Whither Now Scotland

Pic: Rod Fleming

Whither Now Scotland:
Dateline: Friday 19 September 2014
By Rod Fleming, reporting from Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland, for Rod Fleming’s World.

This morning, the whole of the United Kingdom woke up to the most important announcement in its history: the Scottish people have voted to bring it to an end.

After 307 years of often troubled partnership, in two years the partners in the unitary state will separate and become independent states, Scotland and what has been christened the ‘rUK’, the ‘rest of the United Kingdom’.

In a speech delivered, unusually, on the steps of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh after the poll result was announced, Scotland’s First Minister and the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Alex Salmond, was statesmanlike but clearly delighted. Congratulating the Scots on their momentous decision, he called on ‘All the people of Scotland to put their differences behind them and work together for our country, our nation, and our future.’In London, Tory Prime Minister David Cameron was terse but generous, promising that his government would ‘abide fully by the terms of the Edinburgh Agreement and would enter into formal negotiations as soon as possible.’

Already, cautious messages of congratulation have begun to arrive from world leaders. Barack Obama, in a carefully worded speech, lamented the end of an old ally, but said ‘The United States recognises the democratic decision the Scots have taken, and is looking forward to working with a new ally.’

The Taoiseach of Eire also added his support, along with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, whose words, ‘Scotland is a proud European nation and should remain a valuable asset to the EU,’ were clearly meant as a message to her European partners.

As yet no official comment has been made by the European Commission, but sources in Brussels indicate that a furious row has broken out, with Germany and France arguing for full acceptance of Scotland into the EU as quickly as possible, while Spain, mindful of the Catalan independence referendum later this year, pleads for a delay. One source within the Commission said ‘The Commission does not discuss hypothetical situations, only real ones. Yesterday, Scottish independence was hypothetical, and that has changed. Whatever was said before the referendum is now out-of-date, and a new position that addresses the reality of the break-up of the UK will have to be formulated.’

Meanwhile, in Scotland itself, a night of wild celebration has left many a sorry head and as the mist of euphoria clears, Scots are asking themselves ‘What happens next’?

Scotland is by no measure a homogeneous nation; its people are polyglot. In the first aftermath of the referendum result, the emphasis must now be on coming together as a nation for the benefit of all. Whatever views were held before the vote, the ‘settled will of the Scots’ has now been determined, and a new, fresh page has been started.

In political terms, all the major parties are now looking to the next Scottish election, in 2016. The SNP, buoyed by their success in the referendum, will want to capitalise on the goodwill this has brought them, but the other major parties have a cathartic time ahead. They cannot remain part of the United Kingdom parties that bear their names. Scottish Labour, Liberal and Conservative Parties must establish their own, separate identities which are committed to serve Scotland as an independent state. The Conservative and Unionist Party, especially, will have to remove the ‘Unionist’ from its name and character.

Unquestionably, this process will weaken the parties which campaigned against a ‘yes’ vote, but Scotland must have an effective and focussed opposition for its fledgling democracy to work properly. Clearly, the current opposition parties have their work cut out to establish new Constitutions and policies and present these to the public, in time to campaign effectively for the next election.

At the same time, the behaviour of the media in Scotland during the last two years must now be under the spotlight. The print media, largely, promoted a ‘No’ position, and must deal with the consequences of this, and of their spectacular failure to predict the outcome of the vote. It seems certain that closures or amalgamations, which were already overdue, must be imminent.

Far worse is the prognosis for Scotland’s ‘national broadcaster’, the BBC, which has repeatedly been accused of being partisan and promoting the status quo over independence. Clearly this organisation will have to be reconstituted as a Scottish broadcaster, and it is very hard to see how the current management can remain in position.

At a United Kingdom level, political parties must also adapt to the new situation. It will be some time before it becomes clear what the exact cost or benefit to the UK Exchequer, of Scotland leaving, will be, but in political terms, the coalition Conservative and Liberal Parties are facing disaster at the polls as their traditional support, especially for the Conservatives, punishes them for not keeping Scotland in the UK.

Nigel Farrage’s UKIP party heavily defeated the Tories at the EU elections earlier this year and must be looking to capitalise on the Tories’ discomfiture. And this is not the first time that the Liberals have looked down the barrel of a gun called ‘Independence’.

Although many other demographic factors were involved, politicians are superstitious beasts, and no Liberal will ever forget that between the secession of Eire from the UK until their access to power as part of a coalition to prop up a minority Conservative government at the last UK General Election, the Liberal party remained political also-rans. This may well be their future after the Scottish vote.

This, of course is the great fear of the Tory party too, that the swing to UKIP will be sufficiently large and durable to remove them from power for the foreseeable future. It is clear that a significant number of Tory hard-liners are already prepared to jump ship for UKIP, and the referendum result may be the push they need. The Tories are faced with a hard choice: do they move even further to the right to head off the UKIP challenge, or to the centre to counter a rejuvenated Labour, and accept that the right will be lost to them?

At the same time, all is not rosy for the UK Labour Party. It will, de facto, lose a large number of potential MPs, as their seats were in Scotland. Furthermore, historically, many of the best of UK Labour’s performers came from Scotland, a resource that will now be closed off. Faced with the potential of an extremist right-wing party, UKIP, inheriting the conservative crown, the Labour Party must now decide whether to reposition itself further to the left in order to counter this.

This historic vote, to annul the Treaty of Union of 1707, will have huge, long-lasting and as yet unpredictable consequences not just for Scotland but for the whole of the former United Kingdom

Nevertheless, standing here on Calton Hill, overlooking Edinburgh’s Princes Street, it is hard not to be moved by the enthusiasm on display everywhere. Huge crowds, estimated to be over 50,000 strong, still throng the street and the gardens beside them, as revellers continue to celebrate. Traffic is at a standstill and the police, with no choice, have cordoned off the centre of the city. Normal life across the city has been abandoned. The sound of laughter, bagpipes and Celtic music is everywhere and the atmosphere is infectiously good-humoured. Every few minutes, someone in the crowd starts a refrain of ‘Flower of Scotland’, the new unofficial national anthem, and it sweeps across the entire crowd, rising high up into the sky.

Scotland’s future is for the Scots to decide, and soon they will get down to the hard work of doing that. Just for now, though, celebration does seem in order.

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