Joshua Tucker: The following is a guest post from University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill political scientist (and proud Scotsman!) Graeme Robertson.
So it is finally over. Some 545 days after the announcement of the referendum on Scottish independence, the big question has been answered. With an amazing 97 percent of the adult population registered to vote, and a modern era record turnout of 84.6 percent, people living in Scotland voted by 55 percent to 45 percent against independence. The final 10 point margin was slightly larger than the late polls which had given no a 52-48 lead, but much narrower than the 30 point lead No had enjoyed one year ago.
It has been a wild ride. As a Scottish political scientist who works mostly on post-Communist states, I have struggled over the last months to be detached, analytic and professional about the whole thing. I failed miserably, of course. But as Scotland’s own great King Robert the Bruce is supposed to have said, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” So on a morning when roughly half of the population of my country (and one quarter of the population of my house) have had their dreams and hopes for the future shattered – making it “pretty much business as usual” according to one Scottish comedian – let me try and be objective. What did we learn?
Perhaps the key lesson from the Scottish referendum is something that scholars have long known but that citizens and politicians often seem to miss – allegiance to states is highly malleable and can be quickly changed by events, even in an old country like Scotland. When the campaign began, independence supporters faced a skeptical population. Indeed, British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to recognize the referendum only on the condition that it be a simple up or down vote on independence, with no option for more powers within the United Kingdom. Since his political career probably depended on it, he must have been confident that this was an easy choice for Scots to make. How wrong could he have been! Though the margin at the end was more or less comfortable, the result still represents a remarkable turnaround for what was until recently a fringe political obsession.
More important than the final result, what we saw in Scotland over the last two years was a campaign for independence based on enormous and unprecedented grass-roots involvement and the awakening of an impressive array of civil society groups unaffiliated with any of Scotland’s five main political parties. This was more a social movement than a standard party political campaign. Moreover, the stress was not on nationalism, but on shaping a new progressive politics that rejected the austerity and sterility of politics as usual. Contrary to accusations of petty nationalism leveled in some quarters at the Yes campaign, disgust with the Westminster system was the main factor cited in polls as driving Yes voters, while national identity of the British kind was the most important factor cited by No voters .
The result was a campaign which, even in defeat, has dramatically changed the dynamics of politics in the United Kingdom. In constitutional terms, the status quo is no longer an option. The pell-mell scramble of the Westminster parties to promise more devolution in the dying days of the campaign looks like it may have been crucial in stemming the bleeding of the No campaign. ICM, a polling company, found on the eve of the vote that the proportion of No supporters who believed that more devolution will be delivered increased by 20 points in the last month to 74 percent. They also found that failure to deliver on these promises would change the mind of enough No voters to ensure a different outcome next time. What powers Westminster actually delivers, of course, remains to be seen. The “pledge” of more autonomy that the Westminster leaders made was stunningly vague – promising only to implement whatever changes they could agree on! Moreover, there is already dissent within the ranks of the ruling Conservative Party over Cameron’s promised concessions. Nevertheless, in the end, the perception among most voters was that they were choosing between more devolution and independence, precisely the choice that Cameron had wanted to avoid. Consequently, the Westminster parties will be taking a great risk if they are perceived to renege on their promise.
The status quo is also not an option for the Labour Party, either in Scotland or the United Kingdom. The referendum campaign cruelly exposed the intellectual weakness of Labour in Scotland, where for many years they had enjoyed almost one party rule. All the energy, creativity and policy innovation was elsewhere – even the Scottish Conservatives responded to the campaign with significant new policies. Moreover, despite eking out a win, the results exposed the weakness of Labour in its traditional bastions, such as the city of Glasgow, which voted in favor of independence on Thursday. A radical rethink of the so-called “New Labour” project will be required if Labour hopes to use Scottish votes to return to power in Westminster, never mind in Edinburgh.
Finally, why did No win? Obviously, it is too early to know really, but it is fascinating just how resistant views of the economics of independence were to the barrage of threats from banks and the prognoses of doom that rained down on Scottish voters in the last month before the referendum. Despite everyone from Deutsche Bank to Paul Krugman warning of a coming apocalypse, ICM estimated that more people thought independence would be good for the Scottish economy on the eve of the election than they had one month before. ICM also found that average views of the riskiness of independence declined between July and September. Nevertheless, the scare tactics were successful in limiting the swing to yes. On election eve, pessimists still led optimists on the economy by 7 percentage points. At the end of the day, the failure of the Yes campaign to fight the economic debate at least to a tie seems to have been fatal to their cause.
So it is indeed finally over. At least for now. And I can get back to worrying about Russia again. Pretty sure nothing happened there in the last few months while I have been distracted, right?