The Scottish electorate may have rejected independence and the end of Great Britain by 55 to 45 percent, but what these figures alone show is that this is an issue that runs deep; it will not go away. But what do these last few weeks tell us about British politics and the future of the country? I’m not sure, but here are a few observations:
1. Perhaps the most certain point is this: the independence debate is not over. Politicians of all hues have said that it is over for a generation, Salmond even suggesting for a lifetime, but this is not so. There might not be a vote for a long time yet, but the campaign will continue – and it will continue right now. There is an insatiable desire, deep in the DNA of Scottish nationalists like Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, to be rid of England. Sadly it’s not just about Scotland; it’s also very much about England, the country many believe oppresses, in various ways, the Scottish people. Sad that.
2. The Scottish electorate may have rejected independence, but we now face an almighty constitutional mess, from which it is not clear we will be able to extricate ourselves. The Labour party is not going to be happy with English votes for English measures, for electoral reasons, though it is not clear how successful they will be challenging it. Scottish nationalists will watch gleefully at the spectacle of English politicians squabbling among themselves, and they will do their best to identify points of grievance that they can use in their continued campaign against the Union and the English. Devolution, as implemented in 1999, was always a lop-sided mess; it never made true sense, because it was never balanced. The West Lothian Question – Scottish votes on English matters – illustrates the exact problem. For this, we have the Labour Party to thank.
3. Even if the politicians now institute a more or less balanced devolution settlement, the Union will continue to weaken. The imbalance created by England’s sheer size will continue to provide Scottish nationalists with the ammunition they require to continue their fight. There’s a possibility that this will create a positive tension; but we should prepare ourselves for the brick-throwing. It will only work if we all get behind the Union and our common British identity – and it is not clear the separatists will ever be able to do that.
4. Scotland is now a country divided more than ever in its recent history. Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, neighbours, friends and relations, and communities and cities have found themselves in opposition to one another over this issue. But this is not like some everyday dispute over whether the council should pick up bins once a week or once a fortnight; it’s one of those existential issues that in the past would have caused civil war. Many ‘Yes!’ voters think ‘No!’ voters are traitors; and many ‘No!’ voters think ‘Yes!’ voters are foam-flecked lunatics. This has led to a feeling of betrayal, especially with the ‘Yes!’ voters, and it will linger a while yet.
5. Despite the positive spin put on things by Ed Miliband, the Labour Party will be most damaged by the fallout from these past weeks of vitriolic campaigning. The English will blame Labour for this scare to the Union, because they set us down this road with their botched devolution, and because they are the party that spends most effort undermining British national identity; Labour will lose their Scottish Labour MPs in the new English parliament; the English will be woken to the injustice of the West Lothian Question; and, perhaps more importantly, the Conservatives will see this as a once in a generation opportunity to refashion English affairs and dismantle Labour’s Socialist state. Perhaps Ed Balls is the only Labour front-bencher who truly understands all this.
6. This has damaged British standing in the world. The Scottish nationalists think this a good thing, that British pretensions are part of the problem with the Union; but that is because they do not face geo-political realities. The world is not a very nice place; Britain has serious enemies; the problem of nuclear weapons is not going to be solved by unilateral disarmament; and if Britain steps back too far, bad people and bad regimes will fill the void. There are many who do not wish to believe this, but a credible and properly governed Britain makes for a safer and better world. These internal British divisions, exposed to the world, has undermined all this, and politicians will have their work cut out to make good the damage.
7. It is also worth noting that separatist movements are not restricted to the United Kingdom. Various countries around the world will have been watching the vote with mixed feelings. Spain would not have welcomed a ‘Yes!’ vote; neither would Turkey or Russia. Depending on your attitude, separatist movements are good or bad. What is certain, however, is that separatists that do not follow democratic principles are a source of serious instability. We should be thankful that this vote has been an advert for democracy; but we should also not delude ourselves that Scottish independence would have provided a fillip for more unsavoury separatist movements across the globe. Not necessarily Scotland’s problem; but worth considering, especially for those who don’t think separatism is a solution to any serious practical problem.
