Through a Glass Darkly: The Shape of Scotland’s Constitutional Future

By Professor Jim Gallagher, University of Glasgow

The dust has settled after all the hype of the referendum anniversary. So there may be scope for more sober reflection on its legacy, and what happens next for Scotland and the UK. I will argue in a lecture in Glasgow on 21 October that it’s time for an act of “constitutional generosity”.

Venue: Gannochy Room, Wolfson Medical Building, University of Glasgow

Date: Wednesday 21st October 2015

Time: 18:00-19:30

This event is FREE to attend but registration is ESSENTIAL and via Eventbrite. Please click HERE to register.

Recognising Division

The referendum polarised the question about Scotland’s future: it had to be yes or no. And it has polarised Scotland since. The division is still yes and no, but it’s also between the noisy and the silent, is the hopeful and the fearful. Buoyed up by electoral success, nationalist enthusiasts are still campaigning; no voters may remain the majority, but they are very much the silent one. The experience of yes and no voters during the campaign was strikingly different, as polling immediately afterwards showed. The majority of yes voters felt free to express their views; three quarters of them thought the process had united the country. Half of no voters felt unable to speak out, and 9 out of 10 of them of thought the whole business left the country divided. Apart from a piously naïve church service immediately after the vote, no attempt has been made to bridge this divide.

Certainly not by the Scottish government. A 45% yes vote translated into a Westminster landslide, showing how a first past the post electoral system can leave half a country unrepresented. The SNP have set their sights on continued domination of Holyrood after next May. So they have little partisan interest in reaching out to the majority who opposed separation: quite the opposite. The SNP leadership are riding the Tiger they created – exalted, but secretly terrified, by its enthusiasm. Too many statesmanlike gestures, or worse still compromises, and it will eat them.

Wiser heads in the SNP will realise that dragging a nation to independence with half the population resentful, resistant and fearful is a recipe for disaster. Some years ago, the SNP decided to call itself a ‘national’ rather than a ‘nationalist’ party. But the legacy of its referendum has been to create a nation divided into two: nationalists and everyone else. A party driven by nationalism cannot is unite it. But what can?

Living with reality of the result – and what it actually means

Some on the nationalist side have found it hard to take no for an answer. Given the commitment and enthusiasm individuals put into the campaign, maybe that is understandable. No does mean no; and the referendum was promised to be a ‘once in a generation’ event. SNP electoral success is no argument for running it again.. Enthusiasts nevertheless demand the people should be asked again, until they give the right answer (at which point, presumably, the questioning would abruptly stop). The cautious Nicola Sturgeon temporises, knowing that even if another referendum could be legally secured, a second defeat would be fatal. So she says the people would decide: but appoints herself their augur. The political tactics are obvious: claim the right to hold a referendum at a time of your choosing, and wait in the hope that an unpopular Tory government will get the yes vote securely above 50%.

This is obviously nonsense. The referendum result has to be accepted. That was the whole point of the exercise. But both halves of it need to be acknowledged. Scotland chose to remain in the UK, but nearly half of Scots were unhappy to do so. That places obligations on nationalists, but on unionists too.

This is where devolution matters, and the Scotland Bill before Parliament is absolutely critical. Scotland has always been both part of the UK and separate from it: that’s the kind of union we’ve always had, Scotland distinct and different but banding together with England and the other parts of the UK in our common interest. Call it a Caledonian antsyzygy if you like. Devolution is about adjusting the balance between autonomy and sharing. Autonomy matters to Scots, and a great deal to many. But so does sharing, and it is hugely in Scotland’s interest, not just for things like defence but also for pensions and public services.

The Scotland Bill should allow a new balance. Scotland should be able have a different social model, more generous welfare than the UK standard as well as better public services, while still getting security from the UK. But only if we want them and are willing to pay for them. If the Scottish government however see the Scotland Bill as just another campaigning opportunity, they will simply deepen the division.

Constitutional Generosity

A French Canadian scholar, talking about the situation in Québec, recently called for “constitutional generosity”; the capacity to make a gesture or a proposal that would unite and not divide a nation. It’s time for some constitutional generosity in Scotland.

Here is what it would look like. Both sides of the argument need to take a risk – in the interests of uniting the country. Wide powers under the Scotland Bill will allow Scotland to pursue quite a different approach from England, especially if England is under a right wing UK government. The risk for Unionists is that this will build consensus for complete difference and complete separation. The risk for nationalists is that Scots will be comfortable to stay inside the UK if they can genuinely pursue a different course. The generous offer would be to try it and see, and to think about the question of complete political separation of another political generation, as was promised.

2016 should be the year in which Scottish politics grows up. This is a real challenge for all Scottish politicians: it’s no longer their job is just to spend the money and complain it isn’t enough. If the UK government wants to shrink the state to pay back the UK’s debts it can. But the Scottish government wants to take a different course, starting in 2016, it’s getting the tax powers to do something about it. It’s a comforting national myth that Scots are more egalitarian, community minded and generous than people in England. They are not, but myths like this matter, because they can influence political choices. People won’t pay a bit more in taxes, to have a more generous welfare system, voluntarily: it needs political leadership to build a consensus that it is the right thing to do. What it does not need is dishonest politics that pretends we can have more public spending without the taxes to pay for it.

One year after deciding to stay in the UK, Scotland faces a different set of choices–not what country to belong to, but what sort of country it really wants to be. It’s time for Scotland’s political leadership to put the first question aside and focus on the second one.