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Dublin: 16 °C Tuesday 18 June, 2019
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Opinion: Yes, Scotland has stayed in the UK – but the old union is dead

Despite the defeat for independence, Scotland and the UK will never be the same again – and Ireland’s relationship with its neighbours will change too.

Kevin Byrne

THE SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE referendum has given us a dramatic few weeks. After almost two years of campaigning that was barely noticed by the rest of the UK or the outside world, a single poll two weeks ago showed the Yes side ahead for the first time. Cue panic from the Westminster establishment, trips north by UK party leaders to plead with the Scots to stay and to make promises of expanded devolution if they kept the union, while a previously unpopular former PM found his voice to lead the fight back to save the UK.

We saw a passionate but peaceful debate rage as a nation weighted its destiny, with an incredible 97% of the population registering to vote. In an unprecedented democratic event, last Thursday 85% of Scotland’s electorate cast their ballots, re-engaging themselves, and many watching from outside, with the power of democracy. Though independence was defeated 55% to 45% on Friday morning, the drama has barely stopped since – with the resignation that same day of the First Minister who made the referendum a reality, and the beginning of a process that will likely lead to a rapid reordering of the UK constitutional framework and devolution of new powers to countries and regions in the UK.

A nation awakened

Rather that a nation divided, the legacy of the referendum campaign is a nation awakened. Scottish national identity and consciousness is more alive than in hundreds of years. Scotland made a decision on its destiny, a decision that wasn’t easy and which was taken very seriously by citizens. The polling suggests that Scotland briefly flirted with the idea of independence in the last weeks of the campaign, led by its heart and excited by the prospect of striking out on its own. But in the last few days the head won out and concerns over economics caused enough voters to pull back to ensure a solid No vote. The establishment reaction to the first poll showing a Yes result a fortnight ago was panicked and desperate but it did the job. If that poll had appeared a week later Yes could have won as it would’ve had all the momentum; the No side would not have had time to react.

In general the No side ran a negative campaign focussed on economic fearmongering. While it may have worked in the end it will have left a bad taste in Scotland, even among No voters, and it has probably weakened the union in the long run – for if pro-union campaigners have nothing positive to say about the union, what does that say about it?

The Yes side, on the other hand, ran a positive broad-based campaign that engaged many sections of society, including many people who had never been involved in politics before. The long campaign suited them as it let them reassure people about the major institutional changes independence would bring, and to soften the fears around the economic dangers that the No side raised. Before the referendum campaign independence never had more than mid 30% support in polling, so although only two regions voted Yes (Glasgow and Dundee) to reach 45% Yes nationwide on referendum day was actually a major victory.

One underappreciated feature of the Yes campaign is how many in it claimed they were not nationalists, and certainly not SNP supporters. They saw themselves as campaigning for independence, not nationalism, a distinction the external media didn’t see but which was important to many of those on the Yes side. There was also a lot of talk of creating a civic, independent Scotland not an ethnically defined one. Where these types of activists end up will be fascinating to watch.

Incidentally, this distinction helps explain why a lot of the rhetoric from the three UK party leaders fell on deaf ears – they came north to fight back against nationalism, but that was only half the story of the Yes side.

A Scottish demos

The word ‘demos’ is often used to denote a group of people with a shared political consciousness. One of the main reasons European Parliament elections don’t succeed in engaging the public or lead to continent-wide debates is that there is no European demos – we have different political cultures, we read different newspapers and news websites and we argue over different issues.

Up until very recently, there was also no Scottish demos – politics was focused on Westminster and UK-wide political issues dominated debate. Since devolution in 1999 that has been gradually changing and the referendum has completed that process in dramatic fashion – there is now a self-consciously Scottish demos for whom Scottish political issues dominate and whose attention is focused on the Scottish parliament at Holyrood, with Westminster politics now secondary.

This change is firmly established and Scotland will never revert back to the old order. This probably favours independence happening in the long-term, though that is not inevitable, but it certainly means a complete change to Scottish political life from that of the last 300 years, and it means the UK can not be the same as it has been to date. As the Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones said after the Scottish referendum: “the old union is dead”.

A rebooted United Kingdom?

So if the old UK is dead, what will it evolve into? In the last weeks of the campaign the leaders of the three main UK parties and the former PM Gordon Brown committed Westminster to giving Scotland much expanded devolution – what Gordon Brown called Home Rule and many others called ‘devo-max’. However the parties disagree on exactly what new powers should be devolved and within 24 hours of the No victory English backbench MPs were pushing back against these ‘concessions’ to Scotland. Nevertheless as of today it looks likely that the timescale set out before polling will be largely kept to and that new powers will be negotiated and legislated for by March next year. But if these promises are not delivered on it will cause intense resentment in Scotland, among both Yes and No voters.

In parallel to the above process the threat to the UK from Scotland almost leaving and the devolution of more powers means that it’s felt the time has come to look at many constitutional anomalies and rebalance power between Westminster, the devolved governments and perhaps English regions or cities. This will probably happen through a constitutional convention of some sort, either a stand alone one or a parliamentary one. But, again, the parties disagree on how to proceed so this might be slow.

The biggest issue is the fact that currently Scottish MPs can vote on, say, English education or sentencing laws but can’t vote on similar laws in Scotland (as they are devolved), which most consider unfair. However as Labour has much more support than the Tories in Scotland and Wales excluding MPs from those countries from certain votes will hurt them much more. Other reforms, like that of the House of Lords are also on the cards. It could be abolished or else become an elected chamber representing the regions in a more federated UK.

From an Irish point of view an expanded role for the British-Irish Council (that includes all national and devolved governments on these islands) might emerge, but hasn’t received much comment in the UK as of yet. A British exit from the EU might also be less likely now as the English will fear Scotland leaving the UK if it exits the EU, with support for EU membership much higher north of the border.

An English political awakening, too

Scottish devolution over the last 15 years and, in particular, last week’s referendum has facilitated the emergence of a distinctly English political agenda, with many Tory English MPs looking for either a dedicated English parliament or else regional assemblies. This agenda is here to stay and will have to feature as part of the final order that emerges over the next few years. Although we think of England as one block it’s worth noting that of its nine regions, five are bigger that Scotland is terms of both population and economic output, and all are bigger than Northern Ireland. Rising UKIP support is another sign of growing English nationalism and the energy of the campaign in Scotland has infected citizens in both England and Wales who are now looking at their political futures anew as a consequence.

Gordon Brown reborn

The real revelation of the last stages of the campaign was a re-energised Gordon Brown, completely at odds with the dour and unpopular PM people remember. With passion and conviction he did more for the pro-union cause in the last week than anyone else. He delivered the positive message that the No side had so lacked to that point and he reached out and pulled back enough Labour voters to ensure a comfortable No win, stopping the slide to the Yes side at a crucial moment. Although this passionate Gordon Brown was a surprise it was not completely out of character. In the 1980s he gave barnstormer speeches at Labour conferences and it was only when he became the ‘prudent’ New Labour chancellor in the 1990s that he took on his dull persona in order to reassure English voters.

There has been some talk since the result of Brown entering the Scottish parliament and maybe even trying to become first minister. That’s probably unlikely but it would not be surprising if the Queen invites him to Balmoral for tea and a thank you before he retires to the backbenches again.

One interesting feature of his key speech is that he effectively made nationalism sound like a dirty word (while expressing pride in his nation) and praised the merits and successes of a supra-national political system that has served his people well and had achieved much. However if in the UK referendum on an EU exit in a few years time he made a case along similar lines it would be received totally differently – the newspapers and commentators who were praising him last week would condemn him for a similar defence of the EU.

Salmond resigns

The biggest shock in the aftermath of the referendum defeat was Alex Salmond’s resignation as first minister. Earlier on the day of the result he had fulfilled his role as national leader in receiving and respecting the democratic result, so his later resignation was unexpected – but it was dignified, and there is a neat symmetry to ending his term in tandem with the referendum he did so much to make happen.

Ironically, despite the apparent defeat, he may have achieved what he actually wanted. When he was negotiating with the British PM David Cameron on the terms of the referendum Salmond wanted the third option of ‘devo-max’ on the ballot. It was Cameron who insisted on a Yes/No vote, assuming it couldn’t be won, a calculation that nearly blew up in his face. Privately at the time it seems Salmond didn’t feel a Yes/No vote could be won either, but in the end he came very close. And in its last minute panic to ensure a No vote Westminster has conceded the wide-ranging devolution that was Salmond’s main medium-term goal.

