By Stephen Angus Peter Junor
The independence referendum takes place on the 18th of September and as the debate has evolved and engaged the population, it is becoming clear that politics in Scotland and perhaps even the UK has fundamentally changed. It has politically awakened the entire nation. UK election turnout in 2010 was around 65 per cent while the turnout for the Scottish Parliament elections in 2011 was only 50 per cent, but there is reason to believe that turnout for the referendum could be upwards of 80 per cent.
The dichotomous nature of the referendum (the question asked is ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ with the choice of yes or no) has split political parties into two. The main parties within the UK (Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrats) have sided with ‘No’, this extends to their Scottish counterparts. Within Scotland, the Green Party, Scottish Socialist Party and naturally the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) have sided with ‘Yes’. However, unofficially there are groups such as ‘Labour for Independence’ created by Labour voters who feel that independence reflects their values better than the party line. There are also some cases of party members opposing the party line, such as the Scottish-born Labour MP for Leeds East, George Mudie, who said that if he lived in Scotland he would be voting for independence. Groups such as National Collective, the cultural movement for Scottish Independence and Common Weal, with the slogan ‘All of us first’ have also developed, offering their unique vision for a better Scotland. It’s possible that the referendum will spawn a new generation of political parties challenging the old guard, such has been the influence of the referendum in engaging people.
In the recent UK election it was clear that Scotland (also somewhat applicable to Wales) votes very differently from England. Scotland returned one Conservative MP, six SNP MPs, 11 Lib Dem MPs and 41 Labour MPs while England elected 297 Conservative MPs compared to just 191 Labour MPs. Much of the debate has centred on this difference as Scotland naturally experiences diminished influence in UK elections. Devolution has contributed to this as the left-leaning Scottish government has implemented policies such as free University tuition and free prescriptions, providing a stark contrast to the austerity measures imposed by Westminster. A rise in foodbanks has also coincided with the Conservatives coming into power in 2010. The very nature of devolution and the powers assigned to each respective parliament means the Westminster Parliament is always like to come off worse, but if devolution has highlighted this political divide, then the referendum has firmly entrenched it.
The referendum debate has highlighted a number of issues with one particular issue generally making the headlines at any one time. Over the course of the past few weeks this has shifted from the UK’s nuclear deterrent, Trident, to oil projections, a potential UK exit from the European Union, the currency that an independent Scotland would use and more recently how NHS privatisation would affect the health service in Scotland. All of these issues have prompted the people of Scotland to think about the shape and direction they would like the country to take, bringing them close to major constitutional issues that rarely arise within the UK paradigm. Indeed, in the event of independence, a constitution will be drafted, in the digital age with the ability to harness the opinions of everyone in Scotland this will be a tantalising prospect for a nation that is becoming more detached from the parliament at Westminster. Calls for a written constitution for the UK are already increasing, suggesting that people have already been inspired to call for change.
Disillusion with the political establishment is also translating into disillusion with the main parties. Labour’s Alistair Darling is in the indefensible position of leading the campaign to keep Scotland within the Conservative-led UK, leading to calls that Labour are ‘red Tories’. Social media is awash with traditional Labour voters declaring that they will never vote Labour again. In the event of a no vote, the next elections within Scotland could see a large proportion of Labour voters move to the SNP or the Green party. This may also happen in UK elections, trimming the Labour vote in Scotland where it traditionally does very well. There are already indications that the Green Party in Scotland and the rest of the UK is attracting Liberal voters. A recent poll asked people who they felt would make the best UK Prime Minister, in Scotland the results were: Miliband (22 per cent), Cameron (19 per cent), Clegg (six per cent) and Don’t Know (52 per cent). This encapsulates the divide between what Scotland wants and what is being offered by Westminster. Furthermore, in a different poll based on how people viewed political leaders, only Patrick Harvie (Scottish Greens), Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon (both SNP) recorded a positive percentage. The leaders of Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrats in Scotland, Alistair Darling and David Cameron were all viewed negatively.
The recent defection of Douglas Carswell from the Conservatives to UKIP has, in the view of many Scots, blurred the boundary between the two parties. It also brings the question of an EU referendum sharply into focus as Carswell left the Conservatives because in his words, they are “just not serious about the change [to Britain’s relationship with the EU] we need.” This could force David Cameron to up his rhetoric on the issue to prevent a loss of support, this won’t sit well with the large proportion of the Scottish population that would prefer to stay within the EU. A host of recent polls also put a combined Tory/UKIP vote hovering around 50 per cent, providing a warning that an EU referendum will most definitely be on the agenda in the next few years.
The issues raised during the lead up to the referendum are also resonating with voters in England and Wales that experience similar disillusion with the political establishment. The referendum is making people across the UK rethink the role of parliament and how representative it is. There are meetings across England and Wales discussing the issue, while the people of Catalonia are looking towards Scotland for a precedent which would aide their cause for independence from Spain. The prospect of Scottish independence is changing the political landscape on these isles. A ‘Yes’ vote would seriously shake up the Westminster establishment, creating a democratic ripple that would influence the rest of the UK. A ‘No’ vote would serve as a warning that change must be incoming as the political divide between Scotland and the rest of the UK is unlikely to go away. Indeed, independence has now become a central tenet of many people’s political views and a ‘No’ victory, particularly a narrow one, would inspire supporters of Scottish independence to continue the campaign and it would be no surprise to see another referendum in the next 15-20 years. Tommy Sheridan has said that “independence is not a destination, independence is the start of the journey to transform Scotland.” This is a view shared by many, the narrative of a people inspired by social justice and representative government will define a generation.
The most recent poll (conducted by YouGov, commissioned by the Sun and Times newspapers) put ‘Yes’ on 47% and ‘No’ on 53%. This poll, followed by a poll last week by Survation which recorded the same percentages, suggests a significant shift towards ‘Yes’. Further polls expected in the next week will give more insight into the likely result of the referendum but with major political events such as this which inspire those who are typically apolitical, there is always room for uncertainty until the final results come in. There are also a large number of undecided voters (just over 10% according to recent polls) who could ultimately decide the result. The polls are narrowing and the future of the Union hangs in the balance but regardless of a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ vote come the 19th of September, politics in Scotland and the UK as a whole will never be the same again.