It is October 2014 and Scotland has voted in favour of an independent future. The international community, sceptical to the last minute, take stock. An international newspaper dispatches a senior political editor to Edinburgh, with the task of understanding why Scotland voted Yes.
It surprised us all. Despite the long build-up, with protracted wranglings over the how and when of the referendum itself followed by a gruelling campaign which rivalled in length those of U.S. Presidential elections, few suspected that the Scots might actually do it. What would motivate a small, European nation to leave a stable, and apparently successful, union of over 300 years?
According to opinion polls, support for independence remained relatively steady for a generation, at around 1/3rd of the population. Even by early 2013, seemingly well into the campaign, the polls hadn’t shifted. But the polls didn’t tell the whole story.
‘Both sides realised early on that the undecided were crucial,’ an advisor to the pro-Union Better Together group tells me. ‘Most polls showed both Yes and No on a minority. What we didn’t realise was the extent to which many of those No voters were on shaky ground. They hadn’t been convinced of independence, but they weren’t necessarily tied to the idea of the Union, either.’
Initially it seemed that most Scots had favoured the ‘devo-max’ option, giving Holyrood significant new powers without leaving the UK. But this option was blocked from appearing on the ballot paper by the UK Government, and the unionist parties couldn’t agree on a set of proposals to endorse before the referendum. Mindful of past broken promises after the 1979 referendum on a Scottish Assembly, Scotland was sceptical. David Cameron’s government had very little support in Scotland, and as their mishandling of the economy continued, many undecided voters began to edge towards independence.
So where was the turning point? A senior strategist from Yes Scotland states that the campaign ran away from the politicians and became ‘owned’ by ordinary people:
It became a genuinely grassroots campaign. Over the final 12 to 18 months we saw a massive mobilisation of volunteers. People who would never join a political party, or who’d never go leafleting or on a protest, started to educate themselves on the issues and persuade their friends and colleagues. People started to think beyond the petty party politics that existed and thought about the opportunities that independence offered.
“In short, they decided their future was too important to leave to people like me.”
This engagement was most visibly demonstrated by the massive increase in voter turnout. In the months leading up to the referendum, a massive voter registration drive, led by volunteers across the country, ensured that everyone who wanted to vote could do so. There are tales from across the country of middle-aged men and women voting for the first time. ‘It was the first time I had something to vote for,’ one told me.
Support was spread relatively evenly across the country, but was highest amongst two groups – the young and the working class. In some constituencies in the West of Scotland, where it was joked that the unionist Labour vote was usually weighed rather than counted, the ‘Yes’ vote was overwhelming.
So what convinced them?
The Yes strategist says it is simple:
People realised that it wasn’t a choice between continuity and change, but about a fork in the road. One of those forks, onto the road of continued union, locked us into a state where inequality was growing, austerity was being imposed on our most vulnerable, and where we were often governed by parties without a mandate in Scotland. The other was about determining our own future, with a government elected by the people who live here. It took us onto a road where we could make the needs and aspirations of Scotland the primary concern, not a minor irritant to a distant government.
“It wasn’t about nationalism. It was about self-determination.”
The Better Together advisor concedes a similar point:
People were used to most things that affected them, like health and education, being run in Edinburgh. It simply became increasingly hard to convince the public that everything else was better run from London.”
So what is in the future for Scotland? The Scottish Government are confident that the elections of the next Scottish Parliament in 2016 will be the first elections of an independent Parliament. Negotiations between Edinburgh and London have proceeded quietly and, by all indications, in good spirits. The one major issue is the future of the Trident nuclear weapons, currently situated in Scotland. The Scottish Government have taken a strong line, insisting that they should be removed before independence. Cameron has respected that, but has a problem – he doesn’t have anywhere else to put them, and the English public are increasingly upset about the cost of a new generation of missiles. It looks possible that Scotland’s independence could rid Europe of its biggest arsenal of nuclear weapons.
As for the next government in Scotland, that much is uncertain. There is speculation from some that First Minister Alex Salmond may seek to retire before the next election, leaving the fate of the Scottish National Party in the hands of his Deputy Nicola Sturgeon or a younger member of the parliamentary group. The parties which campaigned for a ‘No’ vote have entered an inevitable period of introspection, with Labour promising to return to its roots and elements of the Conservatives and Lib Dems seeking to form a new socially liberal, small-government party. The Greens, widely respected for their role in the ‘Yes’ campaign, look set to increase their representation and talks of an electoral pact with young left-wing activists are going on behind closed doors.
In a taxi through central Edinburgh, my driver is enthusiastic about the next election:
I’ve no idea who’ll win. Before, I would never vote Tory because of Thatcher and I stopped voting Labour because of Iraq. Now I feel like I could vote for anyone. It’s a fresh start, a clean slate, it’s really exciting. I’m waiting to hear what their vision for Scotland is.”