Salmond’s success in reframing his country’s national question, professionalising the political efforts to achieve independence and commitment to constitutionalism echoes Parnell’s role in the struggle for Irish self-government in the late 1800s. The outgoing first minister took the SNP from being a fringe party to its current position as the largest party in the country, running the devolved Scottish government, and to the cusp of independence. He is the dominant figure in modern Scottish politics and in stature there are few if any UK politicians that compare. Like Parnell, he will not be there to lead his country to independence but if that day comes he will be remembered as one of the prime movers behind it, the unquestioned ‘chief’ who made the final steps possible. At times during the campaign he already looked like the ‘Father of the Nation’ and Salmond leaves the stage with independence actively supported at the ballot box by 45% of his people.

Unionist relief

Northern Ireland unionists will breath a sigh of relief that the referendum was defeated and the union saved. Unionists in the North have a strong political, cultural and personal affinity with the Scots, and a UK without Scotland would have raised existential questions for them.

Nevertheless politicians in the North will also be taking stock of the strong anti-union vote in Scotland and what it might mean both in the short-term and the long-term. Long-term it creates a looming question about the viability of the UK.

But in the short-term it raises immediate questions about constitutional rebalancing in the UK and the further devolution of powers, including perhaps to NI. Though given Northern ministers are struggling to balance their budget and the Executive is in near gridlock there is a suspicion that they may not actually want any more powers.

Border Poll

The Scottish referendum has caused Sinn Féin to once again call for a Border Poll in Northern Ireland on unification with the Republic, as is allowed for under the Good Friday Agreement. This would be a much more divisive exercise than the civilised Scottish campaign, but given the No vote in Scotland and the fact a Border Poll is highly unlikely to be carried the DUP first minister Peter Robinson might decide to call Sinn Féin’s bluff on this.

In reality many middle-class professional Catholics (who are culturally Irish and nationalist) would vote No to unification, and the poll would be defeated heavily. Robinson has a stated long-term goal to get pro-union Catholics voting for the DUP – that’s at minimum a long way off and is probably unrealistic, but he might calculate that forcing such voters to vote for the union might advance any such movement. If nothing else holding the poll would deny Sinn Féin the issue for at least a decade or two.

Our responsibilities regarding Northern Ireland

Within Britain, when devolution is being discussed by the media or politicians Northern Ireland is rarely mentioned – or if it is it’s only as an afterthought. The focus is on Scotland, Wales and the English regions, nevertheless the North will have to feature in any new dispensation. Under the British-Irish treaty that underpins the Good Friday Agreement the Irish government is to be involved in all discussions on the future of Northern Ireland. This doesn’t seem to be currently on the UK government’s radar (perhaps understandably given the union’s near-death experience), but the Irish government has made no statement on this either, and there’s no indication the Taoiseach has talked to the British PM about it.

Whether this would mean the Irish government sending observers to a UK constitutional convention, or just being consulted directly by London on areas affecting NI, there will need to be some formal role. At present this issue seems to be completely overlooked, which is typical of the current disengagement of the Irish and British governments from NI affairs.

Time for Ireland to take more interest in Scotland

While we won’t need to appoint an ambassador to Scotland, it is time we started taking more notice of our neighbour and building real bilateral relations with her. Whether through future independence or wide-ranging home rule there will be an increasingly powerful government in Holyrood who we should be pro-actively engaging with. As similarly sized neighbours with many historic and cultural links this is common sense.

Be it as allies, competitors (perhaps for foreign direct investment if Edinburgh gets control of its corporation tax rates), or merely as Celtic nations interested in each others’ affairs, this a relationship that should be more important to us but it is one we have been neglectful of since Scotland received devolution in 1999. For example, last week we sent no official observers to the referendum. Other countries, like the US and Canada did, but despite us sending observers to many votes around the world, we sent no one to a referendum in our neighbour that was going to have direct impacts on Ireland, North and south. This lack of awareness and engagement will have to change.

Lesson in democracy

The main lesson people looking in from outside will take away from the Scottish referendum is that when something really important is at stake, and where there really is a choice, voters will engage and participate in huge numbers. The 85% turnout is the highest since universal suffrage was introduced in 1918. And seeing democracy in action like that was an awesome sight. There is a lesson to be learned for our unresponsive party political systems.

Give voters a real choice, give them real information to weigh up – do that and they will turn out in numbers and will make difficult decisions in a considered manner. Do that and voters will show that democracy can still be a powerful tool to change our societies for the better.

Dr Kevin Byrne writes about Irish policy and politics at NowOrSoon.com. You can follow him at fb.com/noworsoon or @noworsoon

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United Kingdom: Scotland votes No and rejects independence

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Kevin Byrne

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