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Society, Politics & Law

Settling Uncertainty? Reflections on the Scottish Independence Referendum

Updated Tuesday, 15th September 2015

It's been a year since Scotland voted 'no' in the Scottish Independence Referendum. Gerry Mooney writes about the changes in the political landscape during the past year and Scotland's future.

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illustration of scotland Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Artwork by Gary Edwards © The Open University One year on from the September 18 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum and Scotland – and the UK – are rather different places when it comes to the political landscapes that characterise the countries of these islands. The 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum itself reflected a period of significant political change in Scotland, not least the rise of the SNP and growing popular support for the nationalists against the Labour Party in Scotland, which for much of the past 50-60 years and more has been the established and most dominant political force in Scotland. However, the period since September 2014 has been marked by even more far reaching changes – changes that are gradually working themselves out, which will become emergent and shape the future direction of politics, not only in Scotland but across the UK.

Writing this in Scotland there is no doubt that it feels a very different place. While it is at times hard to express this in words, the wider context that informs political debate and discussion has certainly changed and the wider constitutional debate has been a key vehicle of such change. The ‘Indy Ref’ has been the major catalyst that has brought forth a renewed interest in politics in Scotland, often expressed (and problematically expressed at that) as ‘anti-Westminster’ politics. It has also led to the widespread mobilisation of support for the wider independence movement – a social movement which has galvanised support among the young, disadvantaged, those often excluded from political discussion and debate and also those active across a wide range of social issues in many different parties, organisations and campaigning groups.

One of the most oft-quoted comments that has been vocalised before, during and after the 2014 Indy Ref was then SNP leader and First Minister Alex Salmond’s claim that the result of the referendum would ‘settle the matter for at least a generation’. While this is now used by those opposed to independence and who are resistant to calls for a second referendum, there is general agreement that the 2014 referendum settled absolutely nothing…perhaps only uncertainty! The constitutional question has not gone away – far from it. In the announcements by David Cameron in the morning following the 2014 referendum, and more recently as Prime Minister in a majority Conservative UK government, devolution for England – and that now well-worn phrase, ‘EVEL: English votes for English laws’!

The increasing recognition of England as England, as a nation, will of course only help to further loosen the already fraught ties that bind the UK and which also plays directly into the hands of the SNP. Gordon Brown has in recent months repeatedly attacked the Conservatives for the ‘damage’ he says that this is doing to the continuation of the Union.

That there was a No vote in the 2014 Indy Ref almost seems lost in the mists of political history….but by 55% to 45% the pro-independence movement lost. But within days and weeks of the result, it was already clear that it was the pro-independence movement that had emerged the strongest political force. This propelled the SNP to its stunning victory in the May 2015 General Election in Scotland. In what has been referred to as a ‘tartan tsunami’, the SNP took 56 of the 59 seats in Scotland. The Labour Party – once more do not forget that this was Scotland’s dominant political force for several generations and more – was reduced from the 41 seats it held in the 2010 General Election to only 1 seat – in the somewhat non-traditional Labour area of Edinburgh South! Looking ahead to the May 2016 Scottish Elections, already polls are projecting another SNP landslide with it forecast to win 60% of the vote.

Labour’s demise in Scotland has been in the making for some considerable time now. As the primary defenders of the Union in Scotland – arguably on a Wales and England basis too – they have found themselves in the unenviable position of defending what for growing numbers in Scotland is the UK establishment and the general economic approach of the UK Coalition government between 2010 and 2015 and since May 2015 that of the major Tory government. Another oft heard phrase Labour in Scotland ‘jumped into bed’ with the Tories in defence of the Union – and in being seen to occupy the same platforms and to campaign with the Tories over this issue – they have now paid a very costly political price.

There are many other issues relating to the ongoing legacies of the 2014 Indy Ref which we are unable to delve into here. However, another important development has potentially significant consequences for the constitutional debate in Scotland.

Among the most misplaced and mistaken representations and accounts of the wider Indy movement is that it reflects a rise in national identity; of a growing sense of Scottishness – and the widening appeal of Scottish nationalism. These were repeated claims made by anti-independence politicians, before during and since September 18 2015. This is often taken to suggest Scottish exceptionalism – that there is something uniquely Scottish ‘going-on’ in all of this. Now of course the wider Scottish and constitutional issues cannot be excluded – and should not be excluded from any account of the Indy movement. But at the same time to dismiss and misrepresent that movement and the case for Indy as only a matter of nationalist sentiment and nationalist mobilisation is profoundly unhelpful. What it also serves to do is to marginalise and reject any claim to the contrary that the pro-Indy movement was a wider social movement that was fuelled by opposition to austerity, to cuts, to welfare reforms, to nuclear energy and to nuclear weapons (not least the UK’s nuclear weapons are housed on the River Clyde), and to a wide range of other issues. It brought together massive numbers of people who cannot be dismissed as ‘nationalists’ or as SNP supporters. The 1.6m people voting for independence include a majority who are not and who have never have been, ‘nationalists’.

So, while recognising the specific Scottish dimensions, we cannot ignore that the main drivers of the pro-Indy movement was opposition to austerity and to neoliberal economics and social policies more generally. The emergence post-May 2015 of a growing movement of people supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s ultimately successful campaign for the Labour leadership position in many ways echoes what has happened in Scotland: that there is a significant element of the population who are both sickened by the policies of the Tories that are ravaging disadvantaged working class communities across the UK and are determined to oppose austerity politics and policies. This emerging movement strongly echoes the pro-independence social movement in Scotland in many ways.

So, things change, but many things remain the same. Alongside far-reaching political changes there are significant continuities: the Tories continue to attack the most vulnerable aided and abetted by a media that helps by stigmatising those in poverty, recipients of welfare benefits, the unemployed, trade unions, refugees and many more besides. Labour has proved inept at challenging such attacks and indeed on many issues is close to the Tories that to its key heartlands (as results in Scotland have demonstrated only too starkly). The UK is an ever more divided and unequal place; Scotland is an ever more unequal and divided place too. A key enduring lesson of the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum is that whatever the constitutional debate, there are much more far-reaching and significant social divisions and inequalities that underpin all UK society.

It is the fight for a fairer and more equitable society that drove the Scottish Independence movement and which has driven Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party. Writing this only a few days following his success in being elected leader of the Labour Party, it is too early to say how this will play out in Scotland. However, a more radical and explicitly anti austerity Labour Party would make it much more difficult for the SNP to play the ‘leftish’ anti austerity political card in Scotland – something that they should really be done for under the trade descriptions act anyway. What else of the immediate future? Once more the 2014 Indy ref settled nothing – except it has settling uncertainty and has been certainly unsettling!

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
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Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.





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