A printable version of this commentary can be found here.
The results are now in, and as British Prime Minister David Cameron remarked, “the United Kingdom has to come together to move forward”. Scottish voters made a landmark decision 18 September (Thursday) to stay in the United Kingdom and rejected independence by 55.3% to 44.7%. The overall turnout for the referendum was unlike any that Scotland had seen: a record 84.6%, higher than the 1979 and 1997 devolution referendums or any election in Scotland in the recent times.
While the vote on independence has certainly been settled for now, it still remains to be seen what the future holds for Scotland and the UK. Although the Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond called on Scotland to ‘accept the democratic verdict of the people of Scotland’ and David Cameron insisted that there would be “no more re-runs”, the issue of Scottish sovereignty may not yet be settled as the referendum has left more questions than answers about the way forward for Scotland and the UK.
Why “Yes” Failed and where it succeeded
Why did the “Yes” campaign not do as well as some of the opinion polls predicted? – Only in four council areas – Glasgow, Dundee, West Dunbartonshire and North Lanarkshire – did the majority voted “Yes” in favour of independence. The Yes campaign did well in these areas because of socioeconomic reasons – these areas housed Scotland’s most severe areas of poverty, and some marginal councils such as Inverclyde (49.9% to Yes) and North Ayrshire (49% to Yes) shared similar characteristics. Rural Scotland and more well-to-do areas delivered resounding victories for the “No” campaign.
Arguably, the “Yes” campaign failed in the more affluent areas where there were more concerns about the proposed sterling currency union and the projected financial flight. The “Yes” campaign failed to explain how Scotland could live with the “lender of last resort” that would be based in and controlled by the UK, and the overwhelming threats of capital flows flagged by those for the “No” campaign – was also not countered adequately.
Question marks remained over the “Yes” campaign’s proposal to join the EU. While “Yes” insisted that ascension to the EU would be straightforward as it already adopts EU treaties and regulations as part of the UK, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso had earlier warned that the road towards EU membership would not be easy. This was further complicated by the support of the “No” campaign from Madrid and Rome – both have strong secessionist movements within their borders and therefore reluctant to accept an independent Scotland as an EU member in view of the implications it might have for them.
Nevertheless, the “Yes” campaign must be recognised as a successful exercise in democracy and political participation although it ultimately failed to achieve its main objective. Alex Salmond noted that the referendum had reflected “enormous credit upon Scotland” in that ordinary citizens were galvanised – in the face of strong international and domestic elite opposition to independence – to think about the future of Scotland. The turnout of 84.6% was the highest for any vote in the UK in recent times, and due to the referendum, more Scots are now registered to vote in future UK and Scottish elections, as well as any future referendum.
More questions than answers: the future of UK politics post-referendum
The referendum has seen the end of Salmond’s political career, the possible revival of former PM Gordon Brown and the current PM, Cameron, now galvanised by an emphatic victory. What would all these meant for the future of the United Kingdom’s domestic and international politics?
Salmond – who was at the forefront of the “Yes” campaign – conceded defeat and announced his resignation as leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) after the vote., He is likely to be replaced by his Deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, with stronger SNP overall: more than 18,000 people joined the party since last Thursday’s referendum, lifting its overall membership to a record level of 43,644 and making it one of the largest parties in the UK.
For the unionists, former Labour PM Gordon Brown’s last minute entry into the “No” campaign was believed to be key in countering the arguments of the Yes campaign – central to Brown’s personal campaign was a promise to discuss a “new deal” for Scotland in which Scotland would receive more powers and more funds from London. The former PM’s intervention has proved successful and it has certainly revived calls by many in his party for him to return to the front-line of politics.
Now that the dust has settled, David Cameron has acknowledged that the referendum was an opportunity for the UK to improve ‘for the better’ and also promised a ‘balanced settlement’ that is fair to both Scotland and England. However, the key question now is how Messrs Cameron, Miliband and Brown would act together to chart a new constitutional direction for the UK in the future: the British PM is now under fire for being firm about plans for Scotland whilst being vague about powers for the English regions. Furthermore, with incoming Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon ready to put pressure on Westminster to stick to their promises, the road ahead would not be easy for Cameron.
At a glance, there would almost certainly be disagreements between the three main unionist parties on what sort of constitutional reform is needed – the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are in favour of preventing Scottish MPs on voting on policies that affect England, but this is not supported by Labour. Devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and English regions would transform Westminster into a federal parliament – although such a proposal is one that would be supported by the Scottish Nationalists, it would not be an easy pill to swallow for many Conservatives.
Last but not least, it remains to be seen the long term implications of the Scottish vote on the United Kingdom’s membership of the EU. Cameron is certainly relieved that the independence referendum is defeated, and the on-going negotiations on further devolution would be central to the Conservative Party’s electoral platform at next May’s General Elections. With Cameron also committed to a referendum on the UK’s EU membership should his party win the next general election, the UK may bid goodbye to the EU come 2017 even as it “settles” the devolution of powers within its borders.
An EU exit for the UK could provide the occasion for the Scots to rally for another referendum to leave the UK in favour of continued membership of the EU. Thus the conversation on Scottish sovereignty is not entirely over as yet for the UK.
Views (and fears) from Europe
Turning back towards the EU, the independence referendum in Scotland was deemed to have a rallying effect on separatist movements in the Union’s member states such as Spain and Italy where regional nationalism is strong.
The autonomous Spanish region of Catalonia – the economic powerhouse of Spain – has seen renewed calls for an independence referendum in the wake of the Scottish vote. While Madrid has unsurprisingly welcomed the “No” vote, Catalan leader Artur Mas has promised to sign a decree for a referendum to be held on 9 November 2014. This move, however, is expected to involve a long legal struggle between Madrid and Catalonia, as Madrid has said that it would not recognise the legality of the referendum.
Italian leaders can expect the fallout from the Scottish referendum to be felt in the Italian regions of Veneto, a culturally distinct region in northern Italy which held an “unofficial referendum” in March where voters voted in favour of independence, and in other areas such as the German-speaking Italian province of South Tyrol, and the Italian island of Sardinia where secessionist feeling is gaining momentum.
All in all, the renewed calls for independence in these nations would pose even more problems for the EU as it would then have to come to a workable solution on membership accession of regions formerly under EU member states.