Scotland. What happens next?

By Mark Shephard, School of Government and Public Policy, University of Strathclyde

As I write this (15th September, 2014), I have no idea who will have won the independence referendum on Thursday 18th September 2014. It is too close to call as Yes and No are neck and neck in the polls. What I do know is that Yes have been more organised and visible both online (see our blog for WhatScotlandThinks 16 September 2014) and offline (for example, presence on the streets and posters in windows).  The momentum out there is for Yes, but this may be because of a ‘spiral of silence’ in which the views of one side (Yes) became dominant, not because the other side was being won over (although some, particularly in Labour, were won over), but because the other side could not speak up in public because they feared social isolation.

Indeed, the rhetoric of the campaign has placed the Yes and No camps at loggerheads offering vastly different visions of a post-referendum Scotland. However, the content of the campaigns in the closing week suggests that both are offering a union of sorts. Yes may want ‘independence’ but this is flavoured to keep the NHS, the pound, the Queen, NATO membership, shared embassies, social union…. No may want ‘union’, but it is increasingly offering Scotland significantly more independence to control matters within that union, albeit at the time of writing the three main No parties had not agreed on the precise mix of income tax, welfare and other powers to be granted.

What does this suggest happens next? If No have won, it suggests that a form of federalism is on the cards as the powers going to Scotland will so imbalance the devolution settlement that the only two possible solutions will be either federalism or independence. While federalism could save the union, so too might independence. It just depends upon the flavour of independence on offer, and probably most importantly, the kind of independence that is actually deliverable in an interdependent world including EU and NATO membership.

However, we do not know for sure what either side are going to do post-independence. No might not deliver federalism, they might offer a few more powers, or they might (as with the last referendum) renege on their promises. Yes might not deliver the kind of independence they were offering either, for example, how compatible is lower corporation tax with higher public spending? In addition, if we are paying in less than we are spending already, how long can promises of even more spending add up without rises in taxation? Who pays, and how much?

One thing is certain, not everything will be achievable. Politics involves compromise and negotiation resulting in a ‘we promised 10 oranges and delivered on some of these and changed a few other things along the way to compensate for this’ scenario. And we as citizens need to recognise this; otherwise we could be facing the mother of all hangovers no matter who wins. We cannot afford to develop an expectations gap between what is actually possible versus what is desirable in an ideal world. Otherwise this will lead to a further spiralling down in trust of our politicians and institutions.

We also need to ensure that there is a national reconciliation and coming together of both sides to work for the common good no matter who wins, irrespective of the perceived legitimacy (the winner will most likely have less than half the total electorate voting for them) or the constitutional designs we end up with. And negotiations will have to start quickly. The most important thing of all is law and order and civility to others. Without that it is hard to build, and build we must – see for example, a talk for Tedx Glasgow I did on some online do’s and don’ts (available on Youtube via: )

There is so much that needs doing in Scotland and one of the best things about this referendum has been an exploration of possible new ways of doing things, particularly at the local level – call it Big Society or call it something else that you would rather, we need to be creative about how we deliver, as citizens, a better tomorrow. We need to be a part of that change ourselves. As John F. Kennedy once said, ‘ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country’. This might mean volunteering and/or it might just mean picking up a piece of litter and recycling it. It all helps.

What is becoming clearer is that the constitutional and political landscape will have to change either way of the vote. Politics has never been this interesting or this important to those living in Scotland (and the rest of the UK) right now. These are the days we will remember for the rest of our lives.

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