It’s 4am on the morning of the Seventh of September 2018 and the final declaration of the second Scottish referendum has just come in. Highland has voted for the proposition that ‘Scotland should become an independent country’ and Scotland will now leave the union. The overall result is a convincing victory for the independence side of 58% to 42%.
The disconsolate looks on the ‘Scotland in Union’ side dramatically contrasts with the ‘Better Together’ campaign in 2014. The Yes2 campaign are just simply overjoyed. Leader of the union side, Ruth Davidson, has long conceded whilst campaign director, Alan Roden, is dispatched to the media to deliver a message of acceptance and conciliation.
The closing weeks of the campaign had indicated an even bigger victory for independence but the large leads that Yes2 had commanded was tempered by ‘the offer’ in the last few days of the campaign. Headlined in the Daily Record as ‘the offer we can’t refuse’ the ‘offer’ was a carbon copy of everything that the SNP Government had asked for in its differential EU arrangement that was so roundly rejected in the early months of 2017. If we voted to stay in the UK we apparently would now secure single market membership, powers over immigration and even a new undefined ‘devo-max’ arrangement. It was the classic too little, too late, too been there before.
When the SNP Government first said it would hold another independence referendum following the rejection of what is now just simply referred to as ‘the Scottish EU solution’ there was huge resistance to any further plebiscite in London. Defiantly refusing to allow a further Section 30 Order Scotland responded with outrage. Opinion polls immediately pointed to a double digit indy lead with the Scottish Government saying it would hold a referendum anyway. As tensions increased a compromise was agreed whereby the UK Government would grant a Section 30 Order if it was allowed to determine the question and set the date. The Scottish Government reluctantly agreed and the date of 6th September 2018 was fixed. The UK Government optimistically believed that, by then, a convincing Brexit deal would be concluded and it would be something that the Scots would be able to support. This time there would be a dual option referendum to stop a Yes campaign – Should Scotland remain in the United Kingdom? Or Should Scotland become an independent country? Campaigning started immediately.
The independence side simply and defiantly called itself Yes2. With so much of the previous indyref infrastructure still in place the joint leaders of Yes2, Nicola Sturgeon and Patrick Harvie, let campaign co-ordinator Kevin Pringle get on with a campaign that was long planned. Chair of Yes2, Henry McLeish, put together a formidable board of civic Scotland and the most far reaching engagement with Scotland’s public started apace.
Scotland in Union’s birth wasn’t quite as straight forward. When it was announced that Ruth Davidson would lead the campaign Labour initially refused to join. It took a fractious special conference of Scottish Labour before they eventually decided to participate in a cross party campaign. Many Labour activists refused to take part and key Labour figures said that this time they would be voting for independence. With their own electoral and leadership woes in the rest of the UK, Labour simply didn’t feature as a force in the second referendum. The battle this time was characterised by Yes2 as a battle between social democratic Scotland and the Westminster Tories.
There were other problems for Scotland in Union. The UK Government were consumed with Brexit and it was not going well. The hard Brexit was becoming ‘bargain basement Brexit’ as negotiations with EU leaders broke down. As the relationship with the EU soured EU leaders were increasingly making it clear that a pro EU Scotland would be more than welcome in its club.
What existed of a union campaign centred round the well rehearsed economic and currency themes of the previous independence referendum. They were easily dealt with by Yes2 who had spent months considering its new approach to these issues. Despite the best efforts of the Scottish press the scaremongering this time also seemed ridiculous, having been tempered by experience. The suggestion that an rUK wouldn’t trade with an independent Scotland was simply laughed off as the UK was finding it hard to secure a deal with any significant country.
The union side were also hampered by the fact that they couldn’t present themselves as a status quo option this time. Yes2 carefully framed the contest as a choice of two very different futures which both presented opportunities and risks. Would Scotland be better off in a Brexitised Britain or would we be better off taking decisions ourselves with the full powers of independence? Scotland was already beginning to witness the crafting of the new soon to be out of the EU Britain with the success of UKIP in the many by-elections following all the Blairite Labour resignations. The ugly side of this new isolation in the treatment of child refugees and privatisations in the English NHS was becoming only too apparent.
What no-one could properly understand is why the Tory Government faced with the complexities and dangers associated with Brexit just couldn’t respond positively to the Scottish Government’s compromise plans to keep Scotland in both the UK and the EU in the first place? There had been an arrogant view that a) Scotland wasn’t serious about holding a further referendum and b) if we did it would be easily seen off. Those early days of early 2017 now seem a long way off.
As all the deflated unionist activists head home disconsolate they were only thinking one thing – ‘if only we had responded differently when we had the chance……’