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Expert Comment: Scotland's referendum - the aftermath

Scottish Flag (small) Thursday 25 September 2014

As the dust settles following Scotland's Independence Referendum, Bill Jones (Honorary Senior Fellow (and former Professor), Politics and History) looks at the result's repercussions.

Even though Scotland has been a part of the union since 1707, few of us south of the border worried too much about how Scots were feeling even halfway though the extended Referendum campaign. It was well known that the 5.3m Scots(8% UK population) were further to the left than the English but polls had shown for years that only a third of Scots were in favour of the SNP goal of independence. Most non Scottish citizens in the United Kingdom did not want Scotland to leave the union on 18th September and until the early past of that month most complacently believed the Yes campaign would triumph. However, that Yougov poll in the Sunday Times 7th September, showing a two point lead for Yes, transformed the situation.

Not only did it concentrate minds, it panicked a few of them including the leaders of the main UK parties. They instantly abandoned the potent theatre of Prime Ministers Questions on 10th September to travel up north and preach the gospel of togetherness and in exchange promised to bestow sweeping new powers over tax and welfare. As expected, their pleas, injected into an adrenaline powered apparently unstoppable surge for Yes, made little obvious impact. Scots were fed up precisely with the Westminster parties and the fact that they had to put up with London based governments- Thatcher was the worst, Cameron no better - alien to their political culture and traditions. Aware of Tory unpopularity, Cameron had been happy for Alistair Darling to front the 'Better Together' campaign. The former Labour Chancellor was respected as a calm and logical debater but the No campaign, concerned to  accentuate the negatives, lacked the enticing excitement of the Yes invitation to take a risk a leap into a better future.

With a few days to go, an unlikely new actor burst on to the scene. Gordon Brown, MP for Kirkaldy and Cowdenbeath, had refused to campaign with a Better Together team which involved the loathsome Tories and had kept himself in the virtual purdah he had maintained since losing the 2010 election. Polls showed that the biggest defections to Yes, were from former Labour voters; Brown now resolved to stiffen Scottish  Labour's resolve to stay with the 300 year union. Brown, never appreciated by the English, had always been warmly perceived by his fellow Scots. A charismatic politician in opposition, Brown's ability to persuade had declined once in government, sadly, almost to vanishing point when prime minister. But now he appeared reborn, barnstorming around the towns and cities of his homeland, receiving rapturous receptions to a plea which clearly came from his heart. His Glasgow speech on the day before polling was a tour de force, the best of the campaign probably and many ascribed the No's decisive 55-45% victory to Brown's late intervention.     

In the wake of the No victory, Salmond, who had promptly resigned after the loss, condemned  Cameron's response as reneging on the promises made during that panicky trek north by the party leaders. Under pressure from his own MPs, not to mention the threat of UKIP, Cameron had linked the delivery of the promised extra powers - 'in tandem with and at the same pace'- to similar reforms for England, including 'English votes for English laws'. Given the myriad intractable political forces with passionate interests in the latter topic, such a pledge was tantamount to a indefinite delay to the fulfilment of the promises made to the Scots. Cameron is hoping to seize from the near disaster of the referendum campaign, a political victory- the ending of Scottish Labour MPs' ability to vote on English issues  which would possibly ensure indefinite future Tory rule over England. The result of the referendum has brought joy for the unionists, despair for the nationalists, and an acute constitutional crisis for the whole of the United Kingdom.             

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