Thursday, Scotland took a historic step forward, or backward, if you prefer to look at it from another perspective. Scotland, by a 55%-45% margin according to complete returns, voted to stay in the UK. The vote, driven by a multitude of factors, led to the Cameron government (conservative party) breathing a sigh of relief as they are already embattled heading into the 2015 elections.
A number of questions need to be answered about why Scotland even took this step? What drove them to this vote? The answer lies in the fact that even though the UK is united by boundaries but not culture. Ever since Scotland became part of the UK in the 1700’s the two cultures have remained very much apart. British society tends to look down 0n the working class Scots and in turn the Scots resent this viewpoint. While British individuals dominate the Civil Service the Scots dominate the defense and intelligence apparatus of the UK (so much for working class).
Move beyond culture and there are also distinct political and economic differences. Indeed, economic uncertainty is probably the only reason why Scotland decided to stay with the UK. The UK does subsidize Scotland. Scotland receives more tax dollars back than it sends to London. But that view must be tempered with the fact that Scotland also is a hub for medical and energy research (North Sea Oil). his is a boon to the UK economy. Other economic uncertainties included whether Scotland would inherit some of the UK debt (which they have contributed to) and whether they could keep the pound or not? These questions were largely ignored by the Yes campaign to their detriment.
According to polls taken right before the vote the elderly favored staying with the UK while the younger tended to prefer independence. Among the old it was reported by the Guardian that there was a “This is the way it has always been,” sentiment. Women also favored the vote. These are not necessarily demographic factors but also political.
Scotland has a strong, traditional Labor constituency that has never really been threatened by the Conservative party or even nationalistic parties. This is evidenced by two events. When Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and the Conservative Party was dominating UK politics the party never held a single seat in the region. Second, when the dust had settled from the 2010 elections and Conservatives held a plurality of seats overall, they held a single seat in the region compared to 41 for Labour and 11 for the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party). Heck, even the Scottish National Party held more seats than the Conservative Party after 2010.
This seems contrary to what many people think about Scotland, full of rogue, independent minded people. Scotland has a more robust social welfare state than Britain. While Britain has one government worker per six private sector employees, Scotland’s ratio is one in five. Scotland also has more debt per citizen.
Recently, Scotland has chaffed under the economically conservative policies of the Cameron government. This partly explains why the LDP, coalition partners with the Cameron government, are likely to be crushed in the region next year (Conservatives can’t go down much more). It also explains why Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond brought the independence movement up for a vote. With a populace unhappy with the Cameron government’s frugal spending ways it seemed the perfect time for a political gambit.
The Cameron government has been beleaguered by scandal, a weak economy and worries over immigration and security. Cameron campaigned heavily against even holding a vote and then against the Yes campaign. It made sense politically and security wise. Scotland has encased in its mountain bunkers the UK’s entire nuclear arsenal as well as other strategic radar and defense facilities.
Ultimately, Scotland probably made the safer choice by sticking with the UK Thursday. But Scotland could easily survive as an independent nation. On top of its North Sea oil reserves it has a thriving tech and medical sector. But economic and political uncertainty would have made the transition to independence anything but smooth.
Scotland’s No vote probably garners it what even the Yes campaign wanted as a conciliation prize, more governing powers. Former Labor leader Tony Blair is credited with cementing a new generation of Scottish voters loyalty to Labour with his devolution of powers. Initially designed to court the IRA into a permanent truce the move was seen as politically beneficial in Labour’s traditional stronghold and thus implemented nationwide. This allowed Scotland to set up it own Parliament and supposedly have jurisdiction over health, housing and education policy.
In a last-minute bid to keep Scotland in the UK, all three major party elites (Labour, LDP, Conservative) promised to give even greater local powers to the Scottish government. But as Matthew Yglesias has pointed out this promise has serious flaws. For example, Scotland cannot borrow, has limited ability to raise taxes and cannot set its own budget. The budget the Scottish Parliament doles out is set in London (thus every US state has more local power than Scotland). It also should be noted that after the BBC announced Scotland had decided to stay in the UK the Cameron government changed its promise to “English only votes for English laws” while still devolving more power to Scotland. Labor is opposed.
Where the future of the UK goes from here is unclear. The country, much like here in the US, is being shook by demographic, political and economic forces their government seems unable to handle. How Britain handles the near future balancing all these forces may be a model or a model of what not to do for other non-European/European nations facing the same dynamic.
Addendum: An independent Scottish state would also have likely doomed Labour to a permanent minority party for the near future. The region’s 41 Labour held seats make up just under 16% of Labour’s entire House Commons seats (257). Thus, the region is a bedrock of Labour party support.