The United Kingdom

‘Better together’

Print edition : October 17, 2014

A pro-independence "yes" campaign poster lies discarded in George Square in Glasgow on September 19, the day after the referendum. Photo: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Pro-union campaigners celebrate their victory at George Square in Glasgow on September 19. Photo: CATHAL MCNAUGHTON/REUTERS

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron. Photo: DYLAN MARTINEZ/REUTERS

No campaign leader Alistair Darling of the Labour Party. Photo: LEON NEAL/AFP

Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Photo: Garry F. McHarg/AP

Opposition and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband. Photo: PAUL ELLIS/AFP

Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond (right) and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon during a visit to Edinburgh on the Yes campaign trail. Photo: LESLEY MARTIN/AFP

Scotland has chosen to remain with the United Kingdom despite a vigorous campaign for self-determination and self-rule by the Yes campaign whose promise of social and economic transformation endeared it to poor voters but alienated it from the Scottish elite.

SCOTLAND awoke to a grey, overcast and rainy morning on September 19, the day after the country voted in a historic referendum to decide whether it should become an independent country or remain as part of the United Kingdom. The results were in by then—a clear vote for Scotland to remain in the U.K., with 55 per cent voting “No” (to independence) and 45 per cent “Yes”. The results were made even more decisive by an unprecedented 84 per cent voter turnout.

On referendum day, public euphoria was at a pitch in Edinburgh. The city, despite the swirling mists (called the haar by the Scots), was awash with colour, sound and spirit. Supporters from both sides took to the streets and stood outside voting centres in urgent last-minute campaigns. Journalists had a field day and tourists watched history unfold. Later in the evening, many of these enthusiasts crowded into pubs and bars to hear the results come in. The rest of the city stayed at home and watched the counting on television.

The morning after the night before, however, the mood was subdued. Nothing of the drama of the previous day and night remained. There were no celebrations or victory marches by the side that came out on top in the referendum. It could have been just another day—office-goers hunkered against the rain as they made their way to work, shopkeepers opened their shutters to another day’s trade, taxis looked for commuters, and traffic got ever thicker on the roads.

A narrow No victory had been predicted by opinion polls but the extent of the margin took even the No campaigners by surprise. The results showed that No won all but four of the 32 councils. The Yes side won Glasgow (53.3 per cent), Dundee (57.3 per cent), North Lanarkshire (51.1 per cent) and West Dunbartonshire (54 per cent).

Alex Salmond, leader of the Yes campaign and First Minister of Scotland, conceded defeat in a speech at 6-15 a.m., in which he accepted “the democratic verdict of the people of Scotland” who did not want independence “at this stage”. His charismatic deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, had conceded defeat even before the election was fully called, telling the BBC that she felt a “real sense of disappointment that we have fallen narrowly short of securing a Yes vote”.

What were the reasons for such a compelling No victory when it was the Yes campaign that had led the public debate on the referendum and was responsible for energising voters? The turnout of 84 per cent was largely through the efforts of the Yes volunteers, who had registered voters from the remotest regions of Scotland.

“The result took us all by surprise,” said Hugh Kerr, a senior Scottish National Party (SNP) member and former Member of the European Parliament. “When our volunteers went calling at houses, we always took registration forms with us to get people to fill them in on the spot. We found that a lot of poor and working-class people had deliberately not registered for some years, either because they did not trust any politician or because they did not want to be chased up for debts on the poll tax, which was introduced in Scotland 21 years ago,” he told Frontline. (The poll tax, introduced by Margaret Thatcher, links the right to vote to whether a voter has paid income tax.)

“All those people who registered, we thought, were doing so to vote Yes, and most of them were. But it turned out that Nos were particularly high in the over-65 age group,” Kerr said.

According to the opinion polls conducted by the Conservative peer Lord Michael Ashcroft, who polled more than 2,000 voters on the night of the referendum, the No campaign won among men (by a six-point average) as well as among women (by 12 points). The older voters were opposed to independence, with 73 per cent of those aged 65 or above voting No.

Conservative voters voted overwhelmingly for No (95 per cent). An interesting finding was that four in 10 of those who voted Labour or Liberal Democrat in the last Westminster elections voted Yes.

The undecided or “Don’t knows” constituted between 6 and 14 per cent (according to different opinion polls) on the eve of the referendum. According to Lord Ashcroft, more than two-thirds of the undecided voters finally voted Yes on the day of the poll.

The biggest influence on people’s decision to vote No was the uncertainty over the currency. “The risks of becoming independent looked too great when it came to things like the currency, E.U. [European Union] membership, the economy, jobs and prices,” he said.

As for the major reason for why people voted Yes, it lay in disaffection with Westminster policies. The principle that all decisions about Scotland should be taken in Scotland was the most powerful reason to vote Yes, followed by the focus of the Yes campaign on keeping the National Health Service (NHS) in the public domain.

Yes campaign

Between October 2012, when Prime Minister David Cameron and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond decided the date and framed the wording of the referendum question, and September 18, 2014, the day Scotland voted, a public conversation on the question of self-determination started that soon consumed every section of Scottish society. It cut across the age, class, gender and ethnic divide and examined Scottish nationality through the multiple prisms of politics, literature, culture and philosophy.

Although intense and passionate, the referendum debate was conducted with remarkable civility, restraint and even courtesy. Indeed, the clash of ideas often took place among those who were in agreement on how they would vote in the referendum.

