In British constitutional history, 2014 will undoubtedly be remembered for one thing and one thing only — the Scottish independence referendum. ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ was the deceptively simple question that veiled a far more complex reality. This complexity was revealed in the pre-election build-up as the three main parties offered concession upon concession in order to head-off a ‘Yes’ vote. As such, ‘No’ did not mean ‘no’ but a preference for ‘devo-max’ and a model of devolution that was ‘as close to a federal state as you can be in a country where one nation is 85% of the population’ as Gordon Brown put it. But what did the Scottish independence referendum really expose about the changing nature of politics?
This week’s recommendations by the Smith Commission on Scottish devolution (full control over income tax rates and bands, devolution of some element of VAT plus Air Passenger Duty, the devolution of responsibility for some welfare benefits, etc.) represents the latest but not the final stage in the post-referendum politics of devolution in the UK. Indeed, just hours after the Smith Commission had been published more than 100 English councils demanded more powers — ‘Its England’s turn now’ — and David Cameron committed the coalition government to publish an English votes plan by Christmas. English votes for English laws are not quite the same as the devolution of powers that is demanded by local authorities from Cornwall to Cumbria but it does suggest a need to stop — step back — and reflect upon the broader implications of the Scottish independence referendum. I’ve attempted to answer five questions below to help tease out some of the broader issues.
What did we learn?
We learnt a huge amount about democratic energy and participatory zeal. Doom and gloom about democratic apathy and public disengagement from politics was replaced with a vitality and verve that was almost tangible as every school hall, pub, and youth club was filled with debates about the pros and cons of independence. The lesson for the political parties and politicians is that public will engage in politics when they feel they have been given a meaningful role, a real choice, and a say in matters such as their country’s fiscal policy. The statistics speak for themselves: 4,283,392 people voted (85% turnout) and as Robert Crawford hoped, Scotland has emerged as a stronger country with an intensified (and globally admired) sense of itself as a democratic place.
What is the key challenge?
The Scottish independence referendum breathed new life into politics and the question for all the main political parties is how to sustain and channel that democratic energy in other ways and across the UK. This won’t be easy as the Scottish referendum tapped into a number of very deep historical and cultural issues in order to generate its energy but there must be some way to harness and replicate the civic energy and civic engagement that Scotland displayed with such pride. Put slightly differently, if the main political parties cannot offer some of the hope and belief that energized the referendum campaign on both sides then the more extreme populist parties will feast upon the political frustrations that currently exist.
Where does this leave us now?
Confused and divided. Confused in the sense of lacking any real understanding of what the United Kingdom is any more, both constitutionally and politically; divided in the sense that there is no shared agreement amongst the main parties about what is to be done. To some extent — and as James Mitchell highlighted, this is not a new situation for the UK but I would argue that the situation is now more extreme. It’s increasingly a unitary state in the very loosest sense of the term but the parties are divided on the best way to deliver a new sense of equilibrium within the system. More devolution to Scotland unleashes similar demands from other parts of the UK but the culture of Westminster and Whitehall lacks the capacity to deal with the constitution in a ‘joined-up’ manner. The current situation is therefore one of classically British ad hoc, unprincipled muddling through — with the recent devolution agreement between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the leaders of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority being a case in point.
Is the post-referendum UK experiencing a ‘constitutional moment’?
Yes, it probably is but this is the problem. The Scottish independence referendum was a ‘democratic moment’ in the sense that there was a bottom-up pressure for change that was accommodated by the democratic process. The post-referendum discussions and debates have, however, been undertaken at an elite level and the most telling evidence of this comes not in the form of the Smith Commission but in the work of William Hague’s committee on ‘a fair settlement that applies to all parts of the UK’. When announcing this committee the Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced that ‘it is also important we have wider civic engagement about how to improve governance in our United Kingdom…we will say more about this in the coming days’. But so far these plans for ‘wider civic engagement’ have remained undisclosed. The idea of a national Citizens Assembly has been rejected and as a result the UK is experiencing an elite-driven top-down ‘constitutional moment’ but certainly not a ‘bottom-up public-led’ democratic moment.
What is the big issue that no one is talking about?
One of the most positive elements of the Scottish independence referendum had nothing to do with the quality of the debate, the inclusion of a cross-section of society, or the level or turnout. It had everything to do with the simple fact that two countries were able to decide upon their mutual futures through peaceful and democratic means. This was an independence referendum that was not driven by war, crisis or disaster; nor did it demand battle or bloodshed; and the results were peacefully accepted with grace and goodwill on both sides. In a world that too often seems bloodied and bowed by territorial politics maybe this is the ‘big issue’ that we should be talking about and learning from.
Heading image: Flags outside Parliament by Calum Hutchinson. CC-BY-SA-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.