Voters rejected the referendum that would have granted Scotland independence. Yet the pro-independence movement is still gaining strength, and politicians and analysts are eager to point out that the referendum is “only one of a number routes” for achieving that goal.
GLASGOW — Violence erupted in Scotland last week following a referendum in which the nation rejected leaving the United Kingdom to become an independent state. The historic vote, which could have ended 307 years of political union between Scotland and England, saw the largest voter turnout in British history, with 85 percent of the electorate at the polls. The result, announced early on Sept. 19, was that 2,001,926 (55 percent) people voted No and 1,617,989 (45 percent) voted Yes to the question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
Later that same day, fighting broke out in the center of Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow, when hundreds of Unionists descended on George Square to confront supporters of Scottish independence who had gathered peacefully for two nights in a row. Giving Nazi salutes, extremist British nationalists taunted the Yes crowd before running skirmishes broke out. Eleven people were arrested for disorder, breach of the peace and vandalism in ugly scenes that marred what had been an overwhelmingly peaceful campaign lasting nearly two years.
The violence in Glasgow was organized by a far right group called Britain First, which had advised its supporters to meet in George Square at 6 p.m. Britain First was founded in 2011 and has links to a proscribed Loyalist paramilitary group in Northern Ireland called the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Glasgow has long suffered a sectarian problem linked to a religious divide in Northern Ireland, where Catholics and Protestants have been in conflict for centuries, particularly during The Troubles, a 30-year period beginning in the 1970s. During that time more than 3,600 people died when terrorism took a firm hold of the province.
The West of Scotland has strong links to Northern Ireland, and in Glasgow this religious dimension often manifests itself via a fierce rivalry between Scotland’s two largest soccer clubs, the Celtic and the Rangers, who both hail from Glasgow. The Celtic team has an Irish heritage and a large Roman Catholic following, whereas the Rangers team is synonymous with Britain and Protestantism. Among the Unionists in George Square were a group of Rangers supporters called The Vanguard Bears, who are linked to Northern Ireland’s Progressive Unionist Party, the political wing of the UVF. However, the Catholic-Protestant dynamic was not a major feature of the Scottish independence debate, and Friday’s violence should be considered an isolated incident.
Earlier on a day of high drama, the man who led Scotland to within touching distance of independence dramatically announced he would be standing down as Scotland’s First Minister. Speaking in Edinburgh, Alex Salmond said he would also resign as leader of the Scottish National Party, which spearheaded the Yes campaign.
“For me as leader my time is nearly over but for Scotland the campaign continues and the dream will never die,” Salmond told reporters.
His likely successor is the widely respected SNP deputy leader, Nicola Sturgeon, who’s been at Salmond’s side for the last 10 years and who performed strongly throughout the lengthy independence campaign.
Will Westminster keep its promises?
While the Yes campaign agonized over defeat, relief was the byword for a jubilant Better Together campaign, led by the U.K.’s three main political parties at Westminster: Labour, Conservatives and Liberal-Democrats. While the No coalition won by a 10-point margin, the upsurge in support for Yes – from 30 percent of the electorate to 45 percent in two years – gives Unionists continuing cause for concern, as their victory was not large enough to end calls for independence.
Just over a week before the vote, a poll showed Yes was at 51 percent and within a whisker of achieving an astonishing victory. The scare prompted a joint and somewhat panicked 11th-hour raft of promises from Prime Minister David Cameron, Labour’s Ed Miliband and Liberal-Democrat leader Nick Clegg, stating that the Scottish Parliament would be given “extensive new powers” in the event of a No vote. They promised this would come via fast track legislation agreed upon and drawn up by Jan. 25, 2015.
The so-called “vow” was printed on the front page of the Daily Record newspaper and was signed by the three party leaders. They said the Scottish Parliament would be a permanent part of the British constitution and guaranteed the retention of the Barnett Formula, the system that sets public spending in Scotland.
