2014: Reflecting on the Scottish Independence Referendum

2014: Reflecting on the Scottish Independence Referendum

How will we look back on British politics in ten, twenty, fifty, or even a hundred years’ time? Will historians record with admiration George Osborne’s bold pronouncements in the Autumn Statement? Will Ed Miliband be reassessed as ‘the quiet man who could’? What of Nigel Farage and UKIP? Will their performance in the European elections be viewed as an erroneous blip, or as the start of a seismic shift in British politics?

With the end of the year just a couple of weeks away it’s far too early to make predictions on what future generations will pick out from the everyday noise of British politics. It is, however, likely that when 2014 is viewed in retrospect one event above all others will leap to the fore: the Scottish Referendum and the subsequent fallout.

In what will be our final Whitehall Weekly of 2014 we invite you to reflect on a remarkable contest, the results of which are still to be fully understood.

Twelve Days to the End?

For many south of the border, the Scottish Referendum began on September 6. Twelve days before polling a poll by Yougov, in conjunction with The Sunday Times, had put the SNP led Yes Scotland campaign ahead of their Better Together rivals by two points, the first poll to do so. Yougov’s Peter Kellner referred to the poll as evidence of the “blitzkrieg” taking place in Scotland, as voters, predominantly working-class (ex-Labour voters at that) turned to independence as an antidote to Westminster instituted austerity. Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, was not exaggerating when he referred to Whitehall as being in “full panic mode.”

Yes Scotland was characterised by optimism from the beginning. While the traditional Westminster nexus clung, somewhat desperately, to the status quo, Alex Salmond was able to tempt voters with the promise of a brighter, better, fairer Scotland. A white paper entitled Scotland’s Future set out a vision of social democracy that had broad appeal, even if details on how this would be achieved were slim on the ground. Scotland could, according to Yes campaigners, truly have it all: a sovereign oil fund, automatic EU membership, higher corporation tax, greener energy and greater inclusion.

Against such riches, Better Together’s promises looked remarkably tame. Their campaign hinged on tactics nicknamed ‘Project Fear’, the belief that Scotland was “too poor, too wee and too stupid” to stand alone.

The next twelve days were chaotic to say the least. Legions of MPs, particularly from the Labour Party, trekked north to campaign. Gordon Brown emerged from self-imposed exile to give perhaps the two most important speeches of his career, and a spirit of unity was found as David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband mutually agreed to ‘The Vow’, a promise on the front page of The Daily Record to deliver change for Scotland as part of the United Kingdom.

At the same time support for Yes Scotland began to crystallise and grow in confidence. Driven by a truly grassroots campaign, supporters of independence ‘occupied’ George Square in Glasgow, unofficially christening it ‘Freedom Square’. It is no exaggeration to suggest that a mood of change seemed to be in the air, despite Better Together’s consistent poll lead.

The financial markets were not immune from the uncertainty surrounding Scotland’s future. The pound fell against the dollar, government gilts declined in value and questions were asked as to future levels of investment, with giants like BP and Standard Life warning that funding for research and development could be withdrawn from Scotland – posing an immediate challenge to any incumbent independent administration. It was notable that in the days leading up to the referendum, five of the eleven fastest fallers on the FTSE 100 were based in Scotland, while TSB, despite being incorporated in London, conducted a sizeable portion of its business in Scotland, while Babcock and BAE Systems operated defence schemes, which could be put at risk by a yes vote.

On September 12, as Scotland went to the polls, analysis of twitter revealed that 2.05 million messages in support of Yes Scotland had been recorded, versus 1.96 million in support of the No campaign. A similar pattern was revealed on Facebook, where Yes Scotland recorded 258,000 supporters, to Better Together’s 182,000. In fact, according to almost every online indicator Scotland was heading towards independence.

However, despite the clamour, online and on the streets of Dundee and Glasgow in particular, by the wee hours of the morning it was clear that Scotland would remain part of the United Kingdom. The first area to declare, Clackmannanshire, saw a No victory of 54 to 46% on a turnout of 89%, this trend continued for a further five areas, until Dundee, popularly known as ‘Yes City’ declared in favour of Yes by 57 to 43%. Although the nationalists mustered some enthusiasm it was short lived as a further thirteen areas declared in favour of No. George Square fell quiet. The party was very much over, even if the real story was only just beginning.

A Union Saved?