Out of that public thought process emerged a compelling argument for self-determination and self-rule. The Yes campaign’s shift leftward came gradually but laid the basis for its further growth and increasing relevance. It shook off the garb of a right-wing nationalist party with a strong Scottish identity to reclothe itself with the drape of Scotland’s radical and inclusive political traditions. It reached out to new sections of people, attracting support from a cross section of enlightened political and activist groups, academics, writers and cultural activists.

The Yes campaign put its social justice agenda in the forefront—it promised to reverse all regressive taxation, like the notorious “bedroom tax”; it promised to attack deprivation, even as it put the issue of child poverty centre stage in the deprivation debate; it promised to revitalise the NHS and reverse all attempts at its privatisation; and it promised to rid Scotland’s soil of all bases where weapons of mass destruction are located.

The SNP wisely accommodated the vision for an Independent Scotland that was far left of its own agenda and policies.

The writer Gerry Hassan calls this constituency the “third Scotland” and describes it as “the glorious, multi-various explosion of self-organising radical currents such as Radical Independence Campaign, National Collective and Common Weal, [that have] brought many young people and twenty-somethings into politics and activism for the first time”.

There are many within the Yes campaign who would agree with Laurie Flynn, a leading investigative journalist and writer, who told Frontline: “I don’t see any way of breaking this hegemony of American-British industrial, military, intelligence partnership than by getting rid of nuclear weapons in Scotland. This is a very important part of what we are and why we want independence. You cannot have this argument in London; no one there is interested. Whereas in Scotland, where all the weapons are, people are.”

On the issue of Scottish nationalism, Flynn says: “There is aggressive nationalism, and there is civic nationalism as in Scotland. We want power devolved away from Westminster, away from London, which is attracting all the talent of people who want to make big money quickly. We want to stop that, we want to have a Scandinavian style of financial and political government. And the only way we are going to get there is through independence.”

The Yes vision was argued by a varied cast of its supporters—from politicians to artists, from students to homemakers—who fanned out across the country. The campaign was built on volunteer time and energy—there were some professionals who gave up their jobs for two years to devote their energies to the campaign. It endeared the Yes campaign to the poor but alienated it from the Scottish elite.

Better Together campaign

The No, or Better Together, campaign got off to a late start, much later than the Yes campaign, which had been laying the foundation for a bid for independence over the last 30 years.

The campaign, in its supreme confidence, believed that No to independence was the default position held by the people of Scotland. Its campaign had none of the passion and vibrancy of the Yes campaign and it inevitably took recourse to using the weapons of fear and negativity to influence voters, giving them gloomy forecasts of what might happen to Scotland if it opted out of the union.

Yet another weakness of the No campaign was that its spokespersons, led by Alistair Darling, a former Labour Party Minister, did not sufficiently differentiate the Better Together platform from the Tory government in Westminster. This was unlike the Yes campaign, which comprised many non-SNP parties and groups, and which capitalised on the diversity in its ranks as a mark of its strength. The result was that the Better Together campaign was successfully cast by the SNP as a Tory establishment forum, a view that its leaders like Darling were hard put to dispel.

A turning point in the pre-referendum campaign for both sides came when a YouGov poll commissioned by The Times put the Yes vote ahead at 51 per cent just a week before the referendum. The news that an independent Scotland could be a reality sent markets into a spin. Scotland-based banks such as the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyd’s were quoted as saying that they would move their headquarters out of the country, while supermarket chains claimed that food prices would go up in an independent Scotland.

For the first time, the leaders of the three main union parties on the Better Together campaign—David Cameron for the Conservatives, Ed Miliband for the Labour Party and Nick Clegg for the Liberal Democrats—rushed to Edinburgh to sign a joint resolution, promising a concrete action plan and timetable for devolution. The Labour Party’s star speaker, former Prime Minister and Scotsman Gordon Brown, stepped in to add his oratory skills to the Better Together platform.

The threat of unleashing the forces of economic chaos by representatives of the institutions of corporate and military power, combined with the assurances by the three parties of preventing such a scenario from materialising if, but only if, Scotland stayed with the union, was a strong factor in driving people to the No side.

Devolved powers for Scotland have already been delayed and may well be diluted too. In his speech from Downing Street soon after the referendum, Cameron shifted the devolution goalposts by linking the issue to constitutional changes. He said that the devolution package would not be delivered until a constitutional agreement was worked out that would allow English laws to be voted on by English MPs alone and not by Scottish MPs, who could vote in their own parliament. This proposal has been strongly opposed by Labour, which has 41 Scottish MPs in Parliament.

The Scottish question is thus by no means settled. The profound issues of social and economic transformation—on countering deprivation in all its forms, on war vs peace, on the energy options of the future, on building a society based on inclusiveness, and redistributing justice—raised by the referendum campaign will not go away, not until the conditions that gave rise to them continue to exist and are not addressed. Secondly, the great debate on the Scottish national question that preceded the referendum has forever changed the way Scotland thinks about itself.

Perhaps, the abiding legacy of the referendum for Scotland is the process itself, and the argument for an inclusive and radical vision of independent Scotland that emerged from that intellectual ferment.

For the rest of the world, Scotland offers a worthy lesson on how the demand for national self-determination might be posed and fought in a progressive way within the current world order.

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