Scotland Post-Referendum: the paradoxical model

von Melanie Sully, 26.03.2015

The referendum on Scottish independence has been cited as an exemplary model for a modern participative democracy. Undeniably the conduct and the preparation for the vote exceeded all expectations. Given the emotional nature of the topic and the momentous consequences a “Yes” vote would have had, the process was civilised, peaceful and, apart from a few fouls, orderly. The result was recognised by both sides, something made easier by the 10% difference between the advocates and opponents of independence. This had much to do with the centuries-old experience of democracy and deep roots of parliamentarism. Such a vote in a country with a fragmented political culture could tear it apart. The fact that even the UK struggled to avoid such fratricide testifies to the potential dangers.

Post-Referendum Uncertainty

Despite this, the sudden appearance of a so-called “Vow” made by leaders of the government and the Labour party in the closing moments before the poll, scattered uncertainty and an element of chaos in the long-term. This will ultimately prove a greater test for British democracy than the referendum day.

In an effort to save the UK from break-up both leaders of the coalition Cameron and Clegg flanked by Ed Miliband of the Labour Party deserted parliament, where the weekly Prime Ministers Question time should take place, for Scotland an unprecedented snub for British parliamentary democracy. The Vow to pledge more decentralisation to Scotland in the event of a rejection of independence was made via the media, a regional tabloid newspaper. The timetable for implementation was announced by Gordon Brown former Labour prime minister and not by a member of Her Majestys Government or Opposition front bench. The announcements were vague in nature and lacking any prior consultation normally associated with citizen engagement either in Scotland or noticeably in the rest of the United Kingdom.

What followed after the referendum was a hasty attempt to fulfil the pledge to get the issue out the way and to salvage what trust is left by the people in politics. A broken promise would not have looked good for the credibility of these three parties especially in an election phase. A commission was set up and duly looked at specific points for more decentralisation including greater tax raising powers and at the end of January 2015 draft clauses were presented to parliament. The three leaders could claim they had delivered their promise and could kick the ball into the long grass for a future government to pick up after the May election.

Open Questions

This obvious rushed job leaves many questions open including:

At the moment it seems likely that the Scottish National Party will send a large contingent down to London to the Westminster parliament and will be in a strong negotiating position. The percentage of support for the party in the country as a whole is relatively small at around 5% and its increase in seat gains comes through the regional concentration of support.

In other words these Members of Parliament will in effect have a say on whether future terms of decentralisation are appropriate for the UK, something which many consider an anomaly.

Sleepwalking to Federalism?

Thus we can conclude that whilst the conduct of the Scottish referendum of 2014 was indeed a model which could be appreciated as best practices, what followed was anything but and requires urgent consideration if the UK would wish to position itself as a good example for citizen participation. So far it has notably failed to comply with consultation guidelines allowing for civil society and others affected by proposed decisions. The object of such consultation should be to influence the passage of legislation. In this case the Vow laid down from the beginning the outcome and sought merely mechanical details for implementation. This lack of systematic rules for the post-referendum phase has initiated the possibility of the UK for better or worse, of sleepwalking to federalism, a concept incidentally which is shrouded by mystery and incomprehension.

Informationen zu Melanie Sully

Melanie SullyProf. Dr. Melanie Sully is Director of the Institute for Go-Governance in Vienna and a British-born political scientist. She was visiting professor at the University of Innsbruck 1988-91 and from 1992 to 2010 was a professor in politics at the Vienna Diplomatic Academy

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