First things first. We lost. We know how and why we lost, too. There was a solid base of natural No voters for them to build on, and their demographics have been well analysed in the aftermath. Many people just feel British and think their governance should reflect that: personally I don’t really feel national identity either way, but so be it. Beyond those groups, enough of the swing voters were secured for a flagging No campaign when they played two cards. First, a campaign of fear and lies, run by Number 10 and their media cheerleaders, using banks and big business to quash change. Second, of course, that promise of more powers.
We may abhor the first, and we may be convinced that the second will prove to be a sham too, but we still lost. And we need to accept it. That doesn’t mean going cold on the idea of independence, mind, any more than you should give up on any other principle or objective when you hit a setback.
The nationalists I know won’t do so. But, perhaps more importantly, I don’t think we non-nationalists for Yes will either. The ones I speak to are, like me, much more committed to independence than we were a year or five years ago. Friends who came over to Yes in the last week or month sound like they’ll never go back.
A large majority of the Scottish Greens’ membership joined in the last few days, too. Most will be Yes voters, but many will be No voters who want a radical slate of additional powers. The party has changed, and it’ll also be a lot closer to a “big party” electoral force on the ground in areas across the country where we simply didn’t have a decent activist base.
Meanwhile, the Yes activists on the ground, the true heroes of the Yes side, are networked, experienced, motivated, and informed like never before. The SNP had a great machine already, sure, but the breadth of the Yes movement eclipsed them. The No side, on the other hand, predominantly activated their existing operations.
This is not the time to talk about another referendum, or even to spend too much thought on the last one. The specific circumstances which made the Scottish electorate into the 45% and the 55% has passed. There may be a time for another referendum, but only when the circumstances permit it, demand it even. Right now it is totally inappropriate. And there’s much more to be done right now.
Besides, in many ways we won. It certainly didn’t feel like it on Friday, but over the weekend, as the dust settled, I became more Tigger than Eeyore. Let the No side have their triumphalism, their sense that Scotland has been put back in a box: we haven’t been, and we can’t be. For one thing, it might have been less close than we thought a week out from the vote, but it was still way more close than anyone predicted a year out (aside from some of my more enthusiastic SNP friends). Whole cities voted to leave the UK. Even in our worst areas almost a third of voters backed independence.
That 1.6m people voted Yes is extraordinary. At the beginning of the campaign Yes Scotland set a target of a million pledges: bear in mind the total Holyrood turnout in 2011 was less than 2 million. A chunk of SNP voters were always going to vote No (the stereotype being the anti-Labour Perthshire resident who does well from the council tax freeze and loves John Swinney’s reassuring managerialism), and a bigger chunk of Green voters did so too: both offset by the Labour voters who came over to Yes. That vast Yes total should therefore be regarded as extraordinary and significant. Sure, less than the No vote: I can add up, but extraordinary nevertheless. Remember how far away even having a vote looked just a decade ago.
Back in the day, the 1998 devolution settlement was described as the settled will of the Scottish people, but less than two decades later the debate was being framed by the Westminster parties themselves as more powers versus independence. The 1998 settlement, and the weak post-Calman additions to it: they’re dead already.
The reality is the settled will changes. It moves slowly, perhaps, but the last twenty years have seen it move in one direction: in favour of a higher proportion of decisions being made in Scotland. The centre of gravity is now devo max, unquestionably. It’s not my first preference. But I’ll take it if I can.
Tam Dalyell opposed devolution because he thought it was “a motorway to independence with no exits”. To have arrived at our destination this week would have suggested a proper German autobahn with no speed limits. We may not even be in the fastest lane on the motorway. It may even just be a modest A road. But I think it’s likely we will eventually get there.
Right now, though, those who campaigned so hard for a Yes vote have a substantial task to work on. As some will know, on a personal level I’m not a Salmond fan. I disagree with him on a wide range of policy issues, from oil and Trump and road-building to the Council Tax Freeze and the centralisation of Police Scotland. However, I admire his professionalism and I’m extraordinarily grateful that he got us to where we were last week. I also believe he hit the nail on the head in his resignation speech. In it he said:
“We now have the opportunity to hold Westminster’s feet to the fire on the “vow” that they have made to devolve further meaningful power to Scotland. This places Scotland in a very strong position.”
This is where the work needs to be done now. And that’s a project which reaches out beyond the 45%, and especially allows the Yes side to make common cause with those in the 55% who voted No because they believed the pledges of more powers. After all, the Record’s front page used Photoshop to engrave them onto a parchment, so they must be real. Are they, though? We don’t know at this stage. The disarray and machinations between the Westminster parties suggests nothing real will happen. They think it’s time to worry about England now (and they’re half right – they should be worrying about both Scotland and the rest of the UK).
