In 2007, the SNP took power in Scotland, forming a minority government. Their leader, Alex Salmond, proved to be a persuasive and powerful First Minister. The Scots liked it. The Scots had a respected voice and stronger identity. The Labour alternative (the Conservatives remained largely anathema to Scottish voters), had had their chance in the previous administration and had never really recovered from the sad death of their first First Minister Donald Dewar in 2000. The SNP message of taking more control of their destiny appealed.
By 2010, whilst the SNP – a party dedicated to Scottish independence – had ruled in the Scottish
Parliament for three years, there was no expectation that independence would become a central issue
in the next few years. In the meantime, a committee, the Calman commission, had been appointed to
review the success of devolution and how it could be made to work better. It recommended wider
powers for the Scottish Parliament including limited tax-raising powers. Not so much Devo-max
(extensive wider powers with significant authority to set taxes) as Devo-midi. Uninspiring stuff in
retrospect, but it had the support of all the main UK parties. There was no reference outside of the
SNP to Scottish independence in the 2010 election manifestos. Implementing Calman seemed the
next stage in the journey and the national UK parties’ commitments in 2010 were limited to Calman
The 2010 Labour Party manifesto pledged (9.6):
“We will implement the recommendations of the Calman Commission, giving the
Scottish Parliament additional tax-raising powers, and seek ways to build
consensus behind these changes.”
The Conservative Party acknowledged in their 2010 Manifesto (p.83) that:
“In recent years, we have been hearing things that we have not heard for a long
time: people in Scotland saying they want to leave the UK, and some people
responding with ‘let them go’.”
Whilst this recognises pro-independence feeling in Scotland, the manifesto pledge makes no reference to independence but echoes the Labour Party stance:
“We support the changes proposed by the Calman Commission for clarifying the devolution settlement and creating a relationship of mutual respect between
Westminster and Holyrood.”
Search the manifestos of every major national party in 2010 and you will find precisely no pledges one way or the other on Scottish independence. This includes the UKIP manifesto which is recommended for entertainment value (even their leader, Nigel Farage, subsequently disowned it). Scottish independence was not contemplated in 2010. It had never been a national issue.
A year later it was Scotland’s turn.
The Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition government did legislate to implement Calman (The Scotland Act 2012). But the Bill cut little ice when Scots went to the polls to elect a new Scottish Parliament in 2011. There was a growing resentment in Scotland (and much of the rest of the UK) with Westminster politics. Furthermore, the UK government, for the first time since devolution, was now headed by the Conservative Party, albeit in an unexpected coalition with the Liberal Democrats. And their programme of austerity was being pursued with a zeal that even Margaret Thatcher would have baulked at. The ruling party of the UK government had only one MP from Scotland compared to Labour’s 41, six SNP and 11 Liberal Democrats. Perhaps it was England that had pulled away from Scotland.
Independence arises, 2011
In 2011 Scotland re-elected the SNP government and now independence, for the first time, became an issue. This was an earthquake across the whole country. To the horror of Westminster and the English political establishment, the SNP victory was so emphatic that, despite the significant element of proportional representation in the Scottish Parliamentary electoral system, they won an absolute majority at Holyrood. Now the Scots threatened to hold an independence referendum whether Westminster approved it or not.
The young Prime Minister came up to Edinburgh to thrash out a deal. The Edinburgh Agreement was reached on 15 October 2012. Cameron agreed to legislate so that the Scottish Parliament could hold an independence referendum before the end of 2014. This was intended to ensure that the referendum was legal. Holyrood could make up its own rules on the vote but there would only be one question, eventually decided as, “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
The date for the referendum was settled as 18 September 2014. The UK Government and the UK Parliament approved the Referendum. The Scottish people had spoken. Westminster had listened and acted.
For good measure, the Scottish Parliament decided that 16 and 17 year olds would now be entitled to vote. As they were born after the retirement of Great Britain, they were widely expected to vote Yes in gratitude for their new and unexpected power.
In the rest of the UK, little interest was generated. It was assumed that a No vote was a foregone conclusion. The naivety was stunning.
The Independence campaign
The Scots hadn’t read the script and a deeply passionate campaign was launched by the Yes camp. For two and a half years, the people of Scotland engaged in an epic debate over their future. Debate raged all over Scotland. Town hall meetings were packed. Emotions ran high as anyone could express a permanent public comment on Twitter or Facebook. In the democracy of social media, there is no telling whether the contributions are gold dust or just dust. On Twitter you are lucky to be famous for 15 seconds rather than 15 minutes. Nonetheless the debate in Scotland was profound.
Only in the final few weeks did anyone seem to take notice south of the border. The media would allow the very briefest of criticism – the odd letter from Scots stranded in England bewailing their disenfranchisement. Criticism of the validity of the referendum was anathema. To be critical of the referendum would be interpreted as criticism of Scotland and likely to trigger an extreme reaction from both Yes and No campaigns.
It was a triumph of democracy in Scotland. For over two years an enthused electorate debated constitutional points as well as the bread-and-butter consequences of independence. The enthusiasm culminated in an astounding turnout of 85%. Scotland has much to be proud of from that democratic experience.
As for the rest of the country…