Scotland: From the Referendum to Election 2015

Scotland: From the Referendum to Election 2015

Alexander Smith (University of Warwick)


 In June 2012, as campaigning got underway for the referendum on Scottish independence that would take place just over two years later, I published a Blogpost called ‘Battle Now Joined for Scotland’s Constitutional Future’. In it, I made the following observation:

‘While it is likely that a focus on the negative consequences and practical uncertainties of independence may help ‘No’ campaigners win the referendum, it is also true that they need to make an equally positive case for Scotland remaining within the United Kingdom. Without doing so, Unionist politicians may risk sounding overly negative against a confident, clear-eyed and optimistic narrative from Alex Salmond, who will champion the promise of an independent Scotland able to decide and act for itself on the world stage. This could alienate Scottish voters and, in turn, further entrench the SNP as the natural party of government in Scotland – even if it loses the 2014 referendum.’

I did not consider, when I wrote this, that these observations were either prescient or insightful, and nor do I now. I would suggest that for anyone then acquainted with Scottish politics, these comments would have seemed obvious. Still, six months after a majority of Scottish voters rejected independence in favour of staying in the United Kingdom, the SNP appears ascendant in the opinion polls, with some suggesting that close to all of the seats the Labour Party holds in Scotland are under threat in the upcoming May elections for Westminster.

Famously, the Labour Party has maintained a hegemonic grip on the Scottish electorate for the past half-century.   In recent Scottish Parliament elections, however, the Scottish Nationalists have assiduously built a formidable political machine to challenge Labour dominance North of the English border. It is now clear to everyone that the referendum has only helped strengthen the SNP and its allies further, even if it remains difficult to imagine the Nationalists making the breakthrough some polls are predicting and displacing the Labour Party as having Scotland’s biggest cohort of MPs.

Looking back, then, the biggest surprise is not why this has happened, though that continues to be an interesting question. Rather, how did Westminster politicians, and the Labour Party in particular, misread Scottish politics so badly in the run-up to the referendum?

The answer does not lie in an analysis of the respective strategies, communications and tactics of either side in last year’s debate over independence for Scotland. It is to be found in acknowledging another obvious, but often overlooked truth: rather than addressing problems of electoral politics, as important as these often were to many voters, the referendum was fundamentally about deciding questions of constitution and community. And these questions are social, rather than political, in foundation.

Better Together
Throughout most of the referendum campaign, the Labour Party, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats sought to work together under the banner of ‘Better Together’.

With the most to lose in terms of Parliamentary representation at Westminster, this was particularly problematic for the Labour Party. One of the arguments used by ‘Yes’ campaigners was that an independent Scotland would be freed, once and for all, of unpopular Tory rule at Westminster. The last time Conservatives won a majority of votes and seats in Scotland was in 1955. That Labour politicians were allied to the Tories in the referendum opened up political space for ‘Yes’, and now for the Scottish Nationalists, to charge that they are complicit in promoting a democratic deficit in Scotland, the consequence of which being that Scots are shackled to UK Conservative governments they have consistently and overwhelmingly rejected at the ballot box for sixty years.

The discord this generated between the pro-Union parties inspired ‘breakaway’, or parallel, campaigns such as ‘United with Labour’. However, at the heart of ‘Better Together’ was a promise of political community inclusive of all the constituent nations of the United Kingdom, and of all the peoples of those nations, bound as they are despite divisions of class, ethnicity, gender, race, region and religion.

What does it mean to be ‘better together’, or even better off together? What should it mean for citizens to belong to such a community? These questions are normative. They have social and moral import.

Danielle Allen is a leading US theorist of citizenship and race who draws on classical political philosophy and works in the tradition of American pragmatism. She is noteworthy because, according to The Guardian, her ideas were reportedly influential on Ed Miliband’s inner circle when he was attempting to reinvent Labour around ‘One Nation’ values. They might also serve as inspiration for making sense of what happened after the Scottish referendum.

In her book, Talking to Strangers, Allen argues that democracy is about the recognition of minorities. This recognition takes on public forms. After all, every election, every vote or division of parliament produces a winner (the majority) and a loser (the minority). This is how democracy differentiates itself from other methods of governing, such as totalitarianism, which provides no mechanism for the public recognition of dissenting opinion.

Through this practice of public recognition, majorities and minorities are bound to one another in a political community. This is not just a constitutional question, though; it is also sociological. After all, communities can only function through relationships of reciprocity and trust. This means when majorities acknowledge the views of minorities they must also listen attentively and take account of their interests as well, particularly on economic questions of inequality, poverty and social justice. As a result, minorities might consistently lose out electorally but stick with the political community to which they belong if they feel it is in their economic interests to remain in such a community regardless.

These insights are helpful for making sense of what happened in last year’s independence referendum. We can see, for example, that what ‘Better Together’ were offering was a vision of political community in which Scotland is not only better off, economically and politically, in a union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The argument of ‘Better Together’, which following the referendum would pose significant challenges for the Labour Party in particular, extends to those Scots who backed ‘Yes’ as well.

After all, those who supported independence for Scotland ended up losing the referendum. On a turnout of 85%, 45% of the Scottish electorate – some 1.6 million people – elected to leave the United Kingdom. Yet, they remain within the political community that the UK constitutes.

To win 45% of the vote was an extraordinary achievement for the ‘Yes’ campaign. Polls had consistently demonstrated throughout the campaign that ‘Better Together’ commanded a majority of around 55% of Scottish voters. ‘Yes’ trailed with a committed core of about a third of the electorate, the remainder being undecided. With the electoral odds stacked firmly against them, ‘Yes’ had grown their vote to fully 45% of the Scottish electorate – a substantial minority. More people had voted for Scottish independence than had ever voted for the SNP in a Westminster or Holyrood election.

The Morning After
The morning after the referendum, Prime Minister David Cameron declared victory on behalf of those who had campaigned for ‘Better Together’. Describing the result as ‘clear’ and ‘settled for a generation’, he asserted that ‘there can be no disputes, no re-runs’ before stating that the three pro-Union parties were committed to ‘hearing’ the voices of the 1.6 million Scots who voted to leave the UK. He then announced that Lord Smith of Kelvin, who oversaw the Glasgow Commonwealth Games last year, would take charge of a process for agreeing new constitutional powers for the Scottish Parliament, on tax, spending and welfare.

In the days that followed the referendum, leading Labour politicians like former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the leader of ‘Better Together’, ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, endorsed the Prime Minister’s comments and re-committed to extending new powers to the Scottish Parliament.

The question that remains to be answered is whether these new powers will be enough for the 1.6 million Scots who voted for independence. For the Labour Party, which is trying to persuade almost 200,000 of its own voters who backed independence to return to the fold, this is an especially important challenge.

Returning to Danielle Allen for a moment, the Scots who voted ‘Yes’ effectively rejected the idea of remaining in the political community constituted by the UK. Two conflicting visions of political community – one drawn on Scotland’s ancient borders, the other coterminous with the United Kingdom’s coastline – now command loyalties amongst Scottish voters, who remain divided.

This is why the question of Scotland’s constitutional future remains as unsettled as ever. How do you convince people who do not want to remain part of the larger political community to re-commit to it? It remains to be seen how many former ‘Yes’ voters might be reconciled with staying in the UK and supporting Labour at the elections in May.


Alexander Smith is a Senior Leverhulme Research Fellow and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick as well as an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Kansas.  With John Holmwood, he is the editor of Sociologies of Moderation: problems of democracy, expertise and the media (2013, Wiley Blackwell), which has been published as part of the Sociological Review monograph series.