They offered a lot, albeit incoherently. They made it all sound substantial, and they said it would be quick. They promised to involve us. On all of those things we should both take them at their word and not trust them an inch.
Let’s rally round this next task, the one Alex Salmond rightly set out. Let’s have a debate, an open debate, and then tell them what we think their promises mean. What we heard them say. Quote their own promises back to them. Define what Devo 2.0 looks like, not wait for them to see if Devo 1.2 is sufficient for us. Not settle for a bunch of tax powers designed to be as likely to be used as the 3p Scottish Variable Rate of income tax, let alone powers designed to push Holyrood towards austerity. Not just tax powers, either: primary powers over every domestic policy area that can be done differently within one nation state. Let’s push in the same direction on that, and bring in No voters who wanted those powers but who also felt independence was too big a leap. Aim to include not only the Greens who went for No but perhaps also the 10-15% of SNP voters who did the same. And the newspapers who opposed independence so vigorously but argued for devo max: let’s see if they meant it.
Let’s also concede something. Cameron wants English Votes on English Laws out of self-interest, but I want it out of democratic principle. I have English friends on the left who are as infuriated by the failure to answer the West Lothian Question as any ‘kipper. There’s only one democratic answer to “should Scottish MPs with no remit on policy areas devolved to Holyrood be allowed to make decisions on those same policy areas for England and Wales?”, and that’s a no. It applies in spades if we get devo max as well, and that should make it clearer which Westminster laws don’t affect Scotland. There may be some more sophistication required with drafting, but it’s not impractical. And if you’re a partisan thinking that bloc of Scottish MPs in some way helped deliver more left policies, you’re wrong: read this.
What’s more, the same logic applies to Welsh and Northern Irish MPs, in line with either the current devo settlements for them, or with whatever may follow. Being an MP for a non-English seat may become a part-time job, voting on defence, foreign affairs, a few similar issues. But the jobs will still exist, which should be a consolation for Labour. In fact, there’d be no reason to continue with the smaller number of MPs per capita outside England either. We all deserve an equal say on defence, on foreign affairs, etc.
How the rest of the UK governs itself (for England is that just the same old English MPs? Is it a separate English Parliament? Devolution to English regions?) must be up to them. I hope to see a Yes-style movement for radical constitutional change take to the streets of the rest of the country, adopting the same spirit, agitating for Westminster’s semi-democracy to be reformed out of all recognition. But that’s a matter for them, even if we might feel able to go and help support their campaign, just as many English radicals came here to help us. The problems they face, after all, overlap extensively with the ones we’ve identified in Scotland.
But we must continue to have our say about the powers we believe Scotland needs, the powers we were offered. That’s up to us, and we must redouble our efforts to secure them.
We also have the perfect vehicle for holding the Westminster parties to account for it all. The timing couldn’t be better: the Westminster election in May. In Scotland, much as some will wish it not to be, much of the debate will be about whether the Vow has been met, whatever we do. This process, whatever it becomes, will determine what powers the next Scottish Parliament will have, elected a scant year after that. Sure, I wanted all power to come to the Scottish Parliament, to the Scottish people. But let’s see if we can go a good way further down the road away from a centralised British state. I may think that leads to independence, but for now it doesn’t matter whether it does or not. There’s a natural majority for devo max, at least as the next step, and the polls show it. If we get it, and it just works, maybe that’s where we’ll stay: maybe there’ll never again be an appetite for an independence vote. It’s possible that devo max could indeed be the end destination for that settled will of the Scottish electorate. But if the Westminster parties let us down and we don’t get those powers, or if whatever gets devolved clearly doesn’t work in practice, there will be another vote on independence soon enough. I’m convinced in either of those circumstances another vote would be justified, and we could walk a Yes with the support of many who voted No last week.
So let’s go with the grain. Let’s make securing devo max the focus of the Scottish part of the next UK General Election, alongside resistance to the Westminster consensus on welfare, immigration, and the rest. Use the ballot box again to force them to deliver the powers we want as an electorate. Let’s be clear that they can’t fob us off with something weaker now the referendum isn’t hanging over them. Accept that independence is off the table, maybe for now, maybe forever, and respect the will of the electorate. If we get what we’re promised then many of the other issues I care about, from climate change to inequality and decentralisation, will be in the hands of the Scottish electorate at the Holyrood election a year later. Issues where the SNP and the Greens disagree profoundly. Before that, in May, though, the aim of those parties who argued that the current arrangements are too weak should be to hold the Westminster parties rigorously to account while they squabble with each other and try to forget about us. We’ll be fired up with that massive influx of new and activist members, many of whom will be new to party politics altogether. The Greens and the SNP should be aiming to take not just the 1.6m with us into Scottish polling places in May, but many many more from the 2m who voted No on Thursday. That’s a formidable set of forces.