The final result of the referendum was clear, Scotland voted to remain part of the Union by 55.3 to 44.7%. On paper this was a decisive victory, but perhaps also a pyrrhic one.

At 7.08am a relieved looking David Cameron stood before 10 Downing Street and announced not only further devolution to Scotland, in accordance with the Vow, but also greater powers for England. The Prime Minister endorsed English votes for English law (EVEL) and, crucially, not just for education and health – areas already devolved to Holyrood – but on tax, spending and welfare too.

Less than two weeks previously, Cameron had stood on an uneasy precipice that could see him declared the man who oversaw the breakup of the Union. In victory he looked to assert himself and engineer an advantage. Going straight for Labour’s jugular his measures would make passing a Budget incredibly difficult for a party without a majority in England, in a sense extinguishing Labour’s Celtic advantage. His proposals on EVEL would also tempt voters away from UKIP and assuage the murmurings of backbenchers who had long sought an answer to the so-called West Lothian question.

The coalition of enemies that had formed to protect the Union had come to an ignominious end.

While Labour pondered on how to respond to the Prime Minister’s statement, the SNP rallied. In his 4pm resignation speech, Alex Salmond remarked that “the dream shall never die” and called on his supporters to continue their fight for independence. Though they had been defeated, the positivity and vibrancy of the Yes Scotland campaign continued with a number of impromptu rallies organised largely through social media. In the weeks that followed, SNP membership soared, recently topping a whopping 100,000 and establishing them not only as a street movement, but also an electoral force to be reckoned with.

In 1955 the Tories won 50.1% of the popular vote in Scotland, before falling consistently to 16.7% in 2010. Although the twin peaks of Protestantism and Glasgow Rangers Football Club had helped to sustain the party in the wake of the Second World War, the onset of Thatcherism had seen their support dwindle. The arrival of Tian Tian and Yang Guang at Edinburgh Zoo effectively meant that there were more pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs. Though they would be loath to say it publicly, Scotland is a secondary issue for a Conservative Party that is both synonymous with and reliant on votes from England.

The picture for Labour could not be more different. Scotland is engrained in Labour’s collective DNA, from Keir Hardie to Gordon Brown, the party has drawn many of its most important figures from north of the Tweed. In 2010, Labour won 41 of 59 Scottish seats, with over 40% of the popular vote, a fall of just 5 points since 1997, compared with around 14 points across the UK as a whole.

If Labour are to form a majority government winning in Scotland is essential. However, despite its value, success in Scotland had given way to complacency. Following a poor performance during the referendum campaign, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont resigned, suggesting that the Scottish party was treated “like a branch office of London.” Ed Miliband floundered when responding to the Prime Minister and, despite Scotland’s cardinal importance, failed to present a compelling vision of where it would sit within a reformed United Kingdom. Such was their performance, the SNP topped an October opinion poll with 52%, giving them a projected 52 seats in May’s General Election. In contrast, Labour would return fewer than ten Scottish MPs.

Failure in Victory: Comparing the Yes & No Campaigns

In many respects Better Together fulfilled its objectives: Scotland did not break away from the United Kingdom. However, the No campaign’s relentless negative and rigid focus on structural and economic issues limited its emotional engagement. Project Fear was undoubtedly an appropriate title for a charmless campaign seemingly designed in a committee room, without any real thought given to how to connect with the public.

The contrast with Yes Scotland could not be starker. The SNP and their allies, whether from the Green Party or the Radical Independence movement, based their approach on winning the emotional argument. At a time when politics can seem cold and devoid of personality, the Yes campaign generated an unprecedented level of interest.

Going forward, political parties, whatever their hue, would do well to learn from Yes Scotland and understand that positive, engaging messaging can have broad appeal. This seems particularly true in an era of social media, an area the SNP dominated, and one where year on year growth is expected. If the traditional parties are to deal with the rise of fringe parties they would do well to learn from their methods and seek to reconnect with the public.

Where Now for the SNP?

The SNP have emerged from the referendum stronger than ever before. Their membership levels have topped 100,000 and new leader Nicola Sturgeon has undertaken a speaking tour, including Glasgow’s Hydro, which she sold out more quickly than one Kylie Minogue. Polling since the referendum has suggested that the SNP hold a substantial lead over their rivals, suggesting that they could take as many as forty seats in May. Online ‘the 45%’ seem an omnipresent force, dominating discussion boards and twitter feeds with unmatched enthusiasm.

