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Cautious Minds Win Over Brave Hearts – Scottish Referendum

September 23, 2014 Leave a comment

The Scottish Independence Referendum lived up to all of the expected drama. As an exercise in mass political involvement, it may be unparalleled for the next 20 years. As a test of democratic robustness, it passed with flying colours. There may be criticism from the ‘Yes’ camp of BBC coverage and the media ganging up them but no blood was spilled, nobody died and while there are massive fault lines now after the result, the structures of civil society held. Yet while the Union stood firm-ish, it was never a sure thing; likely, but never definite.

The ‘Yes’ side can be justifiably proud of their result; they went well beyond the SNP core vote and their 45% outcome leaves them to believe they are within the ‘one more push’ territory to achieve an Independent Scotland. While many on the ‘No’ side were highly critical of some of their opponents ‘show us your patriotism’ school of nationalism, the overall picture is of a movement that mobilised the non-political and disaffected as well as the usual activist suspects. The involvement of the Scottish Greens meant that ‘Yes’ wasn’t dominated by one political party. It was a disappointing but massive result for the Independence side.

What of the prospective Father of the Nation himself, Alex Salmond? His leadership over the past two years demonstrated both his strengths and weaknesses. His strength was in being able to take the sheer strain of an ultra-marathon US-style campaign and inspire his side to within striking distance of his goal. His weakness was perhaps the weakness of all referendum leaders; he polarised the debate, painting his opponents and himself into a corner. All those on the ‘No’ side were portrayed as propagandists for Westminster rule. Salmond refused to entertain any (justifiable) doubts about a ‘Yes’ vote; if he’d said that Scotland might face short-term recession it would have been more intellectually honest. Instead, there was a refrain saying that any new settlement would be a land of milk and honey. Scotia Nova may well have prospered economically but no-one could know for sure. If Salmond had conceded that there were risks with independence, he may have pushed the ‘Yes’ vote even closer to victory. In the end, enough people just didn’t believe or trust his version of near future events. As such, it will be fascinating to watch the tactics and approach of the next SNP leader; will Nicola Sturgeon (the favourite for succession)  reach out to voters and minds that Salmond was simply unable to reach? His legacy depends on what happens over the next two years; will Westminster honour or backslide on ‘The Vow’ and will it leave an opening for another go for independence in the next ten years?

Then there was the epic role of Gordon Brown. Derided and loathed by most of the Tory Press and widely seen as a failed Prime Minister, he came out fighting and delivered a week of storming performances that probably provided a knock out for the ‘No’ side. He is still hugely respected in Scotland and, the key word, trusted. His promise that the would be ‘Devo-Max’ (more or less) if the Scots supported him, swung votes and he has now staked his reputation on sticking to his word. He has said he will not take a future senior role in Scottish politics; many will try to persuade him to change his mind. He offers the strongest bulwark against a resurgent and reinvigorated SNP.

The response from ‘Westminster’ shows how complicated and politically difficult a greater devolution within the United Kingdom will be. David Cameron is under siege from the Right in his party who want to punish Labour by denying their Scottish MPs voting powers on ‘English’ legislation. Labour know has a huge question to answer; can they win an overall majority and put Ed Milliband into Downing Street without their cohort of ‘Non-English’ parliamentarians (as some Tories are proposing)? They arguably have more to lose after the result than the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats will argue that they’ve always favoured devolving power down to the most local level.

And, has been pointed out by some commentators, there is a delicious irony in David Cameron arguing that Scotland is ‘Better Together’ staying within a United Kingdom for economic reasons when he runs the risk (unlikely in this writer’s opinion as he is a long-shot to be Prime Minister after the next election) of driving that same UK out of the European Union. His legacy may be of the Conservative who maintained the United Kingdom but created a huge fracture in the EU.

Both sides refused to accept realities in the campaign; ‘Yes’ by sticking their head in the sand on the Sterling and ‘No’ on the same issue.The shock and awe tactics of warnings of economic implosion from the ‘No’ side were always from a worst-case perspective. Nationalism was shown to have limits; self-determination means different things to different people. For 55% of those who voted No, the nationalist passion just may have convinced their hearts, but it could not convince their heads.
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