Scottish Independence Referendum: How Did We Get Here?

By Richard Wyn Jones
Cardiff University

On the 18th of September, the Scottish electorate will go to the polls to vote on the proposition “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Remarkably, it’s only now that the rest of the world – and indeed, even the rest of the UK – is beginning to wake up to the possible implications of the Scottish independence referendum. Which if ‘Yes’ wins, would be an event of genuine world historical importance setting off geo-political shockwaves that would surely reverberate around the globe. Not least in Canada.

For those who are only just catching up with events in Scotland, let’s start with the most fundamental question: How did we get here?

As ever, it’s a mixture of what social scientists term structure and agency. Structure meaning long-term trends in economics, politics and social identities as well as institutional arrangements. Agency being a matter of how political as well as other actors negotiate their way over this potentially treacherous terrain. It’s important to stress that in the case of the Scottish independence referendum at least, ‘agency’ has been a matter of mistakes and miscalculations quite as much as shrewd leadership and courage. Though neither have the latter qualities been entirely absent. Contingency – another term beloved by academics – is also important. There was nothing inevitable about the calling of the independence referendum, and nothing inevitable about its result either – whatever that turns out to be.

Future historians will doubtless devote weighty volumes to trying to determine the relative importance of the various factors that have led to a vote on Scottish secession. But to a political scientist, at least, the following are among the most obviously germane factors that will need to be taken into account.

The death of the Conservative Party in Scotland and the divergence of political cultures north and south of the Scottish-English border

Although most Scots now find it almost impossible to imagine such a state of affairs, in the 1955 UK general election the Conservatives were the largest party in Scotland, securing 50.1% of the vote. By contrast, in the 2010 UK general election, the Tories won only a solitary Scottish seat (out of 59) in the Westminster parliament. The party’s catastrophic decline north of the Scottish border shows no signs of being reversed. Rather it maintains a zombie-like existence – not really alive but still roaming the corridors – due to the fact that the Scottish parliament elects its member by a proportional electoral system. Not the least of the ironies of contemporary British politics is that this is an electoral system that the Conservatives themselves purport to oppose.

The increasingly alienation of Scots from the Conservative party has many complex causes but one consequence was that it became a centrally important impetus for the moves that led to the holding of the 1997 referendum on the establishment of a devolved Scottish Parliament and Government. A key argument for ‘home rulers’ – to use the Victorian term for supporters of devolution – was that the UK Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major did not have a democratic mandate to rule Labour voting, ostensibly social democratic Scotland. Hence the requirement for devolution. The same argument is now a powerful weapon in the armoury of pro-independence campaigners who point to overwhelming numerical dominance of England within the Union (84% of the population) as well as the strength of the Conservatives and, increasingly, the right-wing populist UKIP ‘down south’. Devolution is not enough to protect Scotland from the Tories. Rather it is only a Yes vote to independence that can guarantee Scots the government they vote for.

The establishment of the Scottish Parliament and Government in Scotland in 1999 and the rise of the SNP

The overwhelming support for devolution in the 1997 referendum led two years later to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and Government. This development has proved important in several ways for subsequent moves towards independence.

First of all these powerful institutions enjoy considerable legitimacy – in David Easton’s terms, ‘diffuse support’ – across the Scottish electorate. Indeed, the standing of Scotland’s own national, democratic institutions stands in some contrast to that of UK level political institutions that in recent years have become deeply tarnished by the impact of a major expenses scandal that has seen Westminster parliamentarians subject to intense public anger and ridicule. The move from relatively popular and effective ‘home rule’ to sovereign statehood is evidently regarded by many Scots as far less of a leap into the unknown than many pro-Union advocates both hope and believe, especially when Westminster has lost its lustre.

Just as importantly, devolution has created a stage on which the main advocate of independence – the Scottish National Party (SNP) – has been able to build its base and burnish its credibility.

Before devolution, the SNP was largely a fringe party. So too was the cause with which it was primarily associated. But as a result of devolution, what was once fringe has become mainstream. Indeed, the platform generated by devolution has allowed the SNP to take over Labour’s mantle as Scotland’s ‘natural’ party of government.

Like Labour, the SNP is a centre-left party. Indeed, apart from the constitutional issue, the programmatic differences between them are far narrower than partisans of both parties tend to allow. Unlike the Labour Party in Scotland, however, the SNP is well organized, highly professional, disciplined and focused. Not only that, but for the past decade the party has been led by two of the most able and popular politicians in Scotland, namely Alex Salmond and his Deputy Nicola Sturgeon.

