Hard knock lessons from the Scottish referendum

For years, it seemed like a pipe dream – a quirky political aim that appeared more based on an emotional reading of history and reality rather than a genuine promise for change in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But in the days running up to the September 18 vote to decide the future of Scotland, that all changed. The “No” vote won out in the end, but the future of Scotland – and the UK – is still likely to be very different than the present.

On the day of the vote for Scottish independence, I was in London and I admit, I had never before believed that in my lifetime, the unity of our country could begin to unravel. That day, I wondered if, indeed, the word “British” would suddenly, in a matter of a few hours, mean something incredibly less. My father hails from deep in the south of England – but as a child, I remember being with him as he campaigned in parliamentary elections in what is still fondly called “The Borders.” That region which straddles England and Scotland - never was it possible for me to consider Scotland a foreign land in the slightest.

The post-mortem of that vote will probably unfold for years to come but in the interim, a few things seem rather clear. Scotland voted “no” but that’s not actually true

H.A. Hellyer

The post-mortem of that vote will probably unfold for years to come but in the interim, a few things seem rather clear. Scotland voted “no” but that’s not actually true. Neither did it vote “yes.” Scots were divided and while more voted “no” than “yes,” resulting in the defeat of the dream that was an independent Scotland, to reduce it to that simple assessment is deceitful. More than a million British citizens wanted to bring an end to the Union and that’s not something to be taken lightly. How did it ever come to this point? How is it that so many Scots feel such a lack of national unity with their compatriots south of the border? What has been missed?

Uniting against Westminster

Secondly, was it really a “yes” for an independent Scotland that so many voted for? Given the stark choice on the ballot, it is difficult to find nuances – but one thing that seemed to unite both “yes” and “no” voters in this campaign was a “no” to the political establishment of Westminster in London. It’s an establishment of a long history, with proud traditions but it’s also an establishment that Britons from around the Union increasingly express criticism of. That’s not something to be ignored or swept under the rug – there is a deep fracture under the surface, and it’s one that needs to be addressed. The closeness of the vote is only a symptom of that problem: that, in truth, Westminster is failing to vigorously inspire the people of this nation.

There’s a great opportunity in front of Westminster now. The political elite could have learnt a grave lesson in the midst of a traumatic breakup of the UK – now that the breakup has been averted, that doesn’t mean the lesson does not need to be learned. There is a choice for that political elite – to recognise the problems, and deal with them head-on, or to take advantage of the outcome for narrow, chauvinistic ends. Will the Westminster elite take seriously the need to deeply reinvigorate British political life, bringing genuine constitutional reform to bear on fulfilling the needs of all Britons? Will it find ways to ensure that the magnificently high turn out rates of Scots during this referendum will not simply sink to more “normal” levels in the next elections, but will create a new norm of British political participation? Or will it turn the way of some right-wing MPs that not only wish to deny the fulfilment of political commitments towards further devolution of powers made by the leaders of the three parties to the Scots, but also wish to spread and deepen populist politics within England? Will it, in a nutshell, use genuine and legitimate grievances in England vis-à-vis issues such as the West Lothian question to push forward a chauvinistic agenda or to strengthen democratic governance in our country?

There are other lessons to be learned too. In a vote for Scottish independence, one might have easily expected that Scottish populism would have taken a turn towards xenophobia and chauvinism with regards to its own ethnic minority populations. But it didn’t. On the contrary – while the fear of anti-Muslim sentiment is rising within England, for example, particularly due to the insidious radical violence perpetrated by ISIS in Iraq, there seemed to be no such corresponding worry in Scotland. Scots from minority backgrounds not only feel deeply secure in their Scottish identity – many of them were actively engaged in campaigning during the referendum, on both sides. The association of ethnic minorities with England and Britain, rather than simply Britain, appears far more rarely. Before English MPs seek to derive more benefits for their regions against the backdrop of a failed Scottish referendum, they may want to consider how they can encourage more of their own constituents from ethnic minority background to feel as much affection to a pluralistic English identity, in the same way their compatriots north of the border have done.

The United Kingdom almost came apart last week. That didn’t happen due to the Scottish National Party and their agitation – they’ve been struggling for independence for a very long time. What changed the calculus was the feeling of ordinary Scots and how they felt not simply about the Union, but about the establishment that governs that Union. British politicians that are pleased by the “no” vote ought not to react by resting on their laurels, or by taking advantage of the result, but by recognising that there is something stirring within the hearts of Britons that hasn’t been the case for a long time. That consciousness can be used to deepen and strengthen the Union, not only for the sum of its constituent nation-parts – but for each and every citizen. If that happens, then the Scots will have breathed more life into British political life in the space of a single referendum than multiple national elections over decades.

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Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:45 - GMT 06:45
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