Friday 19 September 2014

Scotland's Vote 25: Immediate Reaction

The vote is a decisive No:

The referendum has been a massive event. It will take weeks, months, and years for the consequences to be fully understood. Nevertheless, I'm going to add to the many sleep-deprived immediate reactions on the Internet.

Congratulations to all who have participated in a passionate, lively, and overwhelmingly peaceful campaign.

Commiserations to the Yes campaigners. I don't agree with them, but I truly respect where they come from. In the final weeks their campaign had hope, it had momentum, but in the end it was not enough for victory. Today, they will feel devastated. Tomorrow, I hope they can turn the energy and idealism they brought to the referendum towards making Scotland a better place for all who live there.

I am glad the No side had to fight for its result. As recently as August, the No campaign was dismal and complacent. They thought the future of the National Lottery was a significant topic of conversation. Cushioned by a 20-point lead in the polls, they tried to play it safe and say as little as possible. They hoped to win by default, and came very close to losing by default.

Eleven days before the vote, a YouGov poll giving a two-point lead for independence galvanized the Ayes and terrified the Noes. There was no longer room for complacency. Both sides came out fighting with everything they had, and Scotland deserved nothing less.

Source: BBC News
In particular, Gordon Brown distinguished himself. His speech the day before the vote was delivered with a passion, idealism, and eloquence sadly lacking from his tenure as Prime Minister. For too long, the No campaign sounded like an actuary evaluating an investment portfolio; finally, it found some heart and soul in defence of the UK.

Like the No campaign, the UK government was complacent until the final days before the vote. They assumed there would be an overwhelming No vote, followed by a return to business as usual.

Business as usual is gone. 85% of Scots have turned out to vote, and 45% of them voted for independence. No one in the UK can afford to ignore this. The vote reveals a deep dissatisfaction with our political and economic system which does not stop at Hadrian's Wall. It is a warning that our leaders have become dangerously disconnected from the people they claim to serve; but it is also an opportunity for real and meaningful reform across the UK.

With luck, the Scottish referendum will inspire new demands to improve our democracy and hold our leaders to account. In that respect, it has already done the entire United Kingdom a great service, for which we should all be thankful.

Postscript 1: More powers for Scotland

This is a large topic which deserves more than one blog post of its own. A few initial thoughts:

  • The promises of new powers for the Scottish Parliament in the final days of the campaign were vague, and the UK parties disagree on the details. It will be a while before we know just how much is being offered. If they are foolish enough to try and fob Scotland off with a few token measures, we are likely to face another independence referendum in ten or twenty years' time.
  • Sooner or later, the West Lothian Question of Scottish MPs voting on English laws will have to be addressed. It is simply undemocratic when voters in Kilmarnock can decide controversial matters of health and education policy in Carlisle, but not vice versa. Ignoring this problem will not make it go away; it simply provides an opening for UKIP and other extremists, which they will not be slow to exploit.
  • The UK parties were keen to defend the Barnett formula for funding Scotland. In the long term, I think this is a mistake. Barnett is an opaque and poorly understood mechanism which can be varied at the whim of the UK Treasury, without even the need for legislation. Additional tax-varying powers for Scotland are all well and good, but I think it is more important to put its overall revenue on a secure, statutory basis.

Postscript 2: A word on turnout

Turnout of 85% is a cause for celebration. It compares with 66% across the UK in the 2010 general election, and 50% in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election. It shows engagement in politics, a belief that voting matters and has the potential to change our lives.

Before anyone becomes too smug, a few words of caution are in order. This was a decision of historic importance, with the usual complexity of politics distilled down to a single question: Yes or No. Maintaining this level of commitment for normal elections will be a challenge.

High turnout is a sign of interest in politics; the political system itself may be good or bad. Sweden regularly has turnouts of more than 80% in parliamentary elections, but so does Italy. No one, least of all the Italians, would claim Italy is a shining example of good governance. Increasing turnout is not so much an end in itself, more a means to the end of a more prosperous and fairer society.

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