‘Settled for a generation’ was the confident, reassured assertion of the metropolitan commentariat after Scotland’s referendum resulted in a bigger than expected margin of defeat for independence. An independent Scotland may be off the agenda in the immediate term but we should remember Zhou En-lai’s famous remark about the effects of the French revolution: ‘too early to tell’. The Scottish referendum campaign and the vote itself may in time be seen as a fizzing, sparkling firework, momentarily illuminating the United Kingdom’s gloomy, sterile political landscape, only to fizzle out, or as the catalyst for a process of fundamental change to that political entity. Time, and whether the opportunities for change presented by the campaign are taken or lost, will tell.
The campaign itself was fantastic: a brilliant burst of creative democratic energy in which the people of Scotland engaged with the issues and discussed animatedly the society and country they wanted to for themselves and their fellow citizens. This was what democracy looks like when the decisions people make actually have consequences, when there is a choice, and when it is energised by the presence of 16 and 17 year olds. The politicians and journalists in the Westminster bubble, initially irritated by what they saw as background noise while they got on with the serious business of politics, ended up scared to death. Politics, in the post Thatcher-Blair era wasn’t meant to be like this. Credit goes not only to the Scottish National Party for the tone and content of the campaign but to the Scottish left, such as Radical Independence and the Scottish peace and anti-nuclear movement. With most of the Scottish-based media, let alone the blatantly biased and increasingly bewildered London media, against independence, the breach was filled by social media and blog-sites such as Bella Caledonia. Whatever the merits of the case for independence, the Yes supporters won the campaign even if they did not win the vote. Theirs’ were the ideas and the vision of what Scotland could look like. Theirs’ were the alternatives to the race-to-the-bottom, free market dystopia imposed by Westminster.
In response, the No campaign was Project Fear: what would be the currency and who would control it? Would the new state automatically gain EU membership or would it have to apply? Wouldn’t that take years? Look what happened to Ireland, and Iceland? Would people in Scotland still be able to listen to the Archers? A drip-drip series of announcements and leaks by banks and multinationals raised the prospect of capital flight, price rises and a currency collapse. This was not a serious attempt to challenge the SNP’s economic perspectives, not all of which would withstand proper scrutiny, or a serious contribution to the national debate, but a purely negative: ‘Well, you haven’t thought of that, now have you’, in order to try to close down discussion. ‘Vote No, it’s not worth the risk’ was the message, but, on surveying the, unequal, over-centralised political set-up that is the UK, one can legitimately reply, ‘the risk of what, exactly’?
The campaign and its aftermath poses problems for both the large Westminster parties. Cameron allowed a referendum without a devo-max option on the ballot paper, clearly assuming that the result would be No. Some political conspiracy theorists say that Cameron was happy to cast Scotland adrift. Tory rule in a rump UK would be assured without Scotland, with its one Tory MP, but this underestimates the prominence of unionism, or UK nationalism in Tory ideology. As the campaign reached its end and the No poll lead narrowed there was a palpable sense of panic in the UK ruling apparatus: would Cameron be the Tory leader who ‘lost’ Scotland? What would happen to Trident missiles? Might these weapons of mass destruction have to be housed nearer to London? Would the house of Windsor require passports to visit the vast tracts of the Highlands they use as a personal playground? The reaction was a commitment, ‘The Vow’, made largely on the hoof with Miliband and Clegg, for increased devolution. Faced with a backlash by Tory MPs against a promise of increased spending for Scotland, Cameron has since attempted to re-invent or re-interpret, for the sake of party advantage, the commitment to deeper devolution into a commitment to restrict voting on England-only issues to English MPs, thus satisfying the bloodlust of the English nationalists of the Tories and, importantly, UKIP and threatening to sabotage a future Labour government dependent on the votes in parliament of Scottish MPs. ‘The Vow’ was starting to unravel by the weekend following the vote with the Liberal Democrats and Labour both scenting a Tory trap.
Labour’s problems are probably deeper. Its alignment to the unionist-nationalist, union-flag waving, Better Together campaign against independence, on top of its embrace of free-market neo-liberalism in the Blair-Brown years meant that Labour was never able to challenge the SNP from the left. Terrified by the movement of Labour voters into the Yes camp but, like every Tory leader since Thatcher, despised in Scotland, Cameron was obliged to turn to Gordon Brown to fight the unionist corner, and Brown duly obliged, his ‘barnstorming’ speech invoking a unionist past more than a socialist future.
The SNP’s political tightrope walk combining lower corporation tax with much of the agenda which Labour should have made its own has left Scottish Labour little more than a defensive, unionist, Blairite husk, unable to understand the country it is in. The referendum campaign did little to rescue its image. A look at a map of the Yes vote should bring the Labour leadership out in a cold sweat: Glasgow, Dundee, North Lanarkshire. These have been Labour strongholds for decades but, faced with New Labour’s complicity with the Tories in de-industrialisation and the destruction of public services, the voters there saw the Yes vote as a means of escape; they need never live under a Tory government again. Of course, despite the panicky, last minute insertions into the No campaign of references to ‘social justice’ they took that chance, and why should they not?
Labour’s response was merely to assert that a No vote corresponded with Labour’s ‘values’ and to snipe against ‘nationalism’. British nationalism, however, appears not to trouble these people; what kind of country do they think the UK is? Extraordinarily, No campaigners also accused their opponents of ‘tribalism’. This is in a country where politics is still besmirched by sectarianism; Orange lodges were marching in support of a No vote and the day after the vote, Unionist thugs attacked Yes voters in Glasgow’s George Square. This was the ugly, snarling face of the British nationalism the No voters never mention. It makes a nonsense of the accusations of ‘intimidation’ by ‘Yes’ supporters. Politics is ‘ugly’ when politicians ruin lives, not when the argument becomes raucous. Of course many No voters are not sectarians and have a genuine loathing of Orangeism. However, to rail against SNP’s ‘nationalism’ without acknowledging the malign influence of this form of British nationalism is at best hypocritical and at worst an apology for sectarianism. In the case of the ‘Labour door steppers’ bussed north to support the No vote, they simply don’t know what they are talking about.
It is depressing that it has to be repeated, but this island contains three countries, England, Scotland and Wales which for several hundred years have been bound together, at different times, by conquest, war, empire, Protestantism, common law, the industrial revolution and the welfare state; when the importance of all of these is diminished, all that remains is geography and a common language. Crucial in the development of the Scottish independence movement was been the Tories’ destruction of Scotland’s industrial base: coal, shipbuilding and steel, the use of a Scottish natural resource, North Sea oil, to featherbed the British economy through two recessions, the use of Scotland as the test bed for the hated poll tax and then finally, the refusal of New Labour to break from what were, fundamentally, Tory policies. The people of Scotland were told firstly ‘You voted Labour but you got the Tories’ and then ‘It doesn’t matter which of the Westminster parties you vote for, nothing’s going to change’. In this context the Yes vote in former Labour heartlands makes far more sense than Labour No supporters’ charge that the independence debate is somehow a distraction from ‘class’ politics.
Socialists defend the right of a nation to self-determination. That is not the same, necessarily, as advocating separation. However, in the case of Scotland, the campaign for independence does not simply amount to a desire to exercise the right to re-establish Scotland as an independent state but a reaction not only against the inequality and centralisation which has increased dramatically over the last thirty years, as well as the sclerotic, pre-modern body politic exemplified by the House of Lords and the bizarre electoral system. It is a sign that on the island of Britain, there can be a different kind of society.
So what about Wales? Welsh Labour’s leadership unsurprisingly supported a No vote, with Plaid giving support and solidarity to the Yes campaign. Opinion polls revealed an opposition in Wales to Scottish independence, primarily, presumably, because of fears that in a rump UK Wales would not be so much as dominated as smothered by England, doomed to an eternity of English Tory governments.
It is difficult to see anything positive for Wales in the post referendum new Union, let alone in the status quo. The normally ebullient Rhodri Morgan has been in almost Uriah Heep mode, asking that Wales be rewarded for not having had a war, like Northern Ireland or an independence referendum and oil, like Scotland, by being given a more equitable political and financial settlement within the UK. In other words, he was asking the Tories to treat Wales more generously because it keeps its head down. Carwyn Jones, despite his innate caution and his position as the leader of a unionist party has been forced to come out in opposition to Cameron’s manoeuverings and call for a rebuilding of the union on an equal basis between Wales and Scotland.
Despite Cameron’s promise that Wales be at the ‘centre of the debate’, Tory back-benchers are in revolt about a promise of extra money for Scotland, yet Scotland does considerably better than Wales out of the discredited and unfair Barnett formula. Neither the Tories nor Labour want to scrap the Barnett formula, under which Wales loses out by £300m per year (Labour’s shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, despite prompting on TV by Andrew Neil, of all people, seemed to have neither any clue that Wales was being short-changed in this way or feel that Labour should do anything about it). There’s a well-founded suspicion that if additional powers for Wales are not forgotten about and subsumed into Cameron’s grubby obsession with appeasing English nationalists, they’ll be separated from any additional funding, leaving Welsh Labour or Labour-dominated governments with the consequences of having powers without the resources to use them effectively.
Dysfunctional and unsustainable as it is, the UK could, with some tweaking here and there, limp on for decades yet: dominated by England, with England in turn dominated and distorted by the financial might of the City of London and the Home Counties. On the other hand, Labour in Wales and Scotland could muster its electoral weight to move away from an instinctive pro-unionism towards in support for a more equal and equitable relationship between the three countries based on whatever degree of separation or unity that the people of those countries want. On the present evidence, the prospects are not promising.