The Independence Referendum: Setback or Progress for the National Movement?

The Independence Referendum: Setback or Progress for the National Movement?

Nicola McEwen (University of Edinburgh)


When the UK government gave its consent to the Scottish government’s plan to hold a referendum, it was on the basis that the referendum would be ‘legal, fair and decisive’.

The Edinburgh agreement – the intergovernmental agreement which paved the way for a temporary transfer of constitutional authority to the Scottish Parliament – helped to ensure that the legality of the referendum was beyond doubt. The role of the Electoral Commission in providing regulatory oversight, and of Scotland’s Electoral Management Board in managing the conduct of the referendum, helped provide assurances of the fairness of the process. And, following a vibrant and energetic campaign which helped bring a staggering 84.6% to the polls – Scotland’s highest ever electoral turnout – the referendum result was decisive. By a margin of 55.3% to 44.7%, Scots opted to stay within the United Kingdom, a result immediately accepted by First Minister Alex Salmond, who announced his intention to resign shortly afterwards.

So that’s that then. Or is it?

The referendum has brought one campaign debate to a close, but it has clearly generated another, broader debate on the constitutional future of the UK. All three UK parties campaigning for a No vote in Scotland’s referendum had previously promised to include more powers for Scotland in their 2015 General Election manifestos. Two days before the referendum, in the heat of a campaign moment, they jointly committed to agreeing ‘extensive new powers’ according to an incredibly tight schedule, with a new Scotland Bill by next spring. Moreover, in his statement immediately following the result, Prime Minister David Cameron – with one eye surely on the forthcoming Westminster general election – linked the process of further devolution to Scotland with the need to address the governance of England, declaring: “The question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question – requires a decisive answer”. As Charlie Jeffery explains elsewhere on this site, the Scottish referendum has set off a constitutional chain reaction that will reverberate across the UK. The drift towards an ever looser union seems inevitable.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the referendum result assures that Scotland’s future is now cemented within that Union for ever more. In one sense, the result is clearly a disappointment for the pro-independence movement, political parties and the SNP government. In the last two weeks of the campaign, opinion polls suggested that momentum was on their side and – to the delight of some and the horror of others – victory seemed within their grasp. In the end, the result was less narrow than had been predicted.

But the referendum was never only about winning or losing. In the years leading to the referendum, since the SNP was first elected to government in 2007, support for independence had fluctuated between 23% and 33% (and remained at 33% in the most recent 2014 Scottish Social Attitudes survey). With this in mind, First Minister Alex Salmond took a gamble in pressing ahead with an independence vote. A heavy defeat could have had repercussions for Scotland’s place within the Union, potentially making it difficult to credibly press for further devolution, and reducing the influence of the Scottish government in intergovernmental relations. A respectable defeat, by contrast – and a 45% Yes vote is more than respectable – produces a victory of sorts which helps increase pressure for a stronger form of Scottish self-government.

The three UK parties are now committed to more powers, while the SNP has earned the right to engage in the current constitutional process, overseen by Lord Smith of Kelvin, to try to push their competitors further. Whatever deal is reached in this round of constitutional reform, it is unlikely to produce a definitive, lasting settlement. The first insight into why Scots voted the way they did (the Ashcroft poll) indicated that a large majority of respondents who voted Yes were convinced about self-government in principle: asked to select between three options – (i) the principle that decisions about Scotland should be made in Scotland; (ii) that independence promised a brighter future; (iii) that independence would mean no more Tory governments – 70% chose the first, 20% the second and only 10% the third. New, potentially extensive, income-tax powers and less extensive welfare powers – both at the centre of today’s proposals – would enhance the power and responsibility of the Scottish parliament, but may be insufficient to satisfy these self-government demands.

History suggests that advances in Scottish self-government often come on the back of SNP electoral success. When the SNP made its electoral breakthrough in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Conservatives flirted with devolution and the Labour Party eventually committed to a Scottish Assembly. After the 1987 ‘doomsday scenario’ – when Labour won almost 70% of seats in Scotland while the Conservatives secured their third consecutive majority at Westminster – the Labour Party in Scotland again engaged with the issue of Scottish home rule, and strengthened its commitment as the SNP began to threaten its electoral heartlands – symbolised most spectacularly by Jim Sillars’ victory in the Govan by-election. More recently, the SNP election victory in 2007, which launched the Scottish government’s ‘National Conversation’ on Scotland’s future, prompted the three UK parties to establish the Calman commission, whose proposals were mainly embodied in the subsequent Scotland Act 2012. That legislation has not yet been implemented, and yet will be surpassed by the new devolution legislation emerging from the current process. SNP electoral success in the future, backed by the 45% support for independence in the referendum, could drive the process of constitutional change still further.

On the other hand, circumstances are a little different now. The threat of independence – a niggling thorn in the side of UK governments at least since 2007 – has been eliminated for the foreseeable future. The SNP will not enter the Westminster election seeking a mandate to hold another independence referendum, and is very unlikely to do so for the subsequent Scottish Parliament election in 2016. However, it will seek to redefine the ‘devo max’ agenda with a rather different take on what a maximum amount of devolution in the UK would encapsulate, far beyond the proposals currently on the table. The Scottish government’s 2010 report, Your Scotland, Your Voice, which marked the culmination of the National Conversation, pointed toward a definition of ‘devo max’ that included full fiscal autonomy, as well as devolved powers over employment & competition law; regulation of companies; broadcasting; social security; equalities legislation; energy policy, marine regulation & Crown Estates; and formal participation rights in EU policy-making. The Scottish government has yet to set out specific proposals to the Smith commission, but it can be expected to try to expand the constitutional limits of the current debate in at least some of these directions over the next few months, and will certainly do so in the coming years.

The referendum campaign led to the creation of a national movement which went far beyond the SNP. Many in the movement were at pains to express their distinctiveness from the party and its leader Alex Salmond. In the wake of the referendum, many now seem to see the pro-independence parties as the best outlet to advance their self-government aspirations. As a party, the SNP appears in rude health, in spite of the referendum defeat. In the week following the referendum, the party has seen a dramatic increase in its membership – from 25,642 members on 18th September to over 70,000 10 days later, almost twice as many as all other Scottish parties put together. This influx of new members will not be without challenges for the party’s new leader once she assumes office, but it creates clear opportunities for mobilising support ahead of the Westminster and Holyrood election campaigns.

The referendum marks not so much a setback, but a missed opportunity to take a big leap towards Scottish independence. Going forward, we can expect the SNP to revert to the gradualist strategy that has dominated the party’s recent history, pursuing a more incremental path towards greater Scottish self-government. Another independence referendum may be on the distant horizon, but only in a context which inspired confidence among pro-independence leaders that it would be won.


Nicola McEwen is Professor of Territorial Politics at the University of Edinburgh, and Associate Director of the Scottish Centre on Constitutional Change.