The result of the Scottish independence referendum and the future of British politics

Paul Cairney, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, University of Stirling,

Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Tokyo 4.12.14 and Hokkaido University, Sapporo, 6.12.14

The result of the Scottish independence referendum and the future of British politics

In part one, I provide historical background to the referendum debate, identify the importance of the Scottish National Party, outline the process for further devolution, and explain why further devolution might not produce a ‘settlement’ or prevent a second independence referendum.[i]

In part two, I outline a list of topics which we might discuss further in the question and answer session.

At the heart of the ‘future of British politics’ issue is the question: will Scotland remain a part of it? In the short term, the answer is ‘yes’. On the 18th of September 2014, 55% of the voting population voted No to the question, ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’.

In the long term, it is impossible to tell. The referendum was often described as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to vote for independence. Yet, it is realistic to expect another referendum in 10 years. This event would form part of a longer term trend, in which the constitutional changes, designed to represent a devolved settlement in Scotland, have not solved the problem – partly because the problem changes or is articulated in new ways.

The background to the initial ‘devolution settlement’ and the spectre of ‘Thatcherism’

In the 1990s, devolution was often described as a way to solve the ‘democratic deficit’. The charge was that people in Scotland voted for one party in a UK general election (Labour) but received another (Conservative) on many occasions. This occurred from 1979-97, and the problem was exacerbated by a long spell of Thatcher-led government (1979-1990). ‘Thatcherism’ had a profound and enduring effect on Scottish politics, and it can refer to several alleged developments:

  • the pursuit of ‘neoliberal’ policies that challenged a ‘social democratic consensus’ in Scotland
  • the ‘top down’ imposition of unpopular policies in Scotland by the UK central government, often before they are introduced in the rest of the UK (such as the ‘poll tax’).
  • the pursuit of economic policies to grow the economy in the south-east at the expense of the north (including the manufacturing industries)
  • the promotion of British policies without sufficiently distinctive Scottish arrangements.

Devolution represented ‘unfinished business’ (since a referendum in 1979 produced a small Yes majority which did not meet a required threshold) and subsequent opposition to Conservatism helps explain a rise in support for devolution. A frequent argument is that devolution could have ‘defended Scotland from Thatcherism’, and allowed the maintenance of Scottish traditions of participative democracy and social democracy. Yet, as we saw in the independence debate, devolution was often described as a poor solution to the democratic deficit.

Devolution became a platform for the Scottish National Party

Devolution was described famously by former Labour Shadow Scottish Secretary, George Robertson, in 1995, as the opportunity to ‘kill nationalism stone dead’. Ironically, it is more accurate to say that the independence referendum could not have happened without devolution.

The introduction of the Scottish Parliament gave an in important new platform to the Scottish National Party (SNP). In 1999 and 2003 it was the second largest party (behind Scottish Labour). In 2007 it became the largest party (47 of 129 seats – Labour had 46) and formed a minority government. From 2007-11, it had insufficient support to pass a bill to hold an independence referendum. Yet, 4 years of government allowed it to develop a strong image of governing competence, which became one of the most important explanations for its major election victory in 2011 (the other is that the Scottish Parliament’s electoral system is not fully proportional – it combines plurality and proportional elements). It secured approximately 45% of the vote, which allowed it to gain a small majority of Scottish Parliament seats (53%, or 69 of 129).

The formation of a majority SNP government in the Scottish Parliament gave it enough support to pass a referendum bill, while the appearance of a ‘landslide’ (a major electoral victory which signals a strong momentum) allowed the SNP’s leader, Alex Salmond, to argue successfully that it gave the SNP a mandate to pursue the referendum. This event became an important way to secure the UK Government’s agreement to support the process (note that this support does not exist in, for example, Catalonia/ Spain).

Further constitutional change may never produce a devolution ‘settlement’ or solve the ‘democratic deficit’

The independence agenda has prompted Scotland’s other main parties (Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat – all of which are part of British parties) and the UK Government to consider further devolution; to try to produce a devolved solution that will settle the matter once and for all.

The Calman Commission recommended further devolution in 2009. It prompted the Scotland Act 2012, to introduce further tax devolution (part of income, land and landfill taxes), the ability of the Scottish Government to borrow to invest in capital projects, and new powers in areas such as Scottish Parliament elections, air weapons, driving and drug treatment. The Scotland Act 2012 was designed to be implemented after the referendum, giving opposition parties the opportunity to guarantee further devolution after a No vote.

