For much of the period since 1945 the debate over Scotland’s independence has been intertwined with the resurgence of political nationalism in the shape of the Scottish National Party (SNP).
Labour took policies of Scottish and Welsh devolution into the 1997 UK general election, saying that the creation of a Scottish parliament was the settled will of the Scottish people. The devolution debate featured prominently in Scotland in the 1997 election campaign. The Conservatives, who were against devolution of powers to Scotland, fared badly.
The new Labour government, elected on 1 May 1997 moved quickly to implement its plans for devolution. A white paper outlining proposals for a Scottish parliament was published in July and a referendum on the issue was planned for 11 September 1997.
The referendum to enact the Scotland Act, passed overwhelmingly in 1998, created a parliament with much wider powers than that proposed two decades earlier. It meant that Scotland remained part of the United Kingdom, but gained a broad range of new powers, including control of education and health care, and a Scottish Parliament.
In 2007, the SNP won the Scottish parliamentary elections, after 50 years of Labour Party rule. Alex Salmond was elected first minister of Scotland, and won a second term in 2011. He was able to use his party’s historic mandate to secure approval for a referendum on independence for Scotland.
In 2012, Salmond and British Prime Minister David Cameron signed an agreement to hold that referendum in 2014.
Following more discussion the parties eventually agreed that, on 19 September 2014, a single question would be put to Scottish voters: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ With 4,285,323 people—97% of the electorate—registered to vote, the vote was expected to be the busiest day in Scottish electoral history. The UK uses a first-past-the-post voting system. The actual turnout was 86 per cent.
During negotiations on the referendum details, the voting age was lowered to 16. Many people thought the newest and youngest voters would help the independence campaign but the assumption was wrong on several levels: ‘the 16- and 17-year-olds were on average slightly less likely than adults to vote for independence’, and the 16 and 17-year-olds were ‘under 3 percent of the vote. So they were never going to be vote decisive’.
This was how things stood prior to the 19 September poll according to the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2014.
As the New York Times reported, the 2014 vote on independence was taking place ‘without any of the usual factors that drive the dissolution of great nations: no war, no acute economic crisis, no raging territorial dispute. In fact, the situation is quite the opposite: peace, a slowly recovering economy and a central government in London that promises to grant more powers over taxing and spending to the Scottish Parliament’.
But economists ‘normally as ideologically disparate and disputatious as Alan Greenspan, Paul Krugman, Adam S. Posen and Niall Ferguson … predicted a negative economic outlook for an independent Scotland, while expressing anxiety, too, about the impact of such uncertainty on the larger European and global economies’.
The question on the ballot paper was a simple one: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’
The answer from Scottish voters was ‘No’: 55 per cent against independence, 45 per cent in favour.
But it had remained unclear exactly what ‘independence’ for Scotland would entail. An arrangement colloquially known as ‘devo max’ had emerged—a loose notion expressing a maximum form of devolution short of independence—but there appeared to be no real consensus on the matter. One academic account of 'devo max' expressed it as follows:
The Scottish Parliament and Government would take on more responsibility for domestic matters and for raising, collecting and administering all (or the vast majority of revenues in Scotland and the vast bulk of public spending. The UK Government and institutions would continue to have responsibility for matters such as macroeconomic policy and defence, but the Scottish Parliament and Government would have a greater range of measures available to them to support sustainable economic growth.
Commentary on, and explanations for, the outcome included:
- ‘The main problem was the currency. The doubt over the currency led to doubt about quite a few other things that were connected with it.’ (Neil Blain, University of Stirling)
- ‘The SNP will not abandon its commitment to independence, but we will see the party revert back to a more gradualist strategy, in keeping with its recent political history, trying to push the UK parties further down the road of Scottish self-government.’ (Nicola McEwen, University of Edinburgh.)
- ‘What does 45% mean for Scottish independence? You can’t have another referendum for at least ten years. Five years would be long enough to find out if the maximum devolution that Scotland gets is adequate in people’s eyes.’ (Paul Cairney, University of Stirling)
- ‘But … it doesn’t make sense to devolve a lot more powers. If your working assumption is that it’s an integrated economy, devo max is just not possible. Labour originally wanted to devolve all income tax control, but all the advice in the Calman consultation was that it wasn’t possible.’ (Arthur Midwinter, University of Edinburgh.)
Following the vote, the practical implications of the result became increasingly unclear:
The result in more detail
Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, John Curtice, reported the outcome as follows:
The variation in No support in different kind of councils is very much in line with some of the expectations in advance of the night about the kinds of places in which the No campaign would do relatively well.
The No vote was generally higher in places with a relatively high migrant population from the rest of the UK, in places with a relatively high middle-class population, in places where there are more older people and in the more rural half of Scotland. These patterns are illustrated by the following figures:
1 - the No vote has averaged 64% in those councils where more than 12% of the population was born in the rest of the UK and just 53% in those where less than 8% were born elsewhere in the UK
2 - the No vote averaged 60% where more than 30% of the population are professional and managerial but only 51% where less than 26% are in professional managerial occupations.
3 - the No vote was 61% on average in those places where more than 24% of the population were aged 65 and over but only 51% where less than 21% are over 65 and over
4 - the No vote at 60% was higher in the more rural half of Scotland than in the more urban half where it averaged just 53%.
A former Deputy Editor of openDemocracy, David Hayes, summarised the still fluid situation as follows:
Above all, though, Scotland’s independence referendum from start to finish has been a great moment of democracy. After a three-year campaign, Scots participated in unprecedented numbers in deciding the future of their country. Along the way, they did indeed obtain, or at least secure the promise of, a constitutional design that wasn’t even on the ballot paper. The door to the future remains open.