Scottish referendum: Unionists in Northern Ireland could learn a number of basic lessons from the experience in Scotland
Scotland’s decisive vote to remain part of the United Kingdom last week will have come as a huge blow to those who dream of the break-up of the UK. The decision of the Scottish people is all the more disheartening for nationalism because it is hard to imagine more ideal circumstances for the SNP.
Shamefully Prime Minister David Cameron permitted Alex Salmond to dictate the terms of the referendum. There are a plethora of reasons to believe that the circumstances leading up to Thursday amounted to a perfect storm for Salmond and Scottish nationalism.
Glasgow hosted the Commonwealth Games just a few months earlier, one of the few international events where Scottish track and field athletes compete for Scotland rather than as part of a UK team.
There was an SNP majority government in Edinburgh in spite of Scotland having an electoral system which is designed to prevent single party rule.
The economic problems which have beset the world – including the UK - has led to discontent with the establishment and a desire to give the powers that be a good kicking at the ballot box.
There was an unpopular Conservative led coalition in power at Westminster, so unpopular that any attempt by the Prime Minister to contribute to the debate was resisted by Scottish Unionists for fear of boosting the Yes vote. Conversely this allowed the Nationalists to use Cameron’s perceived reluctance to get involved in the debate as evidence of Westminster’s disinterest in and inability to grasp Scottish affairs.
The date was decided by the SNP with the poll taking place after a lengthy campaign (two and a half years) which allowed the nationalists time to make up a 20 point gap in opinion polls. 2014 also happened to be the 700th anniversary of Battle of Bannockburn, which added to the romance of the nationalist cause.
Salmond was even allowed to dictate the question on the ballot paper – Should Scotland be an independent country? This meant that Unionists were condemned to two and half years of saying no. This made it much easier for the nationalists to portray the unionist campaign as unrelentingly negative.
Which brings me to another problem for those who wanted to preserve the Union – the official campaign by unionists was, by common consent, appallingly poor. They didn’t even have a slogan throughout the campaign. Better Together became No Thanks which in turn morphed into Love Scotland, Vote No just days before the poll. It soon became evident that while nationalists had spent years preparing for an independence referendum, Scottish Unionists had given little or no thought to the matter, complacently believing opinion polls which told them that while people might vote SNP in elections to the Scottish Parliament they would actually vote to preserve the Union when it came to a referendum.
The pitch and the rules were set by the nationalists. The opposition was poorly organised. But still the unionist case won out. Both the margin of victory and the North Korean style scale of voter turnout make it hard to argue that the issue has not been settled for at least a generation.
However, it is already clear that the nationalists don’t see it that way.
Alex Salmond was widely praised on Friday for accepting the result and stepping down as First Minister of Scotland. However, anyone who thought that Salmond was going to let something as insignificant as the express will of the Scottish people stand in the way of his dream of Scottish independence was quickly brought back to reality. On Sunday, he said that a nationalist controlled Scottish Parliament could declare a unilateral declaration of independence, claiming that if significantly more powers were given to the devolved administration in Edinburgh “you have a situation where you’re independent in all but name … then presumably, you declare yourself to be independent”.
So Salmond’s acceptance of referendum result lasted about 48 hours. Additionally, if the SNP decides it must have a referendum before trying to go for independence again Salmond’s comments about last Thursday’s poll being a “once in a lifetime” event are a great deal easier to get around without him as leader.
Salmond is unquestionably an exceptionally gifted politician but it doesn’t take a genