It will come as little surprise to regular readers that I am delighted with the result of yesterday’s referendum in Scotland. Although I had remained optimistic that the people of Scotland would vote “No” to independence, I had thought the result might be closer.
Historically, support for independence has hovered at around a third of the population of Scotland or less. Even though the timing of the referendum and other details were chosen by the Scottish National Party – who are said to have employed political psychologists to ensure it favoured them as much as possible, for example occurring towards the end of a Conservative UK government’s term – and despite their relentless campaign, they were still only able to muster the support of less than 45% of the population. I don’t expect that to last. Sooner or later, support will drop to the pre-referendum levels. Had the vote been a “yes”, it would have been a travesty. It couldn’t have been said to represent the “settled” will of the Scottish people. The campaign seemed more to resemble a game show or reality TV series, with the aim to win the competition on the day to claim the prize, rather than to measure the long-held views of the population. I suppose the same is true of general election campaigns, but at least there the prize is to govern to five years. Here, the change would have been forever.
I do think the Westminster government mishandled the referendum somewhat, and were too complacent for too long. However, the Better Together campaign didn’t deserve the criticism it often attracted. The fact is, it’s difficult to make “no” sound positive. Whenever they stated a fact or position of the UK government, it was jumped on by the “yes” side and branded “negative”, whereas another day the “yes” team would present their latest argument, but any attempt to scrutinise it was simply branded “negative” by the SNP’s slick media machine. There was only one real threat issued by either side, as opposed to simply stating a position, and that was when the SNP said there would be a “day of reckoning” following a yes vote for companies who had supported a no vote.
As I said back in February, the weakness in the SNP’s whole argument and blueprint for independence was that many of their promises were little more than aspirations. They couldn’t guarantee use of the pound or EU membership because that would have been dependent on third parties’ agreement. Happily, it seems the people of Scotland saw through these claims. As one German newspaper put it this morning, the SNP had been “promising the moon”.
Perhaps the only downside of a “no” vote (and it is a price worth paying) is that we will not have a chance to see just how many issues Alex Salmond had misled people on. I doubt he or the core independence supporters would have cared; for the rest of the people of Scotland it would have been to late, had they been stuck with no control over their currency or unfavourable EU membership terms. There is just one of Alex Salmond’s promises we can check. Last month, he was asked if he would resign immediately in the event of a “no” vote, and he said he would remain and serve out his term as First Minister. Today, following a “no” vote, he resigned.
So does the referendum leave the United Kingdom divided and weaker as a nation? I don’t believe so. The vote removes the uncertainty that has been hanging over us for decades, and affirms the Scots’ place within the Union. A new devolution settlement will benefit all parts of the UK. Rather than thinking of the nations of the UK being in competition, I see the real problem facing us, the real inequality, to be the way London sucks the life out of the rest of the country. I intend to visit the English devolution question in future posts, but I can say quite categorically now that we do not need an English parliament. The regions of England are as ill-served by Westminster as Scotland is. So let’s have regional government in England, and give large cities a special status and control over their own affairs – which will of course include London. Not only will such arrangements benefit people in England, it will also mean Scotland and Wales will no longer be considered to be receiving special treatment, and so strengthen the Union.
Has our reputation been damaged following the vote? Most foreign governments and news outlets seem relieved that it was a “no” vote, but there also seems to be a lot of surprise and even admiration that the vote was allowed in the first place. Many countries with regions keen to break away deny those people a referendum. The UK has quite rightly been applauded for its commitment to democracy, and for the civilised manner in which the vote was conducted – in relative terms anyway. Fair play, civility, and a belief in democracy and freedom of expression are all values the British people share. We should celebrate the common values that bind us as well as our differences as we begin a new and exciting era in the politics of this great nation that we share.