Given the tightening in the opinion polls in recent days, including two with the Yes vote ahead, (although one was a very small sample), there has been a sudden rash of fevered speculation about what would happen if Scotland votes “Yes” to independence on Thursday, UK time.
All the way along we have been predicting a narrow win – perhaps a very narrow win – for the No vote, even when polls were showing a huge lead for the Noes.
But we confess the current volatility in the Scots electorate is giving us some pause for thought.
It’s clear from looking around the edges of the debate that there is considerable momentum for the Yes side as people get nearer and nearer to the day. Their rallies have been rowdy, good natured and well attended. In contrast, “No” activities have seemed mean and mealy-mouthed. A strong air of hurt rejection characterises much of the No campaign, whether it be the ludicrous announcements of some retailers and banks that they will relocate to England if the Yes vote gets up (they won’t) to the ever more strident allegations from English politicians that an independent Scotland is heading for economic ruin and an uncertain currency future, and probably outside of the EC at that. So there, and yar boo sucks.
This angst is all playing right into the hands of the Yes campaigners, of course, who simply call this further evidence that the English think of the Scots as less intelligent, less capable and less important in the world scheme of things – which is exactly what the English do think, of course. Democracy is an interesting thing, sometimes. Sometimes the people can see quite clearly what politicians deep, core opinions are, and they use their vote accordingly.
Anyhow, this “making your mind up” thing just before the actual day is a growing feature of elections and votes of all kinds, evidenced worldwide, born of less ironed-on support for one party or another, or one position and another.
We’ve seen it a lot recently: the last minute swing to the Liberal-National Coalition that toppled the last Victorian state government in Australia, the small but significant decline in Lib Dem support prior to the last General Election in England, a swing to Obama in the last few days of the last presidential election, Kevin Rudd doing better than expected at the last Federal Election in Australia, especially in Queensland, the pushing of the FDP below 5% in the last German elections as their supporters fled to both right and left in the last 10 days … yes, the “last minute swing”, to someone or other, is now so common as to be almost predictable. Politicians know it – it’s why you rarely hear a pollie say nowadays “Yeah, I reckon we’re home and hosed, we’ve got this,” because they know that’s a sure-fire formula for last minute desertions or abstentions.
So, given the general ineptness of the No campaign, a Yes victory is possible. They have the all-important “Mo”. We also suspect that the polls are somewhat under-estimating the Yes vote, as it is the nature of people’s responses to pollsters that they tend to report supporting the status quo more enthusiastically than they report supporting radical change. Radical change nevertheless sometimes occurs – witness the recent rise in support for the National Front in France, for example, which well outstripped its opinion poll performance.
What no-one appears to have discussed, however, is what will happen next week if the Noes win, but by a wafer thin margin. 50.5% to 49.5% for example.
Scotland will be seen to be split down the middle – and we’re also betting that the split will reflect historical strains in Scottish society that have never quite been resolved. We expect the Yes vote to do better amongst the University-educated, (Scotland has a fine tradition of intellectualism), amongst the poor and disenfranchised (for whom it is a useful way to express a generalised disgust with those that govern them, and Westminster in particular), and the “old Scots” – those that self-identify as members of the great Highland nations, that were never entirely subdued by the English.
Roman Catholics will also, we predict, heavily favour “Yes” over Protestants, the young will be more enthusiastic than the old, and so on.
Does it matter? Yes, it does. A Scotland that is still part of the Union, but where that Union is patently obviously deeply unpopular with large swathes of the population, is a Scotland where government’s legitimacy will be essentially harmed. The No vote needed to win big to put this to bed, and they’re not going to.
A notable feature of the debate in the last couple of years has been the idea that “Westminster” is somehow inherently flawed – unwieldy, or corrupt, or unresponsive, or all three. To combat that malaise, which is very real, a substantial effort to create yet more effective devolution of power will become a core priority in the wake of a narrow No win, but it would delivered to a country that will be exhausted with concepts of constitutional change.
Whilst many believe that the British peoples would do well to become a federated nation with much greater powers devolved to the English regions, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, the general public’s appetite is likely to be a long way behind that idea and focused on other more pressing issues like jobs, and economic health generally. Not to mention the fact that another uncertain Middle Eastern war apparently looms.
So Scotland might well be left with just the slightest taste of “freedom” on its lips, but essentially nothing substantial changed at all. That’s not going to be good for the basic compact between Government and the governed that lies at the heart of good civic compliance.There is nothing inherently and enduringly stable about British society than any other – remember the poll tax riots?
And in simple terms, all that means is that all the talk of this being a “once and for all” decision – an oft-repeated construction which suits both sides right now – might be, and probably is, a little hasty. If the No vote only wins by a poofteenth and a bit, we don’t expect this issue to go away.
What would we do, if we were resident in Scotland today? (One of the peculiarities of this vote is that you get a vote if you live there, wherever you’re from, but not if you were born there and now live elsewhere. Who dreamed up that little nonsense?)
Well, we have always been deeply wary of the way the British civil service works to mangle and strangle necessary change.
Westminster often moves turgidly slowly to enhance public freedoms, and to emancipate those whose position is hemmed in by lack of opportunity or rights. Far from being a notable and consistent reforming body, steadily pursuing the path to enlightenment, Westminster actually behaves erratically, sometimes going through great bursts of action (say, the establishment of the National Health Service, the de-criminalisation of homosexuality, the freeing of the colonies, the abolition of the death penalty – or in purely economic terms, Margaret Thatcher’s rolling back of trade union power, and her selling council houses and public assets) interspersed with periods of rigidity and retreat (how ridiculously long it took to emancipate women, a century of mistakes in Ireland, the failure to reform British industry pre-Thatcher along European enterprise lines being the most obvious recent example, the fact that the landscape is still blighted by urban decay in so many old Victorian cities, and perhaps lagging so far behind Europe in creating new “Green” industries to replace old ones).
At the Wellthisiswhatithink desk, we believe, as an article of political faith, that Government that is nearer the people it governs is usually better Government. Faster, more quick to make necessary change, better informed to resist foolish change.
That’s why we are, on balance, convinced of the Yes camp’s arguments. We don’t think an independent Scotland inside the EU would really be all that different to the Scotland that is inside Britain now, and we are reasonably certain the EU would (after some huffing and puffing) admit an independent Scotland, just as we believe they will admit an independent Catalonia eventually. Independence would be a boost to Scottish morale, and give the Scots the absolute right to chart an innovative and successful course, without constantly looking over the shoulder to see what someone in Birmingham, Kidwelly or Ballymena thinks. And if they don’t work it out, well, the residents of Lyme Regis, Pembrook or Derry won’t be paying for their errors, will they? That seems just fine to us.
Re-writing boundaries is a continual project: there’s no reason to believe that where we stand now is where we always will stand. We need to roll with the punches, and move on, as friends. What we need to be very aware of is that will be most urgently required not if Scotland votes for independence, but if it very narrowly doesn’t.