SCOTLAND opted resoundingly yesterday to continue its 307-year union with the rest of Britain, with the “no” vote prevailing in 28 of 32 local authority areas; the result was the only sensible outcome, and whilst the United Kingdom will remain united for the foreseeable future, grievances will continue to be nursed on either side of the border. The resignation of Scotland’s First Minister in the wake of the vote, whilst gracious, was inevitable.
In the end, some might say it came down to the head triumphing over the heart.
Yet such a platitude is too simplistic to be meaningful when it comes to evaluating the outcome of yesterday’s referendum on Scottish independence from the rest of the UK; many of those who voted “yes” — seeking to break the 307-year bond between Scotland and its neighbours — knew that every argument advanced by the other side was correct, but voted against them anyway; similarly, many who voted “no” desperately wanted to believe the case presented by the Nationalists, but baulked.
Either way, I never expected the referendum to succeed, although after the published polls in Britain swung firmly toward a “yes” outcome some weeks ago, the question became one of whether the margin of victory for “no” would be sufficient to prevent the Scottish Nationalists from having another go in 10 or 20 years’ time.
With 55.3% of the votes cast, the “no” side has achieved a solid, if unspectacular win, and in this sense the Nationalists will find it very difficult indeed to justify another attempt at engineering independence in the medium term. But the margin was hardly conclusive enough to prevent such a thing in the longer run.
In the sometimes blunt way we do things in this column, I have characterised this referendum previously as an attempt to give form to the cerebral hatred of the English of the First Minister, Alex Salmond; a shrewd operator if ever there was, his prosecution of the “yes” case has bewildered and enraged many observers, built as it was on fundamentally misleading positions over key aspects of what a post-separation Scotland might look like that was nonetheless accepted as fact by hundreds of thousands of his supporters.
Businesses based in Scotland warned that they would relocate to London, taking jobs and capital with them. Salmond’s response? They’re bluffing.
The Governor of the Bank of England warned that an independent Scotland would not be able to retain the British pound — not officially, at any rate — creating mammoth short-term costs on the Scottish government to establish a currency, reserves, and a mint. Salmond’s response? The BoE was wrong.
Brussels — headquarters to the European Union — warned that an independent Scotland could not be assured automatic membership of the EU, and that if granted membership, the delay could be considerable. Salmond’s idiot-simple response? The EU is wrong; Britain is an EU member and as a successor state, so too would Scotland be.
On and on it went, covering everything from the retention of the monarchy, to defaulting on Scotland’s share of any carve-up of British national debt, to rights over North Sea oilfields, and beyond.
Every time Salmond’s assurances and promises of no pain and no disadvantage to Scotland were slapped down, he still argued black was white.
In being prepared to say literally anything to convince his countrymen to abandon their bond with England, it’s little wonder so many bought into it, with turnout for the referendum a record 85%.
But the best interests of Scotland — and its people — were acted upon by the majority who, in the end, refused to support Salmond’s grab bag of empty and misleading promises.
One man likely to be extremely relieved today is the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who was staring stonily at the prospect of being forced to quit his post if the Union had been lost yesterday; happily, no such fate awaits him, at least not this week.
But attempting to break up a country like the UK is a high-stakes enterprise at the best of times, and someone was always going to lose.
It is fitting that in the aftermath of the votes being tallied, Salmond has chosen to fall on his sword; just as Cameron’s tenure may have proven untenable had the referendum succeeded, Salmond’s certainly is now, and whilst his statement of a need for fresh leadership in Scotland was gracious — even noble — he had no alternative in view of the “opportunity” he has squandered.
Consider this: Salmond — who has made a career of working to engineer Scotland’s rejection of union with England — was provided the wording he wanted for the referendum question; the timing he preferred for the vote to be held; extracted concessions from Westminster during the campaign in the form of additional powers of self-governance for Scotland, if it voted to stay in the UK, that he subsequently used to suggest his country was no better off inside the UK than outside it; and ran a shockingly misleading and dishonest campaign that could only be expected to add the gullible, the stupid and the contemptible to the core base of supporters he started with.
If Scottish Nationalists could not convince a majority of their countrymen to abandon the UK in the glow of such a favourable alignment of circumstances, when can they hope to do so ever again? It is impossible to say “never,” and foolhardy to do so on any question of electoral politics — in the UK, or anywhere else. But this is a point that suggests that in terms of any future attempt at breaking the Union from the Scottish side, the 44.7% “yes” scored yesterday might overstate the true level of underlying support for such an endeavour.
If there is one good thing that can come of all of this, it is the prospect of England achieving more or less the same degree of autonomy over matters solely pertaining to its own governance that the other constituent countries of the United Kingdom enjoy; the concessions extracted by Salmond have had the consequence of enraging many English MPs — especially in Cameron’s Conservative Party — and the pressure for an extensive overhaul of the constitutional arrangements of the UK will be irresistible in the days ahead.
Whilst this column was somewhere in the distant future at the time, I was resolutely opposed to the idea of “devolved government” for Scotland and Wales when the Blair government introduced it 15-odd years ago; one of the reasons for it was that yesterday’s referendum on breaking up the UK was always going to be one of its repercussions.
The “devolution max” concessions offered to Scotland now bring the further inevitability of more change in Britain; in the interests of perspective I will leave those aside for now, and revisit them at some later juncture when they become the issues of the day.
But I did want to say a few things at least about what happened yesterday; owing to the ongoing constraints on my time I have faced of late I feared I would be unable to do so, but here we are.
I really do believe — and I mean in my bones, not just to make the point — that had the Nationalists triumphed yesterday, the consequences for Scotland would have been cataclysmic: perhaps not now, but in five, ten, twenty years’ time, yesterday’s date would have lived on in infamy north of the border.
It wouldn’t have done much for the English, either, or the rest of the UK, its people, and its partners.
As someone who identifies as Scottish — by descent — I understand too well the tide of history, and the deeply seated forces that drive Nationalist fervour where it exists (and not least, from stories passed along through familial links).
But money, jobs, trade, decent living standards…these are things which Scotland derives from its union with the rest of Britain, not in spite of it; and whatever historical enmities might exist between the two sides, Scotland is better off comfortable inside the Union than facing an uncertain future — or worse — without it.
My own ancestral seat of Glasgow voted clearly (but not overwhelmingly) in favour of breaking away; I had heard many horror stories about Glasgow before I went there some years ago — what it was like in “the old days,” which is what I’m told it’s still like if you go to the right districts — and was stunned to find a vibrant, thriving town of which I was immediately proud. It’s surprisingly like Brisbane — before they started knocking the heritage buildings in Brisbane down, that is — which is probably not so much a surprise at all when it’s remembered that those who built Brisbane came disproportionately from Scotland some 200 years ago.
Anyway, I digress.
One way or the other — despite competing loyalties, split affiliations, and the contest between the heart and the head — Scottish voters got it very, very right yesterday.
The United Kingdom remains united, and Scotland, like Britain overall, will be a better, stronger place for it.