Leader: No vote could be a new beginning

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SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE: The people have spoken, and it is very important that we all listen carefully to what they said. Firstly they said that they care deeply about the country and the type of society they live in. They care enough to want to shape it so they discuss, debate, rally, campaign and protest and turn out in previously unseen numbers to vote.

The referendum was a triumph for Scotland and it should hold its head up high in the world. Deeply held, passionate beliefs about the country and its direction were settled at the ballot box as befits a mature democracy. It could also prove to be a seismic shift in Scottish politics – but only if we recognise it for what it was, and seek to nurture and build on that emergent new force.

'It was a convincing vote for remaining in the Union'. Picture: Neil Hanna

'It was a convincing vote for remaining in the Union'. Picture: Neil Hanna

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Yes, it was a convincing vote for remaining in the Union. This morning just over half the population will be pleased, happy even, and probably a little relieved. And just under half will be disappointed, frustrated, angry. But we are not a divided nation. What the referendum campaigns told us is that we are united in an ambition for a better, fairer, successful Scotland. The divide lies only in what mechanism delivers that power to change. The referendum was to decide that. Now we know that the lesser risk of operating within the Union with greater powers devolved to us is the way chosen. We must now get on with that.

Alex Salmond stepping down as First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party will diminish the ­political scene in Scotland by some magnitude, he is a true leader of charisma, playing on the world stage and his commitment, ­experience and intelligence will be missed. It is to be welcomed that he is not retiring from political life in Scotland, and he is sure to make an impact wherever he chooses – ­probably to someone else’s discomfort.

A measure of his devotion to Scotland can be seen in his recognition of what he chose to describe as a “wonderful story” of the ­referendum: the energised, unorganised ­activists who entered politics at the grassroots and ­became a breath of fresh air and a force directly connected to the communities they emerged from.

He quite rightly described them as the new guardians of Scotland. But they will only ­remain so if they are encouraged to keep ­participating, and that can only happen if they feel they are having an impact.

One thing the referendum told us should shame us, and resolve us to act: More than 1.5 million people in this part of the United Kingdom think it is failing them so badly they would prefer to leave. That includes a substantial number of the excluded and disadvantaged, the very people society should be helping.

The promise of more powers that allow Scotland to shape how to best resolve these inequalities is to be welcomed. Their prompt no-quibble delivery would be even more welcome.

There is no doubt that the sudden arrival of agreed new powers into the referendum ­debate was seen as act of desperation from a No campaign that woke up far too late to its inability to combat the Nationalist message.

The fact that the exact nature of what these new powers would be had not been agreed would seem to be testament to the rush – and to the divisions between the parties in the ill-fitting alliance. But there is little doubt that their arrival would have helped sway some voters.

What cannot happen now is for there to be any hint or signal suggesting reneging on that promise. Because the promise was vague, it has to be realised that that leaves it far more open to scepticism.

Any perceived reneging will be seen as a ­betrayal, and there are many who fear that betrayal of promises by Westminster is not just possible but likely. Everything must be done to guard against that.

Lord Smith of Kelvin is undoubtedly one of the most able Scots of his generation. He has a proven record of delivering at the highest level, not least for the Commonwealth Games, and his known collaborative way of working should be welcomed.

But for the many in Scotland who feel themselves disenfranchised from the Westminster elite and big business, who are frustrated at the referendum outcome and sceptical of ­delivered promises, his appointment will not be a reassuring one. In fact, it will simply reinforce deep prejudices and potentially widen the rift.

So it might be well for Lord Smith to be seen to be very inclusive and invite known Nationalists to form part of the team set to transform Scotland’s powers.

But there is perhaps a greater opportunity. The energised activists that are the new but currently delicate force in Scottish politics – the force that has the potential to transform the Scottish political landscape with genuine direct connections to communities; the force that probably believes their opportunity has been lost and they are yet again on the ­outside – can be given a voice and a place at the table.

IT could be a way of ensuring that the revelation of the referendum campaign becomes an enduring and empowering legacy.

Another lesson from the referendum was just how ridiculous it is to exclude 16- and 17-year-olds from the democratic process. It would be criminal if this newly enfranchised and energised group was arbitrarily excluded from any further elections. The hypocrisy of young people having their income taxed without representation must surely end. That could be another enduring legacy.

The huge participation in politics we have just witnessed must be nurtured and encouraged because it benefits us all. It could well be the crowning glory of the positives to come from the referendum campaign.

The referendum result must not be an end, but a beginning; a transformational moment in Scottish politics and Scottish life, because only when we have built a fairer more successful Scotland will we have cause to celebrate.