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UPDATED: September 26, 2014 NO. 40 OCTOBER 2, 2014
The Power of No
Scotland rejects independence from the UK in a much discussed referendum
By Kerry Brown

These resentments lay behind the surprise majority electoral victory by the Scottish National Party in 2011. Under their eloquent and charismatic leader Salmond, an economist who used to work for Shell Oil, an agreement between the national parliament in London and the local assembly in Edinburgh to hold a referendum on whether Scotland should be independent or remain part of the Union was finally agreed to in 2012. For most of the two years of the campaign, the assumption widely shared was that the pro-independence proportion of the population would greatly outnumber those voting to break apart. Only in the last month from August, however, did polls start to show that of all the eligible voters, a significant proportion was considering backing the independence ticket. That 1.6 million did eventually vote for Salmond's proposal is a huge victory for him, despite the fact that he ended up losing. The election was too close for comfort, and in the last few days there were dire warnings from business and others that the creation of a separate Scotland would be disastrous.

Crucial vote

The "No to Independence" campaign was hamstrung in much of the last year by its negative tone. Its core argument was that Scottish people would lose out, have lower standards of living and generally suffer if they voted yes. But as Salmond argued over the last few months, such fear tactics ignored the fact that in per-capita terms, Scotland was wealthy, had developed infrastructure and major industries. He also argued that with greater control over its fiscal affairs, Scotland would be able to plan its budgets better. There were fierce arguments between his party and its opponents about whether Scotland would be able to maintain use of the British currency if it became independent, and whether it could remain part of the EU. It is unprecedented for a member state of the EU to have part of itself break away and then ask to join separately.

As people contemplated the possibility of a yes vote for independence, it became clear that few really knew what the solution to the full legal, tax and fiscal challenges would be should Scotland chose to break away. Salmond stated that the pound sterling would continue to be used. But Cameron rebuffed him by saying that the UK would oppose this. Shares of national debt were also issues that needed to be worked out, along with a long and complex disentanglement of tax and legal affairs between an independent Scotland and the remainder of the UK.

In the build-up to the final result, all of the major UK parties jointly undertook granting greater powers to the Edinburgh government. In that sense, Salmond won both ways. Even though he failed to achieve a vote supporting breaking away, Scotland will be governed in a different way after this referendum than before it. The details of this new deal have yet to be worked out, but will almost certainly involve greater fiscal freedom for Scottish residents. The fact that the vote was so tight in the end, and that the pro-independence lobby were able to get such huge public support cannot be ignored by the national government.

The events over the last few months in Scotland, culminating in the September 18 plebiscite, have been widely watched across Europe and the rest of the world. Many leaders of other EU member states were dreading an outright victory for independence, as they struggle with their own separatist movements. Countries like Spain in particular, still dealing with the Basque independence movement, probably sighed with relief that a precedent against breaking away was set in the Scottish vote. Despite this, the fact that the UK allowed a vote to at least give some idea of what local people wanted will not have been missed by leaders of other aspiring nations in Europe who want to have more devolution or freedom.

For this reason, the Scottish vote was hugely significant. It shows that for all the forces of globalization and transnational cooperation, in the end people also want to keep their governance and interests very local. The more remote government and administration is, the less it seems to matter in people's allegiances and lives. The EU administration is largely invisible, and portrayed as faceless and mendacious; national governments have had increasingly tough times keeping their people happy. Local governments, while not wildly popular, are at least accessible and more visible. The Scottish vote shows how ambiguous people are about governance in the 21st century in Europe.

Cameron took a huge risk in allowing the September 18 vote to go ahead, and there have been fierce criticisms of him within the UK and across Europe. The result in the end was the best one he could have expected, especially as there was a real chance for a week or so that independence might happen. The trauma of this period may well push him to review his promise to hold a similar referendum if reelected in 2015 on Britain's membership in the EU. This is likely to prove every bit as contentious, and very challenging, with a date set for 2017. There are real questions now over whether he can really proceed with this promise, at a time when the UK needs to stabilize its internal affairs. For a conservative, Cameron has proved himself someone who likes to take high risks. The Scottish referendum was a huge gamble, and while it paid off in the end, it has probably made people in the UK think that some things are better left as they are. The EU membership might be one of these.

The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review and executive director of the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney

Email us at: yanwei@bjreview.com

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