8. Perhaps the best outcome of all this will be the reduced likelihood of the Labour party directing English finance, spending and budgets for years to come. This could be an opportunity to move away from social democracy and embrace liberal democracy, which is much more likely to liberate people trapped in the welfare ghettos created by Labour’s brand of socialism. In time, when this is shown to create better outcomes for the people, especially the poor, perhaps the rest of the United Kingdom will follow England’s lead and cut loose the anchor of socialism and trade unionism that has been holding the country back for so long. But then again, if Labour are right about things, England could be in for a world of pain. We shall see.
9. It is also possible that the Conservative Party will not make the most of this situation (some will cheer at that). Many backbench MPs are fuming at their leadership: first, for allowing Britain to gets so close to breakup; and second, for promising further constitutional change seemingly made up on the back of a fag packet. This is the same group who rile against the failure of successive Conservative leaders adequately to express Conservative attitudes to the EU, Lords reform, immigration, international human rights law, initial devolution and now this – all of which revolve around the complicated question of the British constitution. If the Conservative Party cannot find a way to unite in the coming months, the party may end up losing out again.
10. Devolution, so the Labour Party said, was meant to ‘kill demand for independence stone dead.’ But it has not. Scottish nationalism, thanks to proportional representation, is going to be a major force in Scottish politics for years to come. And even if support for the SNP now dips – because, a) it failed to deliver independence; and b) because its seriously unpleasant underbelly has been exposed, most obviously in the quite frankly fascistic approach some of their members took to the campaign trail – their prospectus is going to be a feature of British politics for the foreseeable future. And while the country engages in this navel-gazing, the country will have less energy for solving the more serious problems it faces. Internal division is always a distraction. Britain is now characterised by separate national conversations. Scots, Welsh, Northern Irish and English are going to speak less with each other and more among themselves. Rather than one people, Britain is increasingly going to be four peoples. This is not necessarily a disaster, but if left unchecked will promote division and mutual wariness of each other’s motives.
11. The Conservative Party is, unfortunately, largely an English party. They don’t want to be, but they are. The strong Conservative footprint in Scotland in past decades was thanks to the Unionist party’s footprint. Since the unionists were subsumed into the Conservative machine, they steadily lost support. They do OK in Wales but they have no representation in Northern Ireland. This need not be a problem. It reflects the reality of national sentiment below the level of Britain. They should perhaps think about stepping back from Scotland permanently, allowing a new centre-right party to form, which has a stronger connection to Scotland, and trusting in a centre-right alliance in the Westminster parliament. It used to be that way; why not again? Labour, on the other hand, is the only truly British party. We do not know if this will be an asset for them, or a liability.
12. This campaign, perhaps more than any other in recent years, has exposed the difficulty politicians have in dealing with rhetoric that twists the facts. There’s an asymmetry between honesty and dishonesty. In a democracy, it seems, honest and courteous politicians face something of an uphill struggle. Libel laws perhaps prevent specific mention of these dishonesties, but they were there, in spades. The vote went the way of ‘No!’ but ‘Yes!’ had the momentum. The debate on the NHS, Defence, and the currency all suffered. The lesson? Politicians must never be afraid to enter the debate; they must have the courage to risk the eggs and the verbal abuse. If they do not, the platform is left to those with fewer scruples. None of this is to say that there is not a noble dimension to the desire for Scottish independence (there most certainly is), but it is to say that politics needs people to stand up to the bullying. For this we should thank people like Jim Murphy MP. We need more like him.
This has been a difficult period of British history, and it is by no means certain that those difficulties are on the wane. The present situation suggests quite the opposite. One hopes our politicians are up to the job of finding a new unity in the British Isles. It’s just that their track record doesn’t fill the casual observer with much confidence. We can only hope that, as they say: cometh the hour, cometh the man (or woman).