A Critical Look at Scotland’s Referendum: Special Issue of Scottish Affairs

The journal Scottish Affairs was first launched not long after the Conservatives had won their fourth consecutive UK general election in 1992. The opening lines of Scottish Affairs, number 1 were delivered by the journal’s editor, Lindsay Paterson:

The day after the general election last April, a new bit of graffiti appeared on a wall near Edinburgh University: “so that’s it then?”. A lot of people had that feeling – a mixture of anti-climax, frustrated hopes, and bewilderment at how a country that had seemed to be so alive with ideas had, apparently, died overnight.

“Of course it hadn’t” the editorial continued, and outlined the need for a serious forum to discuss Scotland – hence the new journal. But that sense of despondency, of frustration, felt familiar. Consider the editorial of the Scottish Government Yearbook (the predecessor of Scottish Affairs) of 1980. Here Henry and Nan Drucker reflected on a Scotland, post the 1979 referendum, where the ‘hope or spectre [of an Assembly] has now passed’. The Tories had vociferously advocated ‘No’ in March 1979 and were in Government by the following May:

Because the present Government is secure in its parliamentary position and not particularly beholden to Scotland, it need do little for Scotland and Scotland is unlikely to figure prominently in British politics for the next few years. This is a bleak prospect. It is not simply bleak in the sense that the future does not offer us great hope of advance. It is bleak in that the larger issues of Scottish politics may not be much discussed; and the major decisions affecting Scotland will be taken, once again, in private and in secret.

Reading those editorials now, on the cusp of the third referendum on how Scotland should be governed, it is striking how much Scotland, and our politics, have changed. The second referendum, in 1997, confirmed the delivery of a Parliament, and a new era. The last 15 years at Holyrood have witnessed four Scottish elections, the death of a First Minister, the transition from an Executive to a Government. We have seen two coalition Parliaments, one minority government, and one – to considerable surprise – governing majority. And that majority, won by the SNP, shifted the game further. In September 2014 we face the question: Should Scotland be an independent country?

Throughout these shifts in how we are governed (and, indeed, in how we choose to govern ourselves), the Scots have barely raised their voices, let alone smashed windows. Perhaps what is most remarkable about the 2014 referendum is how normal it feels to pose the question of leaving the United Kingdom seriously. The idea of an independent Scotland was, after all, seen as rather exotic within recent memory. Yet here we are, with a White Paper, and a Red Paper, and the promise (guarantee?) of substantial new powers should we vote ‘No’, and of a new – but unthreatening – dawn if we vote ‘Yes’.  Independence is one possible future, one to be discussed, debated, weighed and judged soberly and democratically. It feels less a matter of ‘freedom’, or of the destruction of a hallowed unity, than of how to find the governing mechanism that best meets Scotland’s aspirations.

In making sense of the referendum Scotland has an incredible resource in the What Scotland Thinks website. In many ways the Special Issue on the referendum that has just been published by Scottish Affairs has been inspired by this website. This is directly so in relation to several WST blogs (by McCrone, by Eichhorn, and by Rosie) that have morphed into longer pieces in the journal, while a contribution by John Curtice, draws upon his regular blogging here on the state of the polls. In thinking about the Special Issue I wanted to draw inspiration from the accessibility and readability of What Scotland Thinks and also make a useful and timely contribution. As such we present relatively short pieces rather than lengthy excursions. The aim is to inform debate and, perhaps modestly, to help in the careful judgement by Scotland of the proposal that is now in front of it.

In that first ever editorial of Scottish Affairs, back in 1992, Lindsay Paterson insisted that, should Scotland’s desire for devolved government be fulfilled, ‘then the form of that autonomy, and the strategy needed to reach it, must be subject to much stricter scrutiny than has been available hitherto’. Scottish Affairs contributed to that scrutiny both during the campaign for self-government, and across the subsequent life of the Scottish Parliament. Whatever the result in September, there will be continued – indeed in many ways more pressing – need for scrutiny of policy and politics through well evidenced and accessible research. Scottish Affairs relishes that challenge.

The full table of contents for the Special Issue (and access for subscribers) can be found at the Edinburgh University Press website.

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About the author

Michael Rosie is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh, and Director of the Institute of Governance. He is an Associate Editor of Scottish Affairs and was Guest Editor of the Special Issue. His research interests span (ir)religious identities, ‘sectarianism’, and national belonging.