Yet, this promise of further devolution proved to be insufficient and, during the referendum period, each party produced separate plans to extend devolution further. The parties then came together, in the lead up to the referendum to make what is now called ‘The Vow’ of ‘extensive new powers’ for a devolved Scotland. The Smith Commission was set up to take this agenda forward. It reported on the 27th November 2014, and its recommendations include to:

  • make the Scottish Parliament ‘permanent’.
  • devolve some fiscal powers, including the power to: set income tax rates and bands (higher earnings are taxed at a higher rate) but not the ‘personal allowance’ (the amount to be earned before income tax applies); set air passenger duty; and to receive a share of sales tax (VAT).
  • increase the Scottish Government’s borrowing powers.
  • devolve some aspects of social security, including those which relate to disability, personal care, housing and ‘council tax’ benefits (council tax is a property tax charged by local authorities to home owners/ renters and based on the value of homes).
  • devolve policies designed to encourage a return to employment.
  • devolve the ability to license onshore oil and gas extraction (which includes hydraulic fracturing, ‘fracking’, for shale gas).
  • control the contract to run the Scottish rail network.
  • encourage greater intergovernmental relations and a more formal Scottish Government role in aspects of UK policymaking.

The UK Government now aims to produce draft legislation to take these plans forward, although the bill will not be passed before the general election in May 2015.

To a large extent, the proposals reflect the plans of the three main British parties, rather than the SNP (which requested ‘devo max’), although they go further than those parties would have proposed in the absence of the referendum agenda. Again, they are designed to represent a devolved ‘settlement’, reinforced by the knowledge that 55% voted against Scottish independence in 2014 (the turnout was 84.6%).

Yet, this sense of a ‘settled will’ is not yet apparent. Indeed, it seems just as likely that the proposals will merely postpone a second referendum, for these reasons:

  1. The new plan may represent the largest amount of devolution that is possible if Scotland is to remain in the UK. However, it does not address all of the charges associated with the ‘democratic deficit’.

The ‘spectre of Thatcherism’ is still used by proponents of independence, and a period of Conservative-led government has been used to identify the potential for the ‘top down imposition’ of ‘neoliberal’ policies to continue in some areas, and for economic policy to remain focused on the south-east. It is still used to suggest that only independence could secure a Scottish consensus democracy. This narrative has only been addressed to some extent with the devolution of symbolically important responsibilities – including the ability to remove the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ (an unpopular policy associated strongly with Conservative-led welfare reform), reform local taxes (associated first with the ‘poll tax’, then the difficulty of the SNP to abolish the ‘council tax’ in favour of a local income tax), and administer benefits related to personal social care (associated with a longstanding dispute between the Scottish and UK Governments on ‘attendance allowance’).

  1. The SNP remains remarkably popular. Its membership has risen dramatically since the referendum, from 25,000 to over 92,000 and it is now the third biggest party in the whole of the UK despite Scotland having only 8% of the UK population. Its leader, new First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, is one of the few to maintain a positive popularity rating in opinion polls. Current polls also suggest that the SNP will gain ground in the UK election in 2015 and maintain a strong position in the Scottish Parliament in 2016.
  2. There is majority support for a referendum in the future.
  3. A second referendum would have a clearer sense of what people are voting for. In 2014, the ‘Vow’ allowed people to vote No and expect further devolution. In the future, the debate would be more simply about Yes or No to independence (albeit an independence that does not mean what it used to mean).

Part two – possible Q&A topics

  • What were the most important debating points? Examples include: the use of the pound as the Scottish currency, the future economic health of Scotland, and the future of important public services such as the National Health Service.
  • What are the limits to further devolution? ‘Devo max’ is the idea of devolving everything except foreign and defence affairs. It is not possible to devolve all tax and spending responsibilities (partly because European Union rules prevent it), and was never going to happen (at least while people support the idea of a United Kingdom which keeps the pound as its currency).
  • Should we try to explain why the Yes campaign lost or why it did so well?
  • Why is the Barnett formula so controversial and important to the debate?
  • Is the referendum debate about securing powers in principle or using them for particular purposes such as social democratic?
  • Would independence have produced a new system producing policy in a different way?
  • Is the Scottish population more left wing and does this produce more demand for independence or different parties?
  • Does national identity drive support for independence?

We could also discuss how Scottish politics relates to debates in the rest of the UK, including:

[i] I have written this document in essay form to keep it short and easier to translate into Japanese. I draw on a series of posts on my blog – and books such as Cairney, P. and McGarvey, N. (2013) Scottish Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave). My points may look descriptive and factual, but it is impossible to summarise this debate in a non-political way.


Filed under Japan, Scottish independence, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

3 responses to “The result of the Scottish independence referendum and the future of British politics

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