Scottish independence debate far from over

James Cook, the BBC's Scotland correspondent from 2008 to 2015, argues that the Scottish independence debate is far from over, 12 months after the country voted to stay in the UK.

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It was an elegant question, as clear as the chill water in an Angus burn.

Should Scotland be an independent country?

And for some those six words printed on four million ballot papers did not allow for any kind of doubt.

For the true believers it was simple, Scotland was a nation.

Not for these purists the distraction of debate, obsessing over the price of oil and the return on government gilts.

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No. They took a long, if not particularly fashionable view which conjured up battles and spirits of old, ghosts of men who fought for Scotland's freedom in the 13th and 14th centuries: William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Andrew de Moray.

Some who thirsted for independence drew inspiration from the Jacobite risings which attempted to restore the House of Stuart to the British throne in the 18th century.

Others remembered the short-lived 1820 insurrection by the Lanarkshire weaver James Wilson and his fellow radicals who were hanged for rising up to demand parliamentary reform.

And yet such undiluted historical nationalism was a largely private affair.

Wilson's slogan "Scotland Free, or a Desert", which in the 1980s you would see daubed on Scottish motorway bridges in sloppy white paint, did not feature in 2014.

Those days are past now. And in the past, it seems, they must remain.

Bully and frighten

"You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose," said the late governor of New York, Mario Cuomo. Not in Scotland.

The independence campaign of 2014 was almost entirely prosaic, with advocates focusing on what the late Professor Sir Neil McCormick called a "utilitarian nationalism" which desired independence as "the best means to the well-being of the Scottish people."

This was a battle not in memory of Stirling Bridge or Bannockburn nor to avenge Flodden or Culloden but for Scotland's wallets.

"Yes" lost, of course.

Scotland awoke on a damp, drizzly autumn morning in 2014 to a decisive, if not overwhelming, endorsement of the Union: 44.7% had said yes to independence, 55.3% had said no.


A feeling has taken hold among some of "the 45", as the losers quickly became styled, that Scotland was cheated; that a powerful cabal of business, media and even the security apparatus of the British state combined to bully and frighten folk into voting no.

Scottish referendum results in detail

And certainly the establishment message about independence, as promulgated by an almost entirely hostile press, was strikingly negative, despite many "No" voters holding a positive, even romantic view of the union.

During the campaign, supporters of the UK often said they felt sadness and dismay at the prospect of a 300-year-old relationship ending in divorce.

Many Scottish citizens were born south of the border — census data put the number eligible to vote in the referendum at 422,386 — and many more Scots had personal connections, or simply an affinity with England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

There were plenty of Scots for whom a commitment to the union was not a pragmatic calculation. It was simply about being British, feeling at home in London and Edinburgh, in Glasgow and Liverpool, in Aberdeen and Newcastle; about having close friends, family and colleagues north and south of the Cheviots.

And yet with rare exceptions, such as a passionate speech by the former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, "Better Together" campaigners for Britain were as prosaic as their opponents.

Commonality of language; three centuries and more of shared history; the creation of the welfare state; the bond of standing together to defeat fascism: all were drowned out by a message of economic and even geopolitical doom.

The day before the vote

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Media captionGordon Brown: "Stand up and be counted tomorrow"
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Media captionYes Scotland chairman Dennis Canavan: "The people of Scotland will not be fooled"

Scotland, it was suggested, would be impoverished by going it alone, interest rates would soar, businesses would flee. In short, Scots would suffer.

The former secretary general of NATO, Lord George Robertson, who once predicted that the revival of the old Scots Parliament as a devolved legislature would "kill nationalism stone dead", even warned that independence would be "cataclysmic" for the western world. It would be welcomed by the global "forces of darkness," he intoned.

Economic argument

Many supporters of independence were stunned by the range and ferocity of the attacks and were shocked at how robustly their proposition was scrutinised.

If only every second news story ended with a line about how wonderful everything would be in an independent Scotland they suggested, absurdly, then the people would see the light.

At least one prominent critic of the "Yes Scotland" campaign has a rather different take.

"In the September 2014 referendum, Yes failed to win the economic arguments," he wrote in a critique six months after the vote, because it "failed to present a case on the currency, a central bank and fiscal policy that was credible."

The critic is no cheerleader for the union. He is Gordon Wilson, leader of the Scottish National Party from 1979 to 1990.

Jim Sillars, a former deputy leader of the party, has also criticised its strategy, writing that the campaign was "handicapped by an SNP White Paper that, on at least two counts (a currency union and 10 per cent cut in corporation tax), was a gift to the No side."

Since Mr Wilson's review of the referendum six months ago, the economic argument has not become any easier for those who say Scotland would be better off by seceding from the UK.

