Scotland votes No – initial thoughts

by Ken Gibb

After a campaign that lasted de facto more than three years, and in recent months saw an incredible heightening of political engagement and awareness, the votes are cast. Just more than 1.6 million people voted for independence but in a record 85% turnout, a little more than 2 million voted No. Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, West Dunbartonshire and Dundee voted Yes but most everywhere else, including Edinburgh and Aberdeen, said No.

Much has rightly been made of the huge and profound grass roots Yes Scotland campaign that has galvanized every corner of the country (and I now suspect more should also be made of the quieter No campaign – and the behavioural biases of salience and representativeness that arise when you walk around the country and only see Yes posters).

A key issue is therefore how to maintain and galvanize that enthusiasm for politics. Those of us who have long been involved in voluntary movements perpetually struggling to find board members, etc. must be encouraged by the political awakening both in Scotland as a whole but also in our more deprived urban communities. In Policy Scotland we are working with the Reform Club in London and the new John Smith Centre for Public Service – both of whom are fundamentally concerned with sustaining and promoting political participation and civic activism. Beyond this, the more radical political perspectives of the left and environmental sustainability have also had an energizing campaign – how will they now fare and how will they maintain their initiative? A challenge and opportunity, then, to keep this momentum alight across the board.

A yes-no binary and an equally sharp hope-fear characterisation of the debate do not make for easy post vote reconciliation. But it is clearly essential for all sorts of reasons and particularly in the months ahead as the unionist parties legislate on their further powers proposals, that ways need to be found to reassure the skeptics.

I must admit I had my doubts about the 16-17 year old element to the extension of the franchise – not in principle (it is clear to me that this age group should be able to vote) but I would question the practice of piloting it in a constitutional referendum of such criticality. It should have been tested in local government or the European elections. However, it is really important that we now move ahead and extend the franchise to all other elections.

There are already emerging a number of unintended consequences attached to the result. The prime minister has already implied that this will usher in constitutional change in the rest of the UK and in particular English votes for English MPs and also further announcements ahead about more powers for English cities. How will Labour deal with that critical challenge to the future – is it conceivable for a UK government to be elected with control over reserved matters but unable to deliver its manifesto proposals in England because it has no majority of English MPs (but isn’t that what devolution implies already in Scotland)?

Federalism, quasi-federalism and more symmetrical devolution will become the Uber-subject of the next few weeks and months for the think tanks and commentariat and I suspect we will look both to federal systems around the world and reform processes already underway (e.g. France). A good place to start is David Torrance’s excellent wee book – Britain Rebooted.

Wearing my other policy research hats, I do hope that the next few months will not be completely swamped in these constitutional matters. Policy reform must continue and of course there is a degree of consensus in Scotland about the Christie Commission proposals and the ‘Scottish approach’ to public policy including the Scotland Performs framework. There are several elections ahead of us and we are crying out for alternatives to austerity and better ways of dealing with wicked often place-based problems. Let’s keep that fully in focus.