55 percent for ‘no,’ 45 percent for ‘yes.’ It was simultaneously a very close result and a comfortable win for Better Together.
The vote was close if we take a historical perspective on it. Support for independence in Scotland has typically hovered around 25 percent. A year ago it seemed stuck 35-40 percent, and many observers were suggesting that anything above 40 percent would be a good result for the SNP. Then, a month or so before the vote, support for independence began to rise sharply. A few weeks before the referendum day, a YouGov poll showed Yes Scotland in the lead.
Two things could explain this sudden increase.
First, most Scots felt that Scottish First Minister and Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond bested Better Together‘s Alistair Darling in the second television debate. Darling had effectively questioned Salmond’s position that the United Kingdom would, after a vote for Scottish independence, co-manage the pound with Scotland, asking the First Minister for his ‘plan B’ in the event the British government refused as the British parties had indicated it would. Darling came back with the same line of questioning in the second debate and, even if Salmond’s many ‘plan Bs’ were all inadequate for most experts, he was judged as to have the upper hand. The second debate highlighted a fundamental problem in the Better Together campaign: it was viewed by most Scots as being essentially negative (and dubbed ‘Project Fear‘). Finding fault in independence projects is not, on its own, a winning formula.
The Scottish referendum campaign may also provide some insights to the Government of Canada if Ottawa is ever confronted again by a referendum on Quebec independence.
Second, a couple months before the vote, the Yes Scotland strategy focused clearly on one master idea: that a Conservative-led Westminster government threatened the progressive social policies that Scots preferred. In other words, Yes Scotland told Scots to support independence so they could avoid privatization of the National Health Service, cuts in disability allowances, and retirement age being raised (which would delay access to pensions). The English/Conservative ‘enemy’ had successfully been contrasted with the progressive Scottish nation before—in the march towards home rule in the 1980s and early 1990s—and it proved as effective this time as it had been then.
Yes Scotland could not maintain its momentum to the end. From this perspective, the result was a surprisingly comfortable win for Better Together.
What happened to put Better Together fairly easily on top on September 18? A couple things.
The first was the ‘vow.’ A few days before the vote, the leaders of the three British parties promised Scots that if they rejected independence, their Parliament would get more powers while funding levels (both the Barnett formula and National Health Service funding) would be maintained. Yes Scotland had told Scots that remaining part of the United Kingdom posed greater risks than becoming independent because their social services would get cut. With the vow, however, Better Together attempted to send Scots a (last minute) message that there was no risk in voting ‘no’ and that such a vote would actually bring about positive change.
The second was the reappearance of Gordon Brown. Sidelined by Conservatives who despised him and Labour politicians eager to distance themselves from the Blair years, the Labour heavyweight of Scottish politics gave speeches that reminded everyone why he was once such a formidable politician. Brown’s intervention was necessary to convince traditional Labour voters, including those tempted by independence, to vote ‘no.’ In one week, he spoke more about the United Kingdom (as a community of solidarity rather than simply as a purveyor of economic benefits) and Britishness than Better Together politicians had done in a year.
The Scottish referendum campaign may also provide some insights to the Government of Canada if Ottawa is ever confronted again by a referendum on Quebec independence. Indeed, the campaign was a reminder of at least three things from the perspective of a ‘no’ side: first, it is risky to run a ‘negative’ campaign focused solely on the costs and risks of independence; second, it is difficult to defend the status quo without having anything new to ‘offer’; and third, it is probably a good idea to speak about the existing (state-wide) national community in substantive rather than simply in utilitarian terms.
Meanwhile, as a result of the ‘vow,’ the United Kingdom embarks on a path of mega-constitutional politics. Indeed, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that all the nations of the U.K. would need to have their voice heard and strengthened in the context of the reforms. But these reforms introduce tricky political and institutional design issues. Specifically, with more powers eventually going to the Scottish Parliament, the ‘West Lothian’ question—how to avoid Scottish MPs voting on legislation that will affect England (and perhaps also Wales and Northern Ireland) but not Scotland—badly needs to be answered. The notion of ‘English votes for English laws’ suits the Conservatives who can use it to try to placate the U.K. Independence Party (with its budding English nationalism), but it is a bad proposition for Labour, for whom a majority in the House would be more difficult to attain if Scottish MPs were to absent themselves for votes on matters devolved to the Scottish Parliament.