choices, as citizens.

And the 2014 referendum demonstrated something important about Britain. Unlike in Spain or in Belgium, there is a British consensus on how to settle such a fundamental question as national independence. If there is a divorce, we know that it would come at the ballot box, doubtless with both cheers and tears, but not a shot fired in anger.

Ultimately, in this union of democratic consent, there is only one barrier to an independent Scotland: a majority of Scots deciding to choose it.

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