John Macnamara contributes a guest post on the result of the Scottish independence referendum held last Thursday. I think it significant that many stalwart Labor voters defied the Labor party in the working-class centers of Glasgow, West Dunbartonshire, Dundee and North Lanarkshire, which all registered a majority for independence. Clearly international financiers were strongly opposed to independence and drove down the pound in the last weeks before the vote, no doubt pushing some undecided voters to the NO camp. This post outlines the rest of the establishment campaign to frighten voters against voting YES.
The referendum on an independent Scotland was the culmination of a two-year debate, and support for independence strengthened during this time from 30 percent to 45 percent on voting day. The final two weeks, after a poll showing the pro-independence YES voters had a majority, have been a frenetic affair with the entire UK establishment brought in to stem the tide of Scottish nationalism. 4.2 million residents of Scotland were eligible to vote, some 10 percent being English and another 10 percent being immigrants from elsewhere. 3.6 million voted, a turnout of 85%, which is the highest since 1951. Recent elections in Britain have hovered just above the 50% level for national elections, 30% for European and local elections and just over 10% for the recent poll of Police Commissioners. 1.6 million voted for independence and 2 million voted against.
In this short article, I want to report my observations as someone who grew up in England with a Scottish mother and a Northern Irish father, both of whom would probably have voted NO, given the chance. Their three children would probably all have voted YES. But the voting requirement was residency, not inheritance. Nevertheless, the independence referendum similarly split many Scottish families: brother against brother, son against father, wife against husband, family against family. Like many others, we have a history of strong religion, left-wing politics and a dour serious disposition, that even growing up in London in the 1960’s didn’t change very much.
Scots have been impressed by Norway and Sweden over the last 50 years, by their social justice, civic involvement, sense of fair play and willingness to pay high taxes for most of that time to make it all work, no matter which party was in power. The Scandinavian model of social democracy has been a dream for Scots for their own country, if they could only control it. Scottish independence was seen a way to get rid of Tory rule from Westminster: the Scots elected 59 members to that parliament in 2010, just one of whom was a Conservative, yet had to suffer right-wing austerity policies, Westminster-led foreign wars and pay for the associated inflated defence spending. With independence and control of its own finances an independent Scotland could support decent levels of spending on health and education.
The main argument against independence was about the currency to be used after independence. The political elite’s plan was for George Osborne, the English Chancellor of the Exchequer, to get the Bank of England and the Treasury, then all Westminster political party leaders, to deny an independent Scotland access to the pound sterling. Having decided this and made it public, they then used this policy as though it was a credible fact. They used this ‘fact’ to lambast the pro-independence campaigners as ‘naïve’ at thinking independence could work without either a currency of their own and sufficient reserves to support any future banking crisis. The British government constructed the weakness of ‘no currency plan’ and then condemned the SNP for it.
Ten days before the referendum, it seemed that the majority of Scots still bought into the social-democratic ideal. After a second debate between the leaders of the YES and NO campaigns, Alex Salmond and Alastair Darling, the strategy of denying Scots the use of the pound seemed to be faltering. Frightened by polls predicting 52% support for independence, the establishment fought back with four initiatives:
- All 3 main political parties arrived in Scotland with the news that voting NO actually meant the maximum amount of home rule for Scotland. They joined hands and made three separate commitments to this policy, named “Devo Max,” one for each party in three different places. If Scots voted NO then the parties would organize the ability of the Scottish Parliament to ‘control its own affairs’. They announced a timetable with details of what specific measures “Devo Max” might mean for the day after the vote and then a parliamentary bill to be made ready by the end of October and a first and second reading in Parliament before May, when the current Parliament ends and a new election must be held. (An option for Devo Max in the referendum was denied by David Cameron two years ago as he thought its absence would guarantee a NO vote.)
- A series of announcements over the next week from bankers and business executives followed, coordinated by 10 Downing Street, providing the media with daily headlines of job losses, pension and saving funds losses, and a variety of anti-Scottish articles threatening difficulties with building an independent Scotland with an antagonistic UK government, EU and US administrations.
- A week later, now three days before the referendum, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, visited Scotland and made a speech outlining all the many risks of an independence vote: pensions were ‘made in England’, Scots were told, in English pounds, which Scots would not have if they voted YES. Defence forces would not exist, jobs would go South to England and the Scottish economy would diminish.
- The role of the BBC was to claim impartiality while grilling SNP leaders in nasty interviews. There were no ‘hardball’ interviews of any of the NO campaign leaders nor of the Westminster politicians. There was no need to control the private newspaper media as it was united in its hostility to an Independent Scotland. One exception was Rupert Murdoch’s Scottish Sun newspaper which had suggested that its readers would support it, but Murdoch objected to the Environment and Social Justice platform of the independence platform. On the day of the vote, his newspaper alone came out with a blazing NO headline.
The outcome of the vote was a shock to the Independence supporters, who had the majority of the debate both on and off social media. YES banners were everywhere all over Scotland on the days before and on the election and NO banners were scarce. However, the intimidated silent majority of nervous pensioners and financial workers came out in force and saved the faces and possibly jobs of the wheelers and dealers in Westminster.
On the day the result was announced, Cameron tied the issue of ‘Equal Rights for the English Nation’ to the devolution proposals and also failed to specify what would be devolved. The pledge that a NO vote was a vote for maximum devolution and without the risks of independence has been linked to the issue of Scottish Members of Parliament no longer being allowed to vote on English issues. This makes a majority Labour government in May almost impossible. Incredibly, the leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist part (with one seat out of 59) has been arguing that a YES vote is not needed as a way of avoiding yet more Conservative government in Westminster which Scots don’t vote for, since the Conservatives are likely to lose the forthcoming election in May.
The Labour response to losing the voting power of 40 of its MPs is to refuse to go along with Cameron’s party policking. Cameron, moreover, has proposed that his foreign Secretary, William Hague, should work on a package of measures to promote English and Scottish Devolution measures and limit the powers of all MPs to vote on issues local to other countries in the UK. Interestingly, Michael Gove is the main government Minister rejecting more powers to the Scottish Parliament without equal rights for an English Parliament. He is the Chief Whip of the government (the role of Frank Underwood in the original UK version of A House of Cards).
So there you have it: the devolution decisions will be made in smoke-filled rooms by the posh public schoolboys of the Bullingdon club. Precisely the fear that led 1.6 million Scots to vote against the Union! You could hardly make it up; the Westminster elite does not understand or care about the desire of the UK public for transparent and local politics.
— John Macnamara