Scotland stays: Gwynne Dyer on the No vote

The silver-tongued colonialists lured the Scots into voting No, and by a fairly healthy margin, too: 55 percent No, 45 percent Yes.

Gwynne Dyer

A week ago, the “Kurdistan Times” warned that “the British are exercising the old colonialist tongue to control the minds and dampen the aspirations of Scottish people who want to vote Yes (to independence).” And lo! It came to pass just as the Kurdistan Times predicted. The silver-tongued colonialists lured the Scots into voting No, and by a fairly healthy margin, too: 55 percent No, 45 percent Yes.

It is, indeed, a much wider margin for the No than the last time a proposal for secession was voted on in a Western country, in Canada in 1995. In that referendum, just 50.5 percent of Quebecers voted No, compared to 49.5 percent who voted Yes.

It was a near-death experience for Canada, in the sense that Quebec bulks much larger in Canada than Scotland does in the United Kingdom. It has almost a quarter of the Canadian population, whereas Scotland has only 8 percent of the UK population.

At the time, many Canadians thought that the country’s demolition had only been deferred, not averted. It was, after all, the second referendum on Quebec’s independence, and it was a lot closer to a Yes than the first one in 1980 (60 percent No, 40 percent Yes). Third time lucky, muttered the separatists of the Parti Quebecois. And everybody else assumed that they’d just keep holding referendums until they got the right answer.

That was when a Montreal journalist called Josh Freed coined the word “Neverendum” to describe the process, and for more than a decade that was the wheel that everybody in Quebec assumed that they were tied to. But they turned out to be wrong. Almost two decades later there has been no third referendum, nor is there any on the horizon.

Indeed, there was a provincial election in Quebec in April, and the Parti Quebecois looked set to win it – until one of its star candidates started talking about another referendum on independence, and the PQ’s vote suddenly collapsed. A recent poll revealed that 64 percent of Quebecers, and an even higher proportion of young Quebecers, don’t want another referendum.

Could it work out that way in Scotland too? That would be good, because what will probably happen if another referendum remains a possibility is what befell Quebec: a low-level depression that lasted for decades as investors avoided a place whose future was so uncertain, and existing businesses pulled out. It was not even that everybody knew that Quebec’s independence would be an economic disaster; just that nobody could be certain it wouldn’t be.

The result was that Quebec’s share of Canada’s Gross Domestic Product, which was around 25 percent when the separatist Parti Quebecois was first elected in 1976, is now less than 20 percent. That is about 90 billion dollars of lost economic activity in Quebec each year, even though another referendum on independence has been a rapidly receding prospect for at least the past dozen years.

How might Scotland avoid that fate? The only way, really, is for “Devo Max” to work so well, and so thoroughly satisfy Scots’ understandable desire for more control over their own government and economy, that nobody talks about independence any more. That will be more than a little tricky.

“Devo Max” – maximum devolution of power from London to Edinburgh – would leave little else but defence and foreign affairs to the UK parliament in London. Everything else would be decided by Scots, in Scotland, including rates of taxation and the level of spending on health and welfare.

So what’s the problem? Scotland was already more than halfway there before the independence referendum. In the panicky last days before the vote, when it briefly looked like the Yes might squeak through to a narrow victory, all three major British parties promised to deliver the other half as well.

But it will be very hard for them to keep their promises, which include placing what amounts to a proposal for a new British constitution before the Westminster parliament by next March. They are starting with three different versions of Devo Max for Scotland, and getting to a single agreed version (which also satisfies the great majority of Scots) in only six months is a tall order.

Even more difficult is the fact that Scotland cannot all be given all these powers while the other parts of the United Kingdom – Wales, Northern Ireland and even the various regions of England – stay just the same. There must be at least some more devolution for them too, but that debate has barely started.

What the United Kingdom must do in the next six months, in other words, is design and pass its first written constitution. And it will not just codify existing arrangements; it will radically change them. Meanwhile, the disappointed Scottish supporters of the Yes will be looking for opportunities to claim that the “English” (as they will put it) are reneging on their promises.

So what are the odds that Scotland will escape the “planning blight” of a long period during which a second referendum lurks in the shadows, and the economic damage accumulates? Not very good.

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