IN Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macduff asks: “Stands Scotland where it did?” And Ross answers: “Alas, poor country! Almost afraid to know itself.”
Despite the referendum delivering a No, Scotland does not stand in the same place as it did before the vote.
We have moved forward, and must continue doing so. There is a real sense– and not just on the side of those of us who voted Yes – that Westminster is obligated to take its cue for more powers from what people in Scotland want. The word “devolution” is no longer adequate, for that describes a process of handing down carefully circumscribed powers from on-high to a relatively passive people.
Scotland is now more politically engaged and assertive than at any stage of the democratic era. For a few remarkable weeks, culminating in the entire Westminster establishment abandoning business and upping sticks to pay a panic visit to Scotland, the desires of what people in Scotland want – whether independence or substantial more powers – set the agenda. There is no going back – and much as they might have wanted to, Whitehall politicians and mandarins cannot put us back in a devolved box.
Even better, the level of popular involvement and debate sparked by the referendum means that I believe this nation knows itself better than ever. Our strengths and weaknesses, virtues and faults, were played out in the full glare of national and international publicity.
The picture that emerged may not have been perfect – and the intolerance of the tiny minority on both sides must be acknowledged and addressed – but we did emerge with huge credit at home and abroad with much to be proud of in the way we conducted ourselves in this biggest democratic exercise in Scotland’s history.
Fear from the self-proclaimed “Project Fear” undoubtedly played a role in determining the outcome, but I believe that the referendum has marked the high tide in this factor deciding how our nation should be governed. From hereon in, regardless of the referendum outcome, there is a new self-confidence in the land demanding powers for a purpose – the ability to create more jobs and tackle the gross inequality that scars our country. That is the project which all of Scotland is now focused on. But in looking forward, it is always instructive to revisit the past and look for lessons.
Let me make a confession. While I was never complacent, I did believe up until polls closed, that Yes would win. My principal reason for this was that everywhere I went I detected a hunger for change – a belief that we could manage the resources of Scotland far better and more fairly than the Tories are doing, or than any Westminster government ever can.
This faith in the abilities of the people of Scotland – and desire to use the full levers of power to build a fairer society – was strong enough to deliver a Yes vote. The countless canvassing sessions and public meetings I did in every corner of the country, particularly as we neared polling day, convinced me of that.
I suspect that the other side felt it too, which explains why Westminster threatened us with the proverbial Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse should we have the temerity to exercise our democratic right to independence.
I was amused to see Ed Miliband say recently that “the deck is stacked” in favour of those who have all the power in society – seemingly oblivious to the fact that in the referendum Labour chose to side with the Tories and the establishment to keep political and economic power in the hands of those who already have it.
People soaked up and discounted a huge amount of the scaremongering because the prize of independence and what it could bring was so valuable – job creating powers, an end to austerity levels of public spending, transformative childcare, protecting our NHS in a written constitution, and ridding Scotland of Trident. But in the end we have to accept that threats of higher supermarket prices and business relocation – empty and orchestrated from Downing Street though they were – diverted attention and undermined confidence.
In the circumstances, achieving 45 per cent and 1.6 million votes for an independent Scotland was remarkable, and, in my opinion, will be judged in days to come as the moment which determined that independence was a question of “when, not if”.
I believe that there is a strong relationship between the extent of the powers we wield in the Scottish Parliament, and people’s confidence in our abilities to succeed as an independent country. Indeed, that is one reason why Westminster always sought, first, to refuse Scottish self-government, and then to minimise its scope, particularly in the spheres of financial, economic and welfare powers. Put simply, the more responsibilities we can demonstrate Scotland is capable of successfully discharging – and the more these are used to build a fairer country and more economic opportunity for all – the less people will heed the siren voices claiming that to go further would cause the sky to fall in.
In 1979, when there was no modern, democratic experience of Scottish self-government at all, a majority could barely be mustered for a modest measure of devolution. In 2014, after 15 years of a successful Scottish Parliament, we came within 5 per cent of achieving a majority for independence. Therefore, the last card played by the Westminster parties to achieve a No vote – the promise of “extensive new powers” – may in time turn out to be a trump card for building confidence in independence. These new powers cannot simply be what we have now with a few add-ons.
We will hold the Unionist parties to their vow – which Gordon Brown said within two years would be “as close to a federal state” as is possible in the UK, and “a modern form of Scottish home rule”. Additional powers which answer to the description of either home rule or federalism require both a quantitative and qualitative enhancement of Scottish self-government, especially in the core areas of finance, the economy and welfare.
These were, of course, the very areas where the No campaign depicted doom and gloom if decisions were taken at Holyrood rather than Westminster. However, squaring that circle is Westminster’s difficulty – Scotland’s opportunity lies in gaining the powers we were promised in return for a No vote, and ensuring that we use them wisely for the benefit of the commonweal.
If that is what transpires – and unless it is then the vow to the 55 per cent who voted No, as well as the 45 per cent who voted Yes, will have been broken – then Scotland will be self-governing to an extent which would render a future “Project Fear” attack on the implications of independence risible.
So while the referendum result did not go our way, these are still good times for Scotland. We have an electorate that is engaged in the democratic process as never before, and people formerly of both the Yes and No camps finding common ground and coming together to claim our rights from Westminster. This can and should be a unifying process for Scotland, after what was inevitably a divisive referendum, and I will do everything I can to make it so. The prize is social and economic gains for hard-working people – and progress for Scotland. For me, that is what the political process is all about.
• Nicola Sturgeon MSP is Deputy First Minister of Scotland. This article appears in the new issue of Scottish Left Review, scottishleftreview.org