While the SNP clearly have reasons to be cheerful their position should not be overstated. The Labour Party hold something of an ace card in the suggestion that an SNP vote will help keep David Cameron in Number 10 and it seems clear that this will be central to their campaign strategy. Scottish Labour’s new leader Jim Murphy is also a seasoned veteran of Scottish politics, one with a formidable track record in winning uphill battles. It is telling that he won, and held, Scotland’s safest Conservative seat for Labour and his tour of 100 Scottish towns in the weeks preceding the referendum bought him enviable public attention.

The SNP’s credibility will no doubt be damaged if oil prices continue to slide. In their pre-referendum white paper it was suggested that an independent Scotland would become one of the world’s wealthiest states per capita thanks to “24 billion barrels of oil equivalent, valued at £1.5 trillion.” This valuation was made on the basis that a. an independent Scotland would receive access to 90% of known UK hydrocarbon reserves, b. that the price of oil would remain steady at around $110 per barrel and c. that the per barrel cost of extraction would not rise. With oil prices down to $60 a barrel, and falling, this seems wildly optimistic and in the months to come North Sea production is likely to be reigned back meaning limited returns and lower employment.

Finally, the SNP’s growth has been fuelled online and while this is an area growing in importance there is limited evidence to suggest that it can be translated into success at the ballot box. Demographics undoubtedly play a role, but so too does apathy. On polling day will the SNP be able to convert their virtual followers and fans into voters?

The English Question

On Tuesday (December 16th)  Commons Leader William Hague announced four options for English votes for English laws, calling the new arrangements a “fundamental issue of fairness.” They are as follows:

Barring Scottish and Northern Irish MPs from any role in English and Welsh bills and limiting England-only bills to English MPs

Allowing only English MPs, or English and Welsh MPs, to consider relevant bills during their committee and report stages, where amendments are tabled and agreed, before allowing all MPs to vote on the final bill

Allowing only English MPs, or English and Welsh MPs, to consider relevant bills at committee stage and giving them an effective veto in a separate vote before their third reading

A separate Lib Dem plan to establish a grand committee of English MPs, with the right to veto legislation applying only England, with its members based on the share of the vote

Each of these suggestions would be disastrous for a future Labour government, hindering their ability to pass legislation without support from the opposition. Labour were noticeably absent from discussions on EVEL and while their objections to the rushed nature of such important legislation seem fair, they are yet to outline their own plans. One avenue they may investigate is a reformed Parliament that dispenses with first-past-the-post voting. This would not only diminish the Conservative’s disproportionate power in England, but also offer them the chance to get back on the ‘progressive’ front foot.

Another is House of Lords reform and the creation of an English second chamber. This is problematic. The Lords includes a number of key influencers of Labour policy, who, given their age and external interests, may well be unwilling to stand for election, or engage with their constituents. The rights and wrongs are the current system are open to discussion, but it is undeniable that it enables experts and leaders to contribute in a manner that might otherwise be impossible

Where now for the Union?

The Scottish Referendum has undoubtedly changed Britain forever. Though the Union remains, cracks are beginning to show. It has been weather beaten by a clamour for greater agency north of the border and shocked by demands for devolution in England. Alex Salmond suggested that the referendum would settle the matter of Scottish independence “for a generation” and yet this does not seem to be the case. Remarkably the SNP have emerged from defeat stronger than ever, perhaps gearing up to win the war having lost the battle.

The Conservatives’ position is harder to judge. David Cameron will not go down as Britain’s last Prime Minister, but, given his limited role in Better Together, nor will he be remembered as its saviour. By focusing on English devolution he demonstrated strong political instincts and wrong footed his opponents with ease.

In contrast, Labour emerged bruised, beaten and on the back foot. If the party are to reclaim their former strength in Scotland they will need to match the SNP street by street and voter by voter. Jim Murphy may well have the skills needed to do that, but it is not yet clear whether the rest of his party has the stomach for such vigorous campaigning.

When historians reflect on 2014 there is little doubt in my mind that the independence referendum will very much be the beginning, and not the end, of their narrative.

Jack Taylor

Jack Taylor

Consultant at Keene Communications
Jack’s background is in domestic politics, having worked in various research position in both the Commons and the Lords. He has a particular interest in matters pertaining to infrastructure, transport and development.
Jack Taylor

About the Author

Jack’s background is in domestic politics, having worked in various research position in both the Commons and the Lords. He has a particular interest in matters pertaining to infrastructure, transport and development.