Scotland’s referendum has raised more questions than it has answered, both in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Although Scotland has clearly voted No to independence, it has experienced an explosion of political activism and produced a major challenge to Britain’s established order. What appeared initially as a conventional electoral campaign evolved into a social movement comprising over 350 self-funded and decentralised groups, committed to participatory democracy and fundamental redistribution of social and economic power. This movement will not disappear – instead, it could spread.
The Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) deserves much of the credit for the record levels of electoral registration and voter turnout on September 18. This diverse group of environmentalists, socialists and anti-war activists committed to days of mass canvassing in housing schemes like Pollok on Glasgow’s South Side, where one in three children grow up in poverty and just 39 per cent of residents voted in Scotland’s last election. RIC consistently targeted other areas of disaffection and poverty, such as Bonnyrigg, Charleston, Clydebank, Easterhouse and Hamilton, registering tens of thousands of voters. Engaging with the disengaged contributed significantly to the surge of momentum that Yes achieved, and provoked the hasty set of ‘devo-max’ promises pledged by the Westminster political parties in the final weeks of the campaign, which already appear to be unravelling.
The referendum was largely framed by the print and broadcast media as a battle between the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the ‘Better Together’ campaign. Groups like the RIC and National Collective, a cultural movement of artists and writers, were scarcely discussed in the mainstream press. As Stuart Cosgrove has noted, ‘Patrick Harvie of the Greens, who is not the leader but is a significant political person within the Yes campaign, should have had exactly the same coverage as Ed Miliband.’ I attended a Yes rally in Glasgow’s George Square on the eve of the referendum – not a single SNP politician spoke to the enormous crowd. Instead, the leading voices were Robin McAlpine of the Common Weal Foundation – advocating increased investment in renewable energy and collective ownership of key economic resources – and Tommy Sheridan of the socialist movement, Solidarity.
The overarching theme of the Yes movement was not blood-and-soil nationalism, but a rejection of ‘The most decayed and undemocratic aspects of the current British regime’. The grievances of the Yes voters are Britain’s widening economic inequalities and its archaic constitutional structure. Indeed, in a country where the five richest families are wealthier than the bottom twenty percent of the population, and where religious clerics wield power in an unelected legislative chamber, these concerns are not uniquely Scottish. They reflect a broader democratic deficit and class division throughout the United Kingdom.
The Scottish referendum has already had an impact on Westminster politics. Calls for a Constitutional Convention have been amplified, and now appear to be gaining traction with mainstream political parties. The practical problems associated with devolution such as the ‘West Lothian question’ – where Scottish MPs wield influence over purely English affairs – are being brought under increasing scrutiny, with the Prime Minister pledging ‘decisive’ answers. However, the plan for a constitutional White Paper by November and a new Scotland bill by January begs the question: ‘Do the pro-UK parties really believe that we will initiate and conclusively finalise a proper, thoughtful, consultative process of radical constitutional change within three months?’ More critically, will those who either voted for or supported a substantial redistribution of British political power quietly accept a rushed, top-down series of bureaucratic initiatives, and retreat from their activism?
Certainly not in Scotland. There, the energy of popular mobilisation has not wavered. A petition calling for the devolution of broadcasting powers has already gained the support of 14,000 signatures, and the ’45 Movement’ is continuing to advocate the radical changes envisaged by the Yes campaign. Scottish civil society has grown and will continue to grow. Moreover, the future remains uncertain for the rest of the United Kingdom. As Patrick Dunleavy of the London School of Economics argues, the likelihood of a close general election in May 2015 and a referendum on EU membership in 2017 indicates that ‘political and constitutional turbulence in the UK looks set to continue to 2020.’ Constitutional questions aside, the British economy is still unbalanced and vulnerable to shocks. The financial sector is fourteen times the size of the regular economy; wages remain stagnant and regional inequality is the worst in Europe.
In this respect, Scotland’s decision to remain part of the United Kingdom may not have been the stable option that No voters perceived. While the potential risks of independence were legitimate concerns for 55 per cent of Scots, the risks of trusting the status quo may now come to the surface. If the political establishment does not act decisively, it may yet be faced with another significant challenge to its power – this time across all of Britain.