An Untied Kingdom

Wall of St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, 17 September 2014

The day after, I don’t feel smug or triumphant or gloating or anything of the kind, I feel sad that so much passion and enthusiasm was channeled in a direction that came to nought. I personally disagreed with it, but that passion was important. Today feels anticlimactic.

Last week when it looked as if it was swinging to Yes, I felt the same pain that many Yes voters are feeling today today, because I honestly thought that the disruption following independence could be the end for my family’s chances of staying on in Scotland. It’s what drove me to break my own silence and spend the last two weeks writing about it. I was writing as someone on the left who had been reading and hearing the arguments for two years, hundreds of thousands of words on the subject, and still wasn’t convinced, but was still open to argument, even as a longstanding No. By the end I was feeling resigned to the possibility of Yes, even as I was regaining my instinctive feeling that it would be No after late polls suggested that the Yes momentum had stalled.

I’ve been part of a 45% loss before, and it sucks. In 1999 my side lost the referendum on an Australian republic, a much simpler proposition than independence, which would have involved very little disruption in practice—it was about as symbolic as it gets—and yet we still couldn’t swing it. I took some solace then from knowing that my city was one of the few places voting yes, but knew that that was it for many years, and so it’s turned out; there isn’t much chance in 2014 of an Australian republic any time soon. But you just get on with things and bide your time.

I wouldn’t lay any bets on when the issue of Scottish independence might arise again. If I were Yes I wouldn’t take solace from demographics, thinking that it’ll be more likely once the current older generations die, because the wholesale change that independence would bring is always going to be less appealing to the old than the young, whatever the old might have thought when they were young; some of today’s Yes voters will turn out to be future No voters. On the other hand, I wouldn’t feel pessimistic about having missed the best chance to do this, with the UK under a Tory prime minister and suffering the effects of austerity. Ever since the credit crunch I’d felt that the SNP had missed their ideal timing for a referendum, because difficult times make people with something to lose more risk averse. Some of the things I’ve read today about Alex Salmond make me think he felt that way too. (“Something to lose” doesn’t mean the Duke of Sutherland’s vast estates in the north. The rich were never going to lose, whichever way this went. The people with something to lose in 2014 are the squeezed middle.)

What could make a real difference in the long term is the UK not settling for the status quo ante, which is why I’m encouraged by the talk today about constitutional conventions and even federalism. A proper federation could dispel a whole raft of the complaints Britain has faced for years: the West Lothian question, the Barnett formula and so on. Westminster knows that it’s been put on notice: a 30-70 yes-no result could have been shrugged off, but not 45-55, not for something as fundamental as this. If it doesn’t want to face fresh calls for independence every ten years, it needs to make a better offer that really does feel better to the great majority of people in Scotland, and Wales, and Northern Ireland, and all the regions of England. An Untied Kingdom could be a more united one.

Adapted from a comment at Metafilter.

19 September 2014 · Politics