The Scottish Question Has Not Been Answered

The referendum may have failed, but tens of thousands of people have signed up with pro-yes parties in the week since the vote.    

Photo by Jeff J. Mitchell/ Getty Images News
Photo by Jeff J. Mitchell/ Getty Images News

EDINBURGH, Scotland — On Tuesday, the capacious, wood-paneled debate chamber in Holyrood, Scotland’s Parliament, was unusually busy. As the display on the electronic clock fitted high on the wall edged past 2 p.m., Alex Salmond rose to applause. Just a few days earlier, the Scottish first minister had accepted defeat in his country’s independence referendum — 55 percent of Scots voted to stay in the United Kingdom — and announced his intention to resign. Now Salmond smiled as he began to speak.

"This has been the greatest democratic experience in Scotland’s history," the Scottish National Party (SNP) leader said, "and has brought us great credit both nationally and internationally."

That a nationalist leader would one day address the Scottish Parliament after a vote on independence was unthinkable when a devolved assembly, with control over issues such as health, education, and culture, was created in Edinburgh in 1997. The body, established during British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour administration, has an electoral system specially designed to prevent any party from achieving a majority. Scottish politics, however, have changed dramatically in less than two decades. In 2011, an unprecedented tidal wave of support gave Scottish nationalists a majority government in Edinburgh. Last week, on Sept. 18, many Scots traditionally wary of independence — and of the SNP — voted yes to independence.

It is clear, in other words, that while the United Kingdom might still be in one piece, the aftershocks of Scotland’s vote will continue to reverberate both in the corridors of power and among the Scottish population mobilized in the referendum campaign.


The question of further devolution is where these aftershocks may be most immediately felt. The promise of new powers for Scotland, made initially by former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown as polls emerged 10 days before the referendum showing for the first time a majority in favor of independence, were widely seen as critical to securing a no vote. Just days before the poll, leaders of the three main parties in the United Kingdom — the Labour Party, the Conservative Party, and the Liberal Democrats — issued a "vow" on the front page of a Scottish newspaper promising more powers for the devolved Parliament if Scots rejected independence. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has appointed Lord Robert Smith, who oversaw the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this summer, to lead a commission to agree on further devolution. An outline agreement is to be sealed by the end of November.

But divisions have already opened among unionist parties about what these new powers will be and when they will be enacted. Reaching a deal will be anything but straightforward, largely because the three U.K. parties differ radically when it comes to a devolution plan, particularly in relation to tax-raising powers. Many Scots want full fiscal autonomy; many politicians disagree. Then there is a matter of timing: On the day he accepted victory in the referendum, Cameron made it clear that new powers for Scotland would not come this side of the 2015 U.K. general election. Any deal, he said, would also require a solution to the so-called "West Lothian question": At present, England has no devolved legislature similar to Scotland’s. Instead, all laws for England are made at Westminster. Consequently, non-English MPs often vote on issues that only affect England. Any change to this policy would likely be fiercely resisted, particularly by Labour (which has a large contingent of Scottish and Welsh MPs).

Labour, ironically, could be the biggest loser in Scotland’s referendum. It has traditionally been the party of central Scotland — of the post-industrial towns and villages that ring Glasgow and Edinburgh and hold much of the country’s 5 million people. In Glasgow, there was long been a saying that you could shave a monkey and get it elected on the Labour ticket. But in the referendum, almost 40 percent of Labour voters chose independence. (In all, 53 percent of Glasgow said yes.)

How did this happen? Labour prides itself on being the party that delivered devolution, but it has struggled to adapt to the changing political balance across the United Kingdom, says Michael Rosie, a sociologist at the University of Edinburgh. "Labour has never decided whether they are a British party in Scotland or a Scottish party. They played the Scottish card in the 80s, but they … ceded that to the SNP." Rumors are now rife that Scottish Labour is contemplating defenestrating its leader, Johann Lamont. Meanwhile, the national Labour leader, Ed Miliband, is struggling to reach an internal compromise on further devolution for Scotland.

Many Scots now fear that their interests are being subsumed to wider party concerns ahead of next year’s general election. "There is basically a game going on," says Rosie. "A week ago, the focus was all on Scotland, and suddenly we realize that it wasn’t about us at all. It’s going to go down very badly here."

Concerns about Westminster’s ability to deliver on its devolution promises is one of the factors behind the huge surge of people joining pro-independence parties in the wake of the referendum defeat. In one week, more than 35,000 people have joined the SNP, making the nationalists the third-largest party in the United Kingdom. Demand to join the SNP has been so great that the party’s website crashed over the weekend. An emergency hotline has been set up and a dedicated team assigned to cope with the numbers seeking to join. The Scottish Green Party has seen its numbers more than triple too.

Many of these new recruits are people who delivered fliers and tried to convince friends, neighbors, and colleagues to vote yes in the largest grassroots campaign Scotland has ever seen. "There are many people out there who have been energized by [the referendum campaign] who are now looking for positive routes to keep this going," Rosie says. "The trick for the SNP and for the Greens is how to give them a voice beyond purely party political structures."

Where this groundswell of political participation will lead is unclear, but it could affect the landscape of party politics. Some independence supporters have taken to calling themselves "the 45" — a reference to the percentage of Scots who voted yes, but also a sobriquet redolent of the failed Jacobite rising of 1745 led by "Bonnie Prince Charlie." There have been rumors of pro-independence politicians seizing this energy and uniting to form a cross-party "Yes Alliance" to contest the 2015 general election.

Which Scots such an alliance might appeal to is evident in the breakdown of referendum votes. Indeed, the poll laid bare the fissures in Scottish society: Generally, more affluent Scots voted to stay in the union. As Scottish commentator Gerry Hassan has said, the no campaign "carried prosperous, middle class Scotland in part because of fear and anxiety of losing the security, position and even place they had in society." The yes vote, meanwhile, was highest in deprived and poor areas, where dissatisfaction with "business as usual" politics is highest and turnout is lowest. If these voters can remain mobilized, Scotland’s political map could be radically redrawn in the coming years.


The parliamentary exchanges on Tuesday at Holyrood were very much in keeping with the referendum campaign, combining the valedictory with the testy. Opposition leaders queued up to perform the reverse Mark Antony: ostensibly coming to praise Salmond on his final lap as leader, but trying to bury him in the process. Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, for instance, excoriated the SNP for subsuming national politics to the independence cause. Salmond turned his chair and looked on balefully.

Yet despite last week’s defeat and Salmond’s decision to resign, the SNP is on course to win a record third successive Holyrood term in two years’ time. A lasting answer to the "Scottish Question," it seems, remains a long way off.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola