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How significant is Scotland’s ‘No’ vote? Historians debate

Scotland has chosen to remain in the United Kingdom, voting ‘No’ in a historic referendum. Here, seven expert historians share their reaction to the verdict, and consider what the referendum means for the future of the constitution.

This article was first published on History Extra on Friday 19 September 2014

Published: September 18, 2015 at 1:00 pm
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“The British union is in crisis”

A majority of Scottish voters have chosen to maintain the United Kingdom forged in 1707, but the strength of the Yes campaign indicates that the British union is in crisis.


As geographical neighbours with strong national identities and often competitive interests, Scotland and England have needed to find ways to live together peaceably. Their relationship has tended towards union, but in differing forms over the centuries, from cross-border landholding in the early medieval period to a shared monarchy in the 17th century and a united kingdom, with one parliament and a free trade zone, from 1707. The referendum vote indicates that this relationship needs to be renegotiated again.

Unlike in 1639–41 when the terms of the Union of Crowns were recast through armed rebellion in Scotland, or 1651–2 when English conquest forced a complete union on Scotland, the two nations now have an opportunity to reflect together on constitutional change within the framework of a continuing united kingdom.

The imbalance in size, wealth and power between Scotland and England has skewed such negotiations in the past. George Osborne's pre-referendum bar on a currency union echoed the 1705 Alien Act by which the English parliament sought to push Scotland into a closer union on English terms. It is no surprise that Yes voters hoped to negotiate new terms of co-existence on a shared isle from a position of sovereignty instead of subordination.

The question now is whether the Westminster parties can set aside resentments and divisions and find a constitutional solution that satisfies the concerns of many people in Scotland and the rest of the UK. If not, the tensions in the present union will continue to resurface.

When the 1707 union was under consideration, Scottish author and politician Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun imagined an alternative British polity made up of city-states of roughly equal size. His utopian vision highlighted the problem of an asymmetric union dominated by one member. After 1707, that asymmetry triggered reform with the creation of the Scottish Office in the late 19th century and the recreation of a Scottish parliament a century later.

The referendum campaign indicates that democratic debate is needed on a new round of reform for a more federal, or even Fletcherian, Britain.

Dr Karin Bowie is a lecturer in Scottish history at the University of Glasgow.

“Constitutional history has never looked so interesting”

The opinion polls proved broadly reliable after all. Tomorrow’s generation of historians will supply learned analyses of how it came about that a majority of voters in Scotland elected to remain within the United Kingdom on 18 September 2014.

Yet even the morning after the night before, various long and short-term reasons spring to mind: claims that, in an increasingly globalized and insecure world, Scotland’s political and economic interests were better protected by membership of a larger entity; uncertainty concerning membership of other unions regarded as essential for an independent Scotland to flourish such as the EU and a sterling currency union; the unwillingness of many Scots to regard their Scottish and British identities as mutually exclusive and broader psephological tendencies for wavering voters to adhere to the status quo when in the polling booth.

In the run-up to the vote itself, the appearance of a sole opinion poll claiming majority support for independence also appeared to galvanise the unionist campaign and prompted renewed pledges of further devolved powers to Edinburgh in the event of a ‘No’ vote.

But if historians are prophets facing backwards, they also need to engage with the terra incognita lying ahead. The term ‘status quo’ is misleading, since one clear message from both the campaign and the result is a clear appetite for substantive change on both sides.

In the longer-term, will this vote represent a once-in-a-generation decision that secured the United Kingdom, and maybe also marked a peak in Scottish nationalist success, contingently aided by a Westminster coalition deemed painfully alien to many north of the border?

Or will this result prove an escaped genie that converts inevitable nationalist disappointment into a rhetoric regarding the inevitability of future Scottish independence?

This was no landslide victory, and nor was it the more comfortable margin once complacently assumed in some quarters. Urgent constitutional conversations must continue in earnest – and not only in Scotland.

This referendum electrified political debate in Scotland and, in democratic terms, the really positive headline remains the appropriately high national turnout of around 84 per cent. But it was also divisive, and disenfranchised many in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who care deeply about Scotland and the United Kingdom, but who could not vote.

The referendum campaign and its result have brought home the pressing need to rethink the location of political power throughout Britain. Constitutional history has never looked so interesting.

Clare Jackson is an author, historian and broadcaster who earlier this year presented The Stuarts on BBC Two.


“National aspirations will need to be efficiently and sensitively addressed”

While it would be wrong to push the analogies too far, there are certainly some striking similarities – and, yes, some important differences – between the debate in 1912–14 on Home Rule for Ireland and the recent referendum upon Scottish independence. Irish history offers no template to the Scots, but these linkages might well give food for thought to the protagonists of the debate (and indeed there is evidence that both Gordon Brown and Alex Salmond have each ruminated on these historical issues).

One critical distinction between Ireland in 1914 and Scotland in 2014 is that of militancy – Ireland on the eve of the First World War being an armed camp comprising the Ulster and Irish Volunteer movements, as well as the crown forces. The Scottish political debate has not been militarised, and there is no evidence that it will be so: modern Scottish nationalism (and unionism) have developed as constitutional and pacific movements.

But it is striking that both in 1914 and 2014 an unusually broad array of individuals, interest groups and businesses have publically taken sides over the issues, and that both in 1914 and 2014 the levels and intensity of public engagement have been very high.

One aspect of the Irish experience in 1914 was that a fraught constitutional debate, heightened political expectations, and the delaying or disappointment of those expectations, combined to make a highly volatile political chemistry. The hardening expectations of change across Scotland in the course of recent referendum debate may well mean that national (as well as social and economic) aspirations will need to be efficiently and sensitively addressed, even (perhaps especially) in the context of a ‘No’ vote.

If any stalling on commitments to constitutional change threatens to radicalise Scots’ national sentiment in 2014, then the substantial strength and challenge of that sentiment has already produced some striking intellectual movement – in particular some federalist thinking among unionists in 2014.

In 1912–14 the constitutional impasse over Home Rule helped to stimulate support for (what was then called) ‘federalism’ amongst the Unionist elite, including (privately) even the Irish Unionist leader Sir Edward Carson. Gordon Brown has now, in 2014, embraced the idea of a reformed – federal – United Kingdom, and he has been joined or preceded by many others. Discussion of a possible new English parliament (or parliaments) was broached prominently in 1911–14, and again, now, in 2014.

Both in 1914 and in 2014 it appears that, even with a successful ‘No’ vote, the constitutional shape of the ever-malleable United Kingdom is once again in transition – but because unionists are now shifting no less then nationalists.

Alvin Jackson, a professor of history at the University of Edinburgh, is the author of The Two Unions: Ireland, Scotland and the Survival of the United Kingdom, 1707–2007 (OUP, 2012).

“This is a watershed in the 300-year story of the British state”

Like others before them, the Scottish nationalists this morning are learning that is no easy thing to break up a successful political union.

Three hundred years ago, the English and Scots came together precisely because they realised that they needed each other, and that they were not just better together, but that they were considerably weaker apart.

The Scots had just emerged from the Darien fiasco; the English from the potentially destabilising change of regime in 1688. Since then the two countries have deepened the Union to such an extent that it can be easy to forget that it was ever needed.

One of the many weaknesses of the Yes campaign was to treat Scotland as if it were already a separate entity, whereas in any village in deepest England it is possible to find people with strong connections with Scotland, as well as with Wales and Ireland. That is the reality of 300 years of union, and it is not to be wished away on a tide of nationalist rhetoric.

Perhaps the most heartening feature of what has inevitably been a very divisive campaign has been the remarkably high level of engagement at all levels of society in Scotland: politics has genuinely come alive north of the border these past few weeks. With turnout at more than 90 per cent in some areas, this has been an inspiring example of democracy in action – though it has also been marred by examples of apparently orchestrated intimidation online and on the street, which have stirred worrying recollections for those with historical memories.

More significant is the clear sense that this is a watershed in the 300-year story of the British state: the constitutional arrangement between London and Edinburgh is to be redrawn, but that will also necessitate a major rethink of the constitution of the United Kingdom as a whole.

The needs and rights of Wales and Northern Ireland will need to be addressed alongside those of Scotland. Above all, there are already signs that the constitutional role of England within the Union, of its regions and of its people, by far the largest part of the United Kingdom, will have to be rethought and the consent of its people sought.

The year 2014 marks a point of no return in the long story of Great Britain and of the United Kingdom.

Dr Seán Lang is a senior lecturer in history at Anglia Ruskin University whose research interests include the development of British constitutional identity from the 16th century onwards.

“A renewed search for mutual understanding and tolerance is a better way forward for Britain”

History can inform our understandings of separate identities within Britain. Scotland was for centuries an independent country with its own kings and queens, political and religious establishment, social institutions, and laws. Of all the component parts of the composite monarchy of Great Britain, formed under the Tudors and Stuarts, Scotland has the only real track record of governing itself during the last 800 years.

Arguably, it also has the strongest regional identity. But it also shared certain social attitudes and values with other parts of mainland Britain, notably with the north and north west of England, and with Wales. In these regions, personal association and a sense of the common good blended with ethical standards that stressed equality of opportunity, self-help, and a commitment towards the less fortunate. Society and the institutions it spawned operated on the principle of human affinity.

Margaret Thatcher once said: ‘there is no such thing as society’. There is, but more in some regions than others. The balance of obligation and entitlement that comprised living communities came naturally to the peoples of north Britain, whereas it had to be engineered in the individualistic south.

The great divide on the island of Britain was not between nations, but between cultural zones. It is the south and south east of England or the north and west of Britain that should seek independence, not Scotland alone.

Or should it? Some think the desire for a voice can only be solved by splitting apart. I think that a renewed search for mutual understanding and tolerance is a better way forward for Britain. One way or another, everyone who cares about Britain must find a way to make those who live far from London feel they are truly welcome within a union of equals, and that their distinctive approach to themselves and others can be accommodated.

Scots, for their part in particular, could be more charitable to the (southern) English and their peculiarities as a people. Scots rightly pride themselves on their humanity, welcoming the world, yet many still regard the beings who live far south of the Border, not as foreigners, but as a special category of unfortunates called ‘English’.

Rab Houston, a professor of history at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Scotland: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2008).

“We need to think about what the Union represents and what its purpose is in the 21st century”

The closing lines of my recently published book, The Scots and the Union: Then and Now read as follows: “…the Union has been a fact of life for Scots for more than three centuries. Union is a habit, which, currently, large numbers of Scots might like to cut down on, but not give up altogether.” I ended by saying that if this were to change, the electors would need “a convincing exposition of the advantages of leaving it [the Union] behind”.

That 55 per cent of the Scottish electorate voted ‘No’ to independence yesterday suggests that I was right. But that 45 per cent of voters (more than I predicted) said ‘Yes’ to independence also points to deep unhappiness with the Union – and Westminster – north of the border. It also reflects the powerful sense amongst the Scots that they are a nation, but currently state-less, and can better govern themselves.

The devolved Scottish Parliament established in 1999 has gone some way to addressing this legitimate aspiration, but the process needs to go further. But what then about England’s place within the union state – and Wales and Northern Ireland?

Despite the Better Together victory, I sense that this was in part despite rather than because of the effectiveness of what was a markedly negative campaign. This was a sound enough strategy, exposing the many risks and uncertainties of what were hastily worked out proposals for independence.

But what’s urgently required – from all parts of the United Kingdom – is not only constitutional change of the kind that has been mooted in recent months, but also serious thought about what the Union represents and what its purpose is in the 21st century – a set of commonly agreed principles which galvanize and unite the peoples of the Britain.

Without this, there is every chance that there will be yet another referendum in Scotland, but next time with a different outcome.

Christopher Whatley is a professor of Scottish history at the University of Dundee, and the author of The Scots and the Union: Then and Now.

“This result will affect our history, and history will re-shape our ‘now’”

Historicising the result started early, even before the formal announcement of the outcome. Bleary-eyed ‘Yes’ campaigners who had galvanised a remarkable popular campaign, sought solace in how their vote had grown over the last months. Meanwhile, on the steps on Downing Street, David Cameron claimed the mantle of good statesmanship in having delivered the referendum in the first place.

And yet, just over a week ago a poll suggested ‘Yes’ were in the lead, and for a while dreams of independence had an empirical basis (of sorts); just a few days ago some Tories were beginning to doubt Cameron’s foresight in the Edinburgh Agreement.

One question now is whether what Scots will remember will accord with what they will be told by future historians, and how long it will take for memory to fade as the compelling logic of hindsight takes over. Without doubt, the apparent numerical certainties of the result will acquire meanings they do not have right now.

A decade on, will the ten percent margin of victory at the polls appear a convincing vote in favour of the Union, or a warning that – despite the offer of new devolved powers - 45 per cent of Scots still voted to leave the Union’s embrace?

This result will affect our history, and history will re-shape our ‘now’. Consciously borrowing John Smith’s poignant phrase, Cameron has styled the result the ‘settled will’ of the Scottish people. Most Scots who have lived through three referendums in recent times, will perhaps be a little more cautious: time is a cruel mistress when a union comes to be seen by many on both sides as a marriage of convenience.


Dr Catriona MM Macdonald is a reader in late modern Scottish history, University of Glasgow


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