Since forming their first minority government in 2007, the SNP has developed an enviable reputation among the Scottish electorate for governmental competence. Indeed it was their reputation for governmental competence – in other words, classic ‘valence voting’ considerations – rather than any particular enthusiasm for further constitutional change that led the SNP to their stunning victory in the subsequent devolved Scottish election in 2011. Despite an electoral system that many believe was designed precisely to guard against such an eventuality, the SNP managed to secure an overall majority at the Scottish parliament at Holyrood and with it a mandate for a referendum on independence.

The British Labour Party’s disastrous approach to ‘devolved’ politics

Whilst there can be no doubting the SNP own political skills, the party has also been fortunate in its main political rival. If the establishment of the Scottish parliament was largely the result of Labour’s efforts, Labour has proven disastrously incapable of adjusting to the demands of post-devolution politics.

Most fundamentally, Scottish Labour has ignored what would appear to be one of the iron laws of regional or sub-state electoral politics, namely that to be successful parties need to viewed by the electorate as effective champions of the regional interest at (and where necessary, against) the centre. By contrast, with Scottish politician Gordon Brown a dominant figure in both the Scottish Labour party and in Tony Blair’s New Labour administration after 1997 – as well, of course, as becoming UK Prime Minister for an ill-starred period between 2007 and 2010 – Scottish Labour allowed itself to be portrayed (not unjustly) as the tribune of the centre in the periphery. This created a huge political space that the SNP was only too willing to exploit.

As if this were not enough, in the aftermath of its shock loss in the 2007 devolved election, Scottish Labour compounded its entirely self-inflicted problems by making common cause not only with its long terms allies the Scottish Liberal Democrats, but also with the Conservatives. Deliberately excluding the dreaded ‘Nats’ from the constitution making process, this ‘unionist’ bloc has sought to develop Scotland’s devolution settlement in ways that forces the Scottish Government to make unpalatable political decisions – in itself, an entirely unobjectionable development – whilst minimising meaningful policy autonomy. In doing so Labour seems to have chosen to ignore not only the continuing toxicity of the Tories north of the border, but also the fact that many and perhaps most Scots inhabit a constitutional grey zone between ‘unionism’ and ‘nationalism’ (as eloquently charted by the historian Colin Kidd). The results of this are obvious in the current referendum campaign. Labour leaders in Scotland share platforms with Conservatives to the huge discomfort of party activists whilst polls suggest that an ever-increasing percentage of the party’s supporters are intending to support independence. 

Thus has the once mighty Scottish Labour party has been brought low – in large part through its own actions. It should be stressed that there was nothing inevitable about this outcome. In Wales, after an initially shaky start, Labour has thrived after devolution. It has done so largely by co-opting much of the rhetoric of the SNP’s sister party, the nationalist Plaid Cymru. At the devolved level at least, Welsh Labour is a small ‘n’ nationalist party and, as a result, the large ‘N’ variety struggles to find a viable political space on which to make their stand.

Hubris: The British political class’s great ‘independence gamble’

Even winning the 2011 devolved Scottish election was not enough to ensure that an independence referendum would be held. In fact, the SNP Government – aware, no doubt, that independence enjoyed only limited support in Scotland – wanted to add third option to the ballot paper. The Scottish people would be allowed to choose between the status quo, more devolution or independence. They even offered their unionists opponents the opportunity of defining the terms of this intermediary option.

There’s no doubt that the middle option would have triumphed were it on the ballot paper. At that time, majority opinion in Scotland firmly supported more devolution – sometimes known as ‘devo max’ – rather than independence. But as a condition for allowing the Scottish Government to hold the referendum, Unionist parties insisted on a straight Yes and No choice on independence. In effect they gambled that the Scots who supported more autonomy than the current status quo but not full sovereignty, would vote No rather than choose statehood. A gamble that was based on the assumption that Scottish voters shared their view of ‘unionism’ and ‘nationalism’ as absolute, binary positions rather as a continuum. But projecting one’s own understandings and enmities onto the electorate is seldom sensible. As the polls close dramatically and pro-Union politicians scramble to try to reassure the Scottish electorate that a No vote does not mean no change, their decision to rule out a middle option in the forthcoming vote appears ever more fateful.

Richard Wyn Jones is Director of the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University. See his lecture at CIPS on September 15, 2014.