The result of Scotland’s Independence Referendum on Thursday still looks too close to call. On Friday we will know and, whatever happens, things cannot and should not ever be the same again for Scotland or the rest of the United Kingdom. Whatever the outcome, three major challenges are already obvious.
First, whichever way Scotland as a whole votes, there are going to be many people who, following the result, will be disappointed, deeply upset, perhaps angry and bitter. We need to be thankful that, unlike so many places in the world – Ukraine, Sudan, former Yugoslavia – questions about national identity and structures of governance have been addressed here peacefully and with agreement as to the democratic processes which will determine the outcome. The recent death of Ian Paisley is a stark reminder that even in the British Isles in the recent past such questions have led to major conflict and violence. It seems, however, that the Scottish people are split almost down the middle on whether the best way forward for Scotland is within the UK or not.
We have not had many referendums in the United Kingdom. Certainly we have had none which would both lead to such radical change and in which the vote has been so close. Past devolution votes in Scotland (1979 – 51.6% for, but lost on the 40% rule) and Wales (1997 – 50.3% for) were also very tight but less was at stake than now. Most referendums have yielded results close to 2:1 or above (1975 -staying in the European Community, 1979 Wales devolution, 1997 Scottish devolution, 1998 London mayor, 2011 Alternative Vote) and such decisiveness led to widespread acceptance of the result. It looks very unlikely those will be the figures on Friday morning when it is possible that even after almost all of the 32 regions have declared and perhaps clearly voted one way, the likely final results from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen (making nearly a quarter of the electorate) could swing the final outcome the other way. We need therefore to be praying for the reception of the final vote, for determination to avoid recriminations, and for generosity and grace in victory and defeat to find a way forward to implement the decision that works for the best for Scotland and the rest of the UK.
Secondly, whatever the result, the governance of Scotland is going to change. That was already the case under the 2012 Scotland Act and the closeness of the result has led to even more being promised in terms of devolved powers. Even if those making these promises are fully aware of their implications, most of the British population are not. As someone who grew up in Scotland with family still living there and who is interested in politics I was astonished, when a year or so ago I started reading about the referendum, at how unaware I was of the changes in Scottish political life since 1997. Most of us outside Scotland are only now waking up to the degree of difference in political culture and the level of detachment from Westminster that there is north of the border. The danger is that, if the vote is against independence, we will heave a sigh of relief and revert back into what must now be denial rather than ignorance, refusing to respond to the reality that has struck so many so forcefully in the last fortnight. The devolution of powers after 1997 brought about great changes which have contributed to making this independence vote so close. Even if the vote is against independence, further devolution will have major effects in establishing and perhaps extending the differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK which we cannot ignore.
We cannot ignore these changes if we are genuinely to remain a united kingdom, recognising and respecting our national and cultural differences. We also cannot ignore these changes because of their implications for national Westminster-based politics. The “West Lothian Question” – why should Scottish MPs have a vote on legislation at Westminster which does not relate to Scotland because it relates to matters devolved to Edinburgh? – has never been adequately addressed. After Thursday it must rise to the top of the UK political agenda if there is still a United Kingdom. In the words of McLean, Gallagher and Lodge in their brilliant Scotland’s Choices, “It has been possible to argue that the West Lothian question is a largely theoretical anomaly, with no real impact in practice....It is not clear however that this argument can be sustained, especially if there is greater devolution” (p 114). What this means is unclear: further reducing the number of Scottish MPs or limiting Scottish MPs voting rights in certain areas (but then a non-Conservative government may no longer have a majority for its legislation) or moving towards an English parliament in a federal structure? If the Scottish people wish to remain part of the United Kingdom but with even greater devolution then the United Kingdom as a whole must begin seriously to address the implications for the rest of the UK, particularly England. These are major constitutional questions and Christians need to be considering how to encourage and resource such discussions.
Thirdly, although there is at present agreement that there will not be another referendum on Scottish independence for many years, it is likely that, whatever the result, we in England will face a referendum on our relationship with the European Union in some form in the near future. After Thursday we need to reflect on what can be learned from the experience of this referendum to help us prepare for that one. There are clearly many parallels – whether we need to separate from a more distant form of governance in order to have more power closer to the people, whether such separation will being economic benefits or problems, whether there are alternatives to removing ourselves from the union, whether the overall social and political vision of the larger body is pulling us in the opposite direction to what we would choose, how being British relates to being European. As in Scotland, that debate will doubtless lead to the articulation of strongly held and incompatible visions of the future and to claims and counter-claims about the consequences of different options which most of us feel incapable of adjudicating. If we do enter it as a United Kingdom it is quite possible it could re-ignite the independence debate were Scotland to vote to remain in the EU but the UK as a whole to vote to leave. It appears that it has only been in the last few months or even last few weeks that most people have begun to consider what is at stake this Thursday. One of the challenges over the next few years is for Christians to lead the way in considering seriously both what it is that is at stake in relation to our membership of the European Union and how we can debate that issue constructively should we have to decide in a referendum.
One of the undoubted benefits of the referendum is that it has made all those in Scotland – and increasingly many in England and Wales – think seriously about deep questions of identity and good governance. The challenges now – whichever way Scotland votes - are to continue such serious thinking on the basis of the final outcome, to work to encourage similar widespread engagement in the rest of the United Kingdom about our own forms of government and to prepare for when those of us who do not have such a major responsibility on Thursday may face a similar cross-roads in the life of our country in relation to the European Union.