It’s almost two weeks now since Scotland said a loud No to independence. It seemed wiser to reflect on the campaign and its outcome after a little time had passed instead of in the heated aftermath, so here are some thoughts.
Firstly, let’s put the final result to bed. At 55.3% to 44.7% or 2,001,926 to 1,617,989 it was a clear victory for the No campaign. Alex Salmond accepted that on the night, although some of his supporters are still making conspiracy theory noises about a fix. It would do them far more credit if they simply came out of denial, accepted the defeat and moved on.
And it is also a bit much for those who have told us for long enough that 50% + 1 was a clear mandate for independence to see a 55% vote against as anything other than decisive. For those who talked repeatedly of the sovereignty of the Scottish people to question their verdict now. For those who supposedly prize self determination to do anything other than abide by the settled will of the electorate.
I can accept that many are, of course, upset at the result. It’s never easy to take a loss after working hard for a cause over months or years. But some of the language used from the Yes side about those who simply chose to use their vote in a manner they disagree with has been quite shocking. I refuse to repeat the range of epithets here, although I’m sure anyone who inhabits the world of social media will know exactly what I mean.
The two years of the referendum campaign has been a divisive period in Scottish political life. But then a referendum by its very nature is a polarising affair, with only two diametrically opposed outcomes possible. And with a Yes and a No campaign there were always going to be clashes in style as well as in content.
Did the Yes side run the better campaign, as seems to be the conventional wisdom? There is probably some truth in that. It was a different style of campaigning, largely community based in an era of mass media communications. But there was often a sense of campaigners believing in their own hype, caught up in their own rhetoric, and of gatherings that were more about preaching to the converted than winning over the undecided. One nationalist blogger described this as “what we did remarkably well during the #indyref campaign – Yes folk sitting in meetings with other Yes folk agreeing with each other.”
But it is far too simplistic to label one campaign as positive and one as negative. The Yes side put forward a proposition with plenty of emotional appeal but also with massive flaws. And it certainly lost some key arguments during the campaign. The No campaign attacked these inherent weaknesses as it had to do, although I would argue that its balance between questioning the opposition and setting out its own case was wrongly weighted.
From the start of the campaign it was clear that Better Together was not campaigning for the status quo, but rather for a continuation of the devolution process. More powers for the Scottish Parliament were always on the agenda. But the key pledge eventually made by the party leaders should have come earlier in the campaign.
I don’t believe that it was a panic measure. Rather it was something I always expected to happen at some stage. And there is a delicate balance in a campaign between making a big announcement too early and reducing its influence on the result or leaving it too late and being open to a charge of last minute nerves. I think the Better Together campaign and the individual parties involved handled the announcement badly by delaying it far too long – and they will be very relieved that the error was not ultimately a fatal one.
The promises made in the pledge must now be delivered, and I do expect more powers to be devolved on tax raising and spending. It is entirely right that the parties are held to account on this issue – although to hear Alex Salmond talking about a lack of progress on the Sunday morning a mere 48 hours after the result felt just a little much. Lord Smith’s commission will produce a “command paper”, the first part of the process, by the end of October and that will set out the terms of the next stage in the debate.
So the end result of this referendum should be a stronger Scottish Parliament within the UK, as indeed the majority of Scots wanted. The irony remains that the party that will still be governing the devolved Scotland is the one that doesn’t want devolution. And that should make the politics of the next Scottish election in 2016 look very different – although clearly the wider political landscape will first be set by next year’s UK general election.
In the shorter term, we will have a new First Minister following Alex Salmond’s imminent departure. It appears certain that his hand picked successor Nicola Sturgeon will take over, and it remains to be seen whether there will be any amendments to policy or governance style as a result. It seems unlikely, although there may be some further changes to the top team as she looks to the future.
What has undoubtedly changed is the framework of the whole debate about devolution within the UK. The agenda is not now just about how Scotland is governed. Rather there is a wider debate about exactly how a union can operate in a situation where one of its component parts is so much larger than the others. And it has always made sense to me to look at the bigger picture. To seek to create a better and more democratic union rather than walking away from it and starting again.
The referendum process has been a long and bruising one. It has achieved a higher level of political interest and debate than we have seen in many years, as evidenced by the record turnouts in many areas. And that can only be good for our democracy.
Let’s hope that the same energy is now focussed on the positive task of further enhancing our devolution.