War, Neoliberalism and Scottish Labour
From New Left Review:
The institutional origins of the 2014 Scottish referendum can be traced to 1976, when Callaghan’s minority Labour government was struggling to cement a parliamentary majority while implementing draconian imf cuts—the onset of neoliberal restructuring in Britain. The support of the minority nationalist parties—the Scottish National Party had won 11 Westminster seats in the October 1974 election, its best result ever, while Plaid Cymru had 3 MPs—was bought with the promise of referendums about devolving limited powers to new Scottish and Welsh assemblies. In the event, though the Yes vote won the 1979 Scottish referendum by 52 to 48 per cent, turnout didn’t reach the high bar set by Westminster, so devolution fell by the wayside. Under the Thatcher government, Scotland underwent the same drastic social engineering as the rest of the UK: high unemployment, deindustrialization, hospital closures, council-house sell-offs. Tory unionism had traditionally been the largest electoral force in Scottish politics; in 1955 it had won an absolute majority of seats and votes. By 1997, after eighteen years of Conservative rule at Westminster, its vote north of the border had dropped to 18 per cent and it held not a single Scottish seat.
A second chance for devolution came in the 1990s, when Labour’s fourth crushing electoral defeat led Blair and Brown to begin a desperate search for Liberal Democrat and SNP support to build an anti-Tory coalition. This short-lived alliance accounted for the only reformist measures—Scottish and Welsh devolution, an appointee-only House of Lords, a referendum on the voting system, a Freedom of Information bill—in New Labour’s 1997 manifesto, otherwise devoted to boosting economic competition and cracking down on crime. The aim of devolution, Blair underlined, was a limited delegation of responsibilities through which ‘the Union will be strengthened and the threat of separatism removed’. The Scottish Parliament was duly established in 1999 on a modified first-past-the-post voting system, which was intended to deny a majority to any party—especially the SNP—and guarantee a Labour–Liberal coalition, which was indeed the outcome between 1999 and 2007.
Yet, masked by the rotten-borough effect of the first-past-the-post system, the years of war and neoliberalism under the Blair–Brown governments steadily sapped support for New Labour. In the 90s and 00s, Scotland had again followed UK growth patterns, with the expansion of a low-end service sector—one in ten of the Glaswegian labour force works in a call centre—and the growth of household debt. On a smaller scale, Edinburgh played the role of London as a centre for booming, deregulated financial services and the media, while inequalities gaped—the run-down housing scheme of Dumbiedykes lies just streets away from Holyrood Palace and the state-of-the-art Scottish Parliament building. After the financial crisis, Labour-led councils avidly implemented the mandated public-spending cuts, closing care homes, squeezing wages and sacking workers. In successive Scottish Parliament elections Labour’s share of the popular vote fell from 34 per cent in 1999 to 26 per cent in 2011, with ex-Labour voters passing first to the Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party in 2003, and then, after the SSP’s collapse, to the SNP in 2007. In local elections Labour lost overall control almost everywhere except Glasgow and neighbouring North Lanarkshire. Labour Party membership plummeted from 30,000 in 1998 to under 13,000 in 2010. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrat vote in Scotland collapsed after 2010, when the party entered government with the Tories in Westminster, once again to the benefit of the SNP. The result was to give the SNP an overall majority of 69 seats out of 129 in the 2011 Scottish Parliament, with 44 per cent of the popular vote—10 points more than Labour had ever won.
The SNP’s manifestos had long included the commitment to hold a referendum on independence if it won a majority in the Scottish Parliament. After its sweeping 2011 victory, the party’s leader Alex Salmond duly declared that this plan would go ahead. The SNP’s preference was for a triple-option referendum: Scotland’s voters would decide between full independence, the status quo or ‘maximum devolution’, meaning that the Holyrood Parliament would gain full fiscal and legislative powers, but Scotland would remain under the canopy of the UK state—the Crown, Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence and Bank of England—with regard to diplomatic, military and monetary affairs. ‘Devo Max’ was the option overwhelmingly supported by the Scottish people; with some polls putting this as high as 70 per cent. The SNP leadership recognized that there was not—or at any rate, not yet—a majority for independence, but hoped they could in the short-to-medium term achieve Devo Max. With a triple-option ballot paper, Salmond would have been able to claim victory if the result was either independence (unlikely) or Devo Max (very probable).
Under Labour’s 1998 Scotland Act, however, all constitutional issues relating to the 1707 Treaty of Union between England and Scotland were reserved to Westminster. The question therefore was whether the referendum would be duly legitimated and recognized by the British government, or whether it would be an ‘unofficial’ one, essentially a propagandistic device, conducted by the Scottish Parliament.