Nearly a century has passed since William Butler Yeats reflected on a failed Celtic bid for independence: “All changed, changed utterly/ A terrible beauty is born,” he wrote in Easter 1916. The birth of the Irish Free State came six bloody years later.
No blood was spilt in the failed bid for Scottish independence, but the issue is far from settled. Nicola Sturgeon, soon-to-be leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), is no poet, but her prose seemed to draw from Yeats: “Scotland has changed forever,” she said last week. “It will never be the same again.”
After a week characterised by calls from Tory notables to renege on the promises that did so much to secure that 55-45 no-vote, a bitter aftertaste is beginning to sour the memory of something astonishing that engulfed Scotland’s 5.4-million residents, 85% of whom turned out to vote.
It’s hard to avoid personifying the history that led to this moment. When the 35-year-old Alex Salmond won the SNP leadership in 1990, it had barely progressed from the rag-tag bunch of tartan-wearing fantasists he’d joined as a student. This left-wing oil economist managed to combine social democratic aspirations with pragmatism on independence, turning his party’s fortunes around until it supplanted Labour.
The SNP made an independence referendum part of their 2011 election platform, though no one expected the overall majority necessary to implement it. But win they did, and by a margin way beyond their dreams, and so the independence wheels started to turn.
Alex the gradualist knew the odds, and proposed three poll answers: Yes, No and “Devo-max” (covering many of the powers of a nation, excluding foreign policy and defence). United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to the referendum, seeing it as a chance to snuff out the flame, but rejected the devo-max option.
It is often noted that Scotland has more polar bears than Conservative MPs, so Cameron, well aware of the toxicity of his brand, accepted that the “Better Together” leader would have to be a Labour figure but vetoed his Downing Street predecessor Gordon Brown. Instead it was handed to Brown’s dour former chancellor Alistair Darling, but it hardly seemed to matter because early polls suggested only 23% would vote Yes.
The American pundit Nate Silver, who correctly predicted every state result in the last United States presidential election, declared that the Yes campaign had “virtually no chance” of victory. All the big guns pointed in the other direction. Every national party in the UK other than the Greens opposed independence. So did every national newspaper, while only one local newspaper, the Scottish Herald, backed Yes. (As for the BBC, the clue is in the first B.)
The No campaign was overwhelmingly negative: we won’t let you keep the pound; prices will rocket; businesses will up sticks. Some of it was risible, like their sexist advert featuring what became known as “patronising Better Together lady”, who moaned, cuppa in hand, that her husband kept on about independence, but “there’s only so many hours in the day and so much to weigh up … so that’ll be a No for me”.
Meanwhile, something extraordinary was happening: Aye was morphing into a spontaneous movement, free-ranging, culturally inventive, perpetually innovative and redolent of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign in its creative use of social media. The nationalism it embraced was tartan-light and blind to race or ethnicity, unleashing an all-inclusive civic nationalism. Everyone resident in Scotland had the vote, so there were Poles for Yes, English for Yes, Asians for Aye and so on.
I have visited Glasgow in the wee hours when it felt like a post-apocalyptic hellhole. But this was so different. Despite the occasional egg or insult tossed in anger, it was remarkably peaceful, full of humour and bonhomie, revealing an increasingly politicised electorate. First-time voters were debating the welfare state, the health service, foreign policy, immigration policy and the nuclear “deterrent” with focus and fervour.
It seemed to jell during the Commonwealth Games. The sight and sound of the entire stadium singing 500 Miles (The Proclaimers’ song, which became an unofficial anthem for Yes) gave a hint that the mood was changing. Numbers shifted until, finally, with 10 days to go, a solitary poll gave Yes a hairline lead. Blind panic seized the British establishment.
Scottish independence might be good for the Tories in the long run (41 fewer Labour MPs at current count), but a disaster for Cameron, who would be known forever as the “man who lost the Union”. So, in their shared perspective that it was The Worst Thing in The World, the three party leaders tossed out lots of new carrots.
Some of it was silly. Trying to “love-bomb” the Scots, they proposed flying the Saltire, the Scottish flag, on every flagpole, but somehow struggled to get it up the Downing Street pole. The simultaneous Scottish tour by the three party leaders also drew derisory reviews, but they got it right in unleashing Gordon Brown after four years in purgatory.
Brown barnstormed the country in Old Labour colours, seeming to forget his decades of cow-towing to bankers, private-finance initiatives … It was the tub-thumping Irn Broon of old, and there was something touching about this bid for redemption. Until then, 30% of Labour voters were in the Yes camp. No doubt Brown helped to cut that number.
More significantly, there was the solemn promise by the three leaders, announced by Brown (their new best friend), which amounted to something like the devo-max that Cameron had scotched: new powers of taxation, welfare spending and welfare policy, and the retention of the Barnett Formula, which distributes spending in health and education, with wealthy Scotland getting more than down-at-the-heel Wales.
New wave of Doom
Meanwhile, Downing Street rallied its business pals into unleashing a new wave of doom, including an astonishing claim by a Deutsche Bank somebody that independence could unleash another Great Depression. Some of this stuck among the waverers over the final days, particularly among those over 55 years old.
In the end, the margin was wider than predicted, but that didn’t tell the whole story. More men than women voted Yes; more working-class people voted Yes, and there was a huge generation gap: 71% of 16- and 17-year-olds voted Yes; 73% of the 65-plus group voted No.
A week on, the hangovers of despair (or relief) have lifted and, as Yeats would have it: “England may keep faith/ For all that is said and done” – or may not, if the realpolitik of narrow party-political interest congeals. Either way, from now on, everything that goes wrong in Scotland will come with a subtext: “If only we’d said Aye …”
Still, political prognosis is tricky. Nineteen years ago the Quebec separatists unexpectedly lost their independence referendum by a single percentage point. They fell to pieces and the issue was dropped.
Scotland feels different. The overwhelming engagement with politics, the decisive shift in public opinion, the strength of the civic nationalism that emerged (even among No voters) do not suggest surrender. It may take a decade or two, but that anger and desire will bubble away, and the time will come when the Scottish flag alone will fly above its capital city.
What the No vote means for everyone
The Scottish National Party (SNP) received a boost despite the No vote. In the United Kingdom 2015 general election, pro-independence voters might be tempted by Labour to keep the Tories out, especially if Gordon Brown returns to the fray.
If the Tories survive, the SNP’s fortunes will be further boosted – not least by the threat posed to pro-European Scots by the promised in-out European Union membership referendum. Come the 2016 Scottish election, and the nationalists will romp home under Nicola Sturgeon.
At 6.45am last Friday, David Cameron announced he was coupling his promises about more devolved powers for Scotland, to the same deal for England.
If he succeeds, it would mean that if Labour won power with the help of Scottish voters, it would be unable to get through its policies on tax, welfare and education in the 85% of the country that is England. So, if Labour wins in 2015, the “English votes for English issues” crusade will be booted into the long grass.
Northern Ireland and Wales
Northern Ireland’s unionists were ecstatic; Sinn Fein, gutted. A Yes vote would have thrown Northern Ireland’s links with Britain into question. Wales, too poor to contemplate independence, is worried about the promise to retain the Barnett Formula, which determines how much money is spent on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland respectively.
The rest of the world
Successive UK prime ministers have endorsed the notion that it is Britain’s destiny to “punch above our weight” and to enjoy a “special relationship” with the United States. This blend of hubris and toadyism will continue, meaning that Britain keeps its “top table” perch – and the Trident nuclear submarines stay on in the Clyde. Britain’s allies were relieved – not least those facing their own independence movements (like Spain). – Gavin Evans