Home >opinion >blogs >Scottish independence vote a wake up call

Perhaps it was Gordon Brown’s stirring speech days before the referendum that helped the uncommitted to make up their minds. Or perhaps it was the silent majority, always taken for granted during contentious elections, but which turns out quietly and votes in a way that surprises pundits.

Or it was Alex Salmond’s personality—many supporters of Scottish independence do not like the Scottish National Party and particularly its leader—that did it. They were unprepared to trade away William Wallace for Alex Salmond as the nation’s mascot. (OK, that’s facetious). But Salmond is not universally popular, and his performance in debates with Alistair Darling of Labour Party, who led the pro-unity No Campaign, was lacklustre.

I have had only one encounter with Salmond—at a debate in early 2003 in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, where he insisted that the US and the UK were interested only in Iraqi oil. I was part of the audience, and argued that if the Americans wanted Iraqi oil so badly, all they had to do was to lift the sanctions, and Saddam Hussain would happily sell them oil.

But who knows, Salmond was probably swayed by the “No Blood For Oil" banners carried by the marchers, and so he insisted that it was all about oil. Why, in the referendum campaign he even tried to convince the Scots that they could build a sovereign nation’s economy based on dwindling oil revenues from the North Sea. But the voters said no.

But only just. It is too early to say that the dream of Scottish independence is dead. Westminster has to recognize that 45% of Scottish voters—nearly 1.6 million people—want to be independent. That is a large number; and in parliamentary democracies, a 45% vote can constitute a sweeping majority, if the opposition is divided (and divided it was; on the other side were Labour and Conservatives, awkwardly side-by-side, saying “better together", like a marriage counsellor would to a squabbling couple which might be better off separated).

A detailed breakdown of the vote county-by-county reveals that the pro-independence “Yes" vote won only four counties—West Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire, Glasgow City, and Dundee—but its margin of defeat was less than 5% in eight more counties, according to a map The Economist magazine published on Friday morning. (Depending on how and when you define, Scotland has 31 or 33 counties, shires, or local government bodies).

While the pro-independence campaign was emotional, what was surprising was how uninspired the campaign against independence was. There were few stirring cries to a shared common past, of a society that had evolved over three centuries, of the commonalities that had developed, of the strength the unity brought, of how being British enriched Scotland, and how Scottish values were essential to the development of the core British identity.

If the call for Scottish independence resurfaces—and it might, if in the promised 2017 referendum the UK decides to leave the European Union—the rest of the kingdom may have to put in a much stronger effort if it wants to keep Scotland within the UK. Nobody had put the EU question before Scottish voters, but in Scotland’s desire to remain part of the EU after independence there is an assumption that Scottish voters like the EU, unlike many in the far more populous England. If indeed the UK pulls out of the EU in three years, wouldn’t the Scots want to break away one more time?

Another point worth reflecting emerges from the poll commissioned by the controversial Conservative Party donor, Lord Ashcroft: the old voters wanted to preserve the union; the young voters wanted none of it. In the category of voters above 65, 73% voted No; among voters who were 16-17 years old, 71% voted for independence. In itself, this is not surprising—how an independent Scotland would develop resources to pay pensions had not been explained fully, and it was not even known if Scotland could have retained the pound if it chose independence. Even if SNP ignored the question of oil reserves, energy experts had contended that the oil in the North Sea wouldn’t last forever. There is that oil curse—which drives out productive investments from other sectors. How would the pensions be funded?

On the other hand, younger Scots were concerned about the lack of opportunities. As industries disappear and with it go jobs, younger Scots have limited options, other than looking for work south of the border. And Scotland’s youth see limited prospects for themselves in a union ruled from distant London, where governments want to raise university fees and where jobs are increasingly concentrated in the southeast, the prospering areas around London. And so the young voted Yes.

Now there’s a thought: if the younger voters remain disgruntled over time, and if the devolution of greater powers—in particular the power to tax and spend at the regional level—does not take place—in other words, how the United Kingdom should be constituted and what sort of a federal structure it should create is not discussed honestly—a future referendum may be sooner than “a generation" or “a lifetime", as politicians now predict.

For that was the question at the heart of this vote. The UK finances are highly centralized, with a larger proportion of tax revenue going to the treasury—and then redistributed—than in other advanced economies. Devolution has created vast bureaucracies in the regions with legislatures and ministries in Wales and Scotland, for instance. But their power to raise finances and spend has restrictions. What the Scots want is greater independence to do that. For Downing Street and for Whitehall, that’s the real wake-up call. This collective sigh of relief is all very well; there’s much work ahead from tomorrow.

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