The people of Scotland spoke in a historic referendum on September 18, followed avidly around the world for its wider-than-Britain implication. The referendum was about a simple question — whether Scotland should be independent — put to more than 4 million registered voters. 55 percent of the electorate voted No or settled for the pro-union option, while 45 per cent opted for a Yes or independent Scotland vote.
The turnout, at 85 per cent, was exceptionally high by the British standards. Clearly the result did not constitute a good showing for the Yes campaign which the previous week was put in a two percentage point lead in the You Gov, a polling organisation, survey. This poll finding led to a flurry of frenzied politicking which took three Labour-Liberals-Conservative party leaders trooping to Scotland to rouse up the pro-unionist base. In fact, the panic was at such a high pitch that Gordon Brown, the last Labour prime minister and a Scot, pitched his tent in Scotland for a week, making a passionate case for a NO vote.
One observer termed this intervention as a last minute action to prevent the perceived slippage in the pro-unionist vote from becoming a headlong rout. The unionist camp was represented by three major parties while the pro-independence camp was made up of the Scottish National Party (SNP), the Scottish Green party and a collection of left groups.
Barring the You Gov blip in the opinion poll, the overall result was consistent with the findings of a series of polls conducted a couple of months preceding the referendum day. However, the impressive showing by the Yes campaign shook the Westminster political class from its complacency. The implications for major parties were huge in the event of a No vote — conservatives stood to lose their leader, David Cameron, who was responsible for allowing the referendum to go ahead with only yes or no questions on the ballot paper rather than the originally proposed options of maximum devolution (devo-max) and the status quo. Not only that, a No vote would have sundered the union which forms an important plank of Conservative party’s political philosophy (conservative party is already a fringe party in Scotland with one MP represented in the Westminster).
For the Labour party, the success of yes campaign would have meant loss of its large base of the Scottish MPs who have supplied much of the party’s parliamentary strength. More significantly, the yes win would have put paid to prospects of the Labour forming a parliamentary majority at the Westminster in the event of a victory in the 2015 elections.
So the No result has led the ranks of the Westminster political class as whole to breathe a sigh of relief. Yet the pro-independence passion is not going to go away any time soon. Because the Yes campaign has gained new found respectability for mobilising and asserting grass-roots voice against the odds of out-of touch political elite and uniform media hostility to its pro-independence agenda.
The yes camp can point to a number of lasting successes in the wake of the referendum.
First, the SNP has emerged as a vanguard pro-independence party, forging a clever and resonant message around inclusive nationalism and social democratic goals at a time when insular nationalism and neo-liberalism are the reigning orthodoxies. This is quite a feat for a party which has been a marginal voice for an independent Scotland.
Second, the referendum has unleashed intoxicating political passions, with working class voters mobilised on a scale as never before in recent history. The left vote has been regenerated and it will need sustained and adequate political expression and formation in the coming days.
Part of this vote has been hoovered up by the SNP. Yet large sections of this vote bank are in search of a home in the new left formation which has yet to emerge. Already there are hints that a new left party may be in the offing after the perceived degeneration of the Labour party into a new version of Thatcherism. The Scottish socialist party, too, does not offer much of an option right now, given its shabby recent past.
Third, the yes campaign was heavily represented among the poor and working class areas such as Glasgow and Dundee which were previously Labour strongholds. These working class voters, with the young forming a dominant block, though clothed in cultural symbolism of the nationalist camp, appeared infused with a sense of class consciousness inherited from their working class parents, as pointed out by Paul Mason, of the Channel 4.
Fourth, the panicked political class has offered a wide ranging devolution package to subdue the stirrings for independence. These measures sail very close to the idea of a devo-max option that was proposed by Alex Salmond, the charismatic leader of SNP, in the first place. In one sense this represents a sort of victory for the SNP and its allies.
Some commentators have termed the devolutionary concessions offered by three major unionist parties as going way beyond the devo-max proposal to devo-super max variant.
Fifth, the referendum has brought previously apolitical youth into the political bloodstream reflected in a record overall turnout with 16 years and older making up a sizeable portion. This in itself constitutes a big plus for the democratic health of the country.
And lastly, the referendum is a personal triumph for Alex Salmond, the first minister (the prime minister of Scotland) and the leader of the SNP. Almost singlehandedly, he has turned a fringe political passion into a mainstream concern within Scotland in the space of decade. He has led the pro-independence campaign with great political nous and passion against very heavy odds of an entrenched political class and corporate power. This achievement will remain as his lasting legacy in British politics. Though he has announced his resignation from the SNP, he has transformed the political landscape of Scotland. The oft-quoted phrase that things are never going to be the same again from now onwards in Scotland has a ring of authenticity around it.