IN A timely and important column in this newspaper today, former SNP frontbencher Andrew Wilson calls on the Nationalists and their colleagues in the wider Yes movement to engage with new efforts to secure more powers for Holyrood “as builders, not wreckers”.
Much about the tenor of Scottish politics in the coming months and years depends on whether the nationalist party and the disparate elements in the Yes campaign respond to this plea positively, or negatively.
Last Thursday’s vote against independence was a devastating blow for those who had campaigned with all their hearts for a new Scottish state, outwith the United Kingdom. Last Sunday this newspaper backed a No vote, yet while we welcome the clear verdict of the people on this touchstone issue, we do not rejoice in the defeat of a Yes campaign that captured and nourished a new optimism among hundreds of thousands of Scots about making our country a better place for all its citizens. The argument made on this page last weekend was that Scotland could be transformed with a No vote and greater powers for Holyrood, and that achieving a more just society was not just contingent on independence. We stand by that entirely, and are all the more convinced of the possibilities now open to Scotland given the extraordinary convulsion the referendum has unleashed on the British political establishment. The UK now seems set for era-defining changes, with greater decentralisation to its nations, regions and cities, creating a pleasingly untidy form of federalism. This creates an enormous opportunity for Scotland to gain the powers over tax, welfare and jobs it needs to make more of a difference to the life chances of every Scot. But there is a concern that many of those who voted Yes have so much personally invested in independence, they will hesitate to abandon the cause that has come to mean so much to them.
There is little doubt the SNP, while reaffirming their belief that in the words of Alex Salmond “the dream will never die”, will nevertheless park the independence issue for the foreseeable future. They will instead direct their political energies to fighting for greater home rule for Holyrood, within the confines of the UK. This is wise. After such a bruising campaign, they would be foolish indeed to go into next year’s UK general election or the following year’s Holyrood election with a manifesto commitment to hold another referendum. The party will move into the familiar role summed up by one of its most successful campaign slogans from the 1990s, presenting themselves as “The Power For Change”. There will be little opposition to this shift within the SNP, which still bears the scars of the damaging internal battles between fundamentalists and gradualists that were a constant in nationalist discourse for much of the party’s history, up until it embraced the campaign for a devolved Scottish parliament in the late 1990s. Historians may well judge that the 2014 independence referendum was a dramatic detour – a surprise consequence of the freak parliamentary majority the SNP won in 2011 – from the SNP’s key role in Scotland’s story. As Salmond was once fond of saying, the home rule car runs on SNP petrol.
The difficulty is that the other elements in the wider Yes coalition do not share the SNP’s hard-won experience of these matters. Yes activists who have been introduced to politics in this campaign do not see Scottish self-determination as a steady, gradual accruing of individual powers. They see it as a thunderclap moment, a single transformative event that changes everything, utterly, immediately. At the end of three years of campaigning in a binary contest where the only options were Yes and No, any deviation from the dream risks seeming like a sell-out. And yet these new recruits to the political world, along with the hundreds of thousands of non-traditional voters who rallied to their cause, are essential to the broad new alliance being created to secure a powerhouse parliament at Holyrood. Without them, Scotland will fail to move on from the divisions of the referendum campaign. Its political discourse will simply be a proxy for a campaign that is done and dusted, won and lost. Scotland will continue to be as divided as it is this weekend, with feelings as raw. There will be no reconciliation. There will be two tribes, not one nation.
The choice for Yes campaigners is whether they redirect their celebrated positivity towards getting more powers for Holyrood, or retreat into a nurturing of the independence flame while sniping negatively at any positivity on home rule from the UK parties. They can either sit back and hope their most dire predictions about the invidious lies of Westminster politicians will come true, or they can put aside the rhetoric of a lost campaign and instead embrace a new cause in the Scottish national interest.
The Yes movement has yet to grasp the truth that, even in defeat, it has huge power to shape the new Scotland. It can legitimately push for next phase of home rule to be much more radical than that currently envisaged by the UK parties. This is very real political leverage. It can be used to make a substantial difference, given the acknowledgement across the political spectrum that Scottish demands for greater autonomy must be met with a more convincing response. But the Yes movement has to get involved, and not be tempted just to sit back and wish for the Westminster process to fail. Those 1.6m votes chalked up to a Yes can be used to transform the home rule debate and move Scotland further forward towards autonomy than would otherwise have been the case. The Yes movement is now having the same fundamentalist v gradualist debate the SNP had in the 1980s and 1990s. This newspaper hopes it comes to the same conclusion, and embraces gradualism, because the alternative is irrelevance.
Scotland’s newest political recruits can help write the next chapter in the nation’s story. For good or ill, independence is now off the political agenda for a generation. But there are still Scottish victories to be won, and it they are won by a Scotland that is united across all political boundaries – SNP, Labour, Tory, Lib Dem, Green and the wider Yes movement – the victory will be all the sweeter.