The funding formula is named after its inventor, Joel Barnett, who devised it in the late 1970s. The method is controversial because it has led to typically higher public spending per head in Scotland. In 2013, for example, Scotland got nearly $16,000 per capita whereas England received almost $14,000, causing many Conservative members of parliament to call for a new way to allocate funding to Scotland from Westminster.
Many undecided voters in Scotland were concerned that the Barnett Formula would be scrapped in the event of a No vote, so the “vow” was viewed as a pivotal moment that may have reassured undecided voters and tipped the scales in favor of No.
However, shortly after the result was announced, fears were voiced that Westminster would renege on its promises. Responding to the vote in a speech outside 10 Downing Street in London, Cameron attached a controversial caveat to his pledge of more powers when he said there should be devolution in tandem for England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“The question of English votes for English laws, the so-called West Lothian Question, requires a decisive answer so just as Scotland will vote separately on their issues of tax, spending and welfare, so too England as well as Wales and Northern Ireland should be able to vote on these issues,” Cameron said.
The West Lothian Question is a long standing anomaly whereby members of parliament who represent Scottish constituencies are eligible to vote at Westminster on matters that relate only to England, whereas members of parliament from English constituencies are not eligible to vote on Scottish matters in the Scottish Parliament.
The prime minister’s comment prompted a furious reply from Salmond, who said the people of Scotland had been “tricked.” Alistair Darling, former chancellor of the Exchequer and Labour MP, who led Better Together, also criticized Cameron, who had been his ally in defending the Union only the day before. The problem for Labour with “English votes for English laws” is that the party relies on Scottish members of parliament to get legislation passed when in power, so disallowing them to vote on English issues would strengthen the Conservatives. Indeed, it would appear that both Conservative and Labour are now playing party politics ahead of a U.K. general election next spring, while Yes supporters argue that Westminster will renege on “the vow” and fail to deliver extensive new powers.
Professor Nicola McEwen, of the University of Edinburgh, told MintPress News the SNP will not abandon its commitment to independence and it is unlikely that new legislation will appease who want greater powers for the Scottish Parliament.
“In a way the referendum doesn’t settle the constitutional question. It doesn’t even settle the independence question, which could come back when people demand it,” McEwan said, adding that she found it “staggering” how quickly the Westminster parties shifted the focus of the Scottish devolution debate to English votes for English laws.
What’s next for the independence movement?
Though Yes supporters remain distraught, there are a number of positives that can be taken away from the campaign which was widely praised for its positivity. There was a net shift of some 542,987 people toward voting Yes in just two years, so although the Yes movement was defeated many people are hopeful another vote may be possible within 10 to 20 years.
Meanwhile, to the annoyance of Westminster, Salmond raised the prospect of Scotland becoming independent without going through another referendum when he said this was “only one of a number of routes” that could be taken. He added that although a vote was his preferred option, achieving a majority at the Scottish Parliament was another way of reaching his party’s goal. His comments came as Jim Sillars, former deputy leader of the SNP, tweeted that a SNP majority at the 2016 election for the Scottish Parliament would be enough to declare independence.
This has buoyed independence supporters, and the parties who spearheaded the Yes campaign have seen thousands of people joining them since the vote. At time of writing, the Scottish Green Party had welcomed more than 3,000 new members, while the SNP had grown by some 32,000, making it the third largest political party in Britain after Conservatives and Labour. SNP membership now stands at over 57,000 — nearly twice the figure reported on Sept. 18.
Derek Mackay, a member of the Scottish Parliament and the SNP, told MintPress, “These incredible figures are absolutely inspiring.”
“It is this new democratic engagement sweeping Scotland which will hold Westminster to account on the ‘vow’ of more powers – the same old politics as usual from Westminster just won’t cut it,” he continued. “Westminster has to deliver the substantial new powers we need to make Scotland a fairer, more prosperous place – anything less would be an insult to the people of Scotland who voted for change in incredible numbers.”