The figures and the arguments are, by now, wearily familiar to Scots: in 2013/14, Scotland paid £400 more per head in tax than the UK as a whole. This includes revenue from oil and gas in Scottish waters, in other words the lion's share of tax from Britain's North Sea operations.

So far so good for a nationalist.

But with £400 more per head in contributions, Scots received £1,200 more per head than the UK average in spending.

Tax and spend



Scots pay more per head in tax than the UK average


Scots receive more per head than UK average


Campaigners against independence call this hefty £800 per head a "union dividend", warning that if Scotland had control of all taxation and domestic spending, even in an arrangement that stopped short of full independence, it would face deep cuts to public services or big tax rises.

Nationalists retort that Scotland, like practically all nations including the UK, could borrow money and run a deficit while it designed policies better suited to improving growth and productivity.

But right now the starting point for such an ambitious project looks tough. The latest official figures for borrowing as a share of economic output - a sensible measure of how much debt a country can sustain - show that Scotland was performing considerably worse than the UK average in 2013/14, with a deficit of 8.1% of GDP compared to the UK's 5.6%.

Not only that but assuming a future independent Scotland wanted to use sterling, a currency union would be likely to face the same objections raised during the referendum campaign.


And, for all the recent insistence of nationalists that oil is nothing more than a bonus for Scotland, the slump in price to a value way below even the Scottish government's most pessimistic forecast, along with thousands of job losses in and around Aberdeen, can hardly be regarded as inconsequential.

And so nationalism remains in danger of being ensnared by Catch-22. If Scotland is struggling so badly in the union, how can it afford to go it alone? If it is thriving, why bother?

Either way, having chosen to campaign on utilitarian ground, and having trumpeted the very same official figures on previous occasions when they were more favourable to independence, the SNP can hardly complain that a majority of voters weighed up the risks and decided not to take them.

Nonetheless the very fact that many who voted "No" said they might have voted "Yes" had the economic outlook been more favourable suggests that something was afoot, a feeling that has only increased in the year following the poll.

Not so long ago Scottish nationalism felt like a fringe activity, pursued by the kind of man who wore a kilt on a Tuesday afternoon.

Then, with the opening of the devolved parliament in 1999, the centre of Scotland's political life shifted to Edinburgh and within a decade everything had changed.

Once in a generation?

In 2007 the SNP won control of the devolved government and this May, just seven months after its raison d'être was rejected in a supposed "once-in-a-generation" vote, it swept the board at the general election, taking 56 of Scotland's 59 seats in the House of Commons.

Nationalism was not "stone dead" but alive and thriving. The country, it seemed, had heard something that it liked after all, a positive message about a brighter future.

This thirst for change was in tune with other European countries where anger about out-of-touch politicians and arrogant bankers following the financial crisis of 2007/8 was transformed, for a time at least, into a rebellion against The System.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Anti-austerity rallies, like this one in the northern Greek port city of Thessaloniki, have taken place in a number of European countries

Like voters in Greece, Spain, Italy and elsewhere, Scottish citizens have found somewhere to channel a previously inchoate feeling that 21st century capitalist democracies are "gamed" in favour of a wealthy elite.

Whether or not this feeling is accurate — and whether or not nationalism is the answer — are of course questions open to debate. But whether or not the feeling is real is surely not in doubt; indeed the same forces are now having an extraordinary effect on the Labour Party.

You might call it a "Paisley Pattern" after the rejection by that town of the polished and precise Douglas Alexander, who ran Labour's general election campaign and was preparing to take up the post of foreign secretary, in favour of the passionate 20-year-old Mhairi Black of the SNP, now the youngest MP of the democratic era.

'Wave of hope'

Bright, optimistic and raw, with her insistence that the Labour party left her, rather than the other way around, Ms Black personifies the shift to the SNP.

On a bright spring day a fortnight before the general election, we watched her bounce up the street, blonde hair pulled tight in a ponytail, a messenger's bag slung over her shoulder, charming voters with a sympathetic ear and a smile.

She looked like the anti-politician's politician.

"We triumphed on a wave of hope" she said later in a powerful maiden speech which became an internet sensation, "something different, something better".

We triumphed on a wave of hope - something different, something better."

SNP MP Mhairi Black's maiden speech in the House of Commons

It is this kind of vague optimism which is proving hard for the SNP's challengers to oppose and which now makes the strategy of economic doom from supporters of the union look short-sighted.

After all, when Glasgow has voted to leave the UK, something is up. Glasgow! The second city of the British Empire; bombed in the Blitz when Britain stood together against the Nazis; cradle of the pan-British Labour movement — a majority in Glasgow said they wanted independence for Scotland.

And while only Dundee, West Dunbartonshire and North Lanarkshire followed suit last September, there was evidence even in the "No" vote of a loosening of ties.

Fraying edges

Research carried out immediately after the referendum suggested that far more "No" voters across Scotland rejected independence primarily because the economic risks were too great than did so because of a strong attachment to the UK and its shared history, culture and traditions.

Since then every plan to devolve further power from Westminster to Holyrood seems only to encourage greater support for the SNP and its calls for even more devolution, while attempts to design a stable federal solution for the UK have stalled not least because the Liberal Democrats, who should by rights be inking the blueprints, are in disarray.

And so the question for supporters of the United Kingdom is this: if the message that money is all that matters continues to be the dominant one in the minds of voters, then what actually binds the country together?

If it is nothing more than coins, notes and loans then perhaps the UK is fraying at the edges after all.

A perception, encouraged by all three major UK parties before the referendum, that the union relies on relatively poor Scotland being dependent in perpetuity on English subsidy might have looked like the best way to win last September's referendum but even if it was accurate, how durable, popular and attractive is such a downbeat, even cynical, message in the longer run?

The SNP's stunning general election landslide hints at one answer - and these days the question is being asked south as well as north of the border with a rise in English nationalism and proposals to reduce the influence of Scottish MPs at Westminster prompting Gordon Brown to warn that "the union is in mortal danger."

There may yet come a day when England wants Scotland to leave the UK.

Serious difficulties

Meanwhile the SNP leader, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon continues to walk on water and the party's electoral lustre remains apparently undimmed as it skilfully keeps the focus on "Westminster austerity" and the Conservative Party's mission to slim the state by slashing public spending, a political philosophy which happens to be rather unpopular in Scotland.

The devolved SNP government's popularity by contrast is all the more remarkable when you consider the serious difficulties it faces after eight years in power in the areas it does control, including;

Perhaps the party has become a victim of its own success as well as its opponents' weaknesses. Perhaps slick professionalism, clever marketing and unflinching loyalty from supporters and parliamentarians do not make for effective scrutiny of government policies.

And there are big problems ahead for the SNP as it poses as a radical socialist party while embracing the neo-liberal economic consensus which has prevailed since Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, problems that will only become thornier with Jeremy Corbyn leading the Labour Party on to genuinely Left-wing ground.

Middle Scotland

How many of the SNP's policies, apart from unilateral nuclear disarmament and arguably land reform could be regarded as genuinely radical?

The conundrum for the nationalists has not changed, how can they convince Middle Scotland that independence is a benign project while at the same time presenting it to those who rarely or never vote as something close to a revolution?

Well, not by insulting people for a start.

Image copyright AP
Image caption JK Rowling was one celebrity who was abused online during the Scottish independence referendum

While the "Better Together" campaign preferred to do its hectoring in private last year - with one senior figure from the Labour Party literally slamming the door as he stormed out of a meeting with the BBC for example - the SNP leader Alex Salmond appeared content to allow certain online supporters, dubbed "cybernats", to take a far more public approach to rubbishing anyone who dared question them.

Thus Scotland's most successful modern author JK Rowling and its greatest Olympian Sir Chris Hoy were both abused online, as were thoughtful pro-Union commentators such as David Torrance, Chris Deerin and Alex Massie, painted not just as political opponents or sceptical journalists but as enemies of Scotland, traitors, Quislings and so on.

Turning of the tide?

Such language appeared designed to delegitimise anyone who asked difficult questions rather than to engage them in meaningful debate.

Whereas Mr Salmond was fond of dealing with such criticism by pointing out instances of unionists abusing nationalists online, Ms Sturgeon has taken a more robust approach, slapping down social media users who make offensive remarks in the name of the nationalist movement.

This First Minister appears to understand that hectoring and harassing voters does not tend to win them over.

Still, there are many people in Scotland for whom 2014 remains a year to forget, a divisive, unnecessary distraction from the challenges of the 21st century. Some felt uncomfortable in their own country and keep quiet still about their "Britishness" and support for the United Kingdom.

But there are many others who regard last year as a turning of the tide, a beginning rather than an end, an opportunity for change.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Could a second Scottish referendum be on the cards?

And with a utilitarian narrative firmly embedded in the minds of Scottish voters it is not too difficult to imagine a shift that puts the union under pressure again.

Consider these questions;

  • What happens if there is a big new oil find in Scottish waters?
  • What happens if Scotland's economy somehow gets to grips with problems of productivity and geography and powers ahead of the rest of the UK?
  • What if Britain enters another unpopular war?
  • And what if the UK votes to leave the European Union with Scotland voting to stay?

Perhaps these particular scenarios are unrealistic but the point is that with the SNP so strong, discontent with the status quo bubbling over, and most of the debate reduced to practicalities alone, it is not difficult to conjure up situations where Scottish independence is suddenly thrust back to the top of the agenda.

It is as clear as the water in that Angus burn that the debate about Scotland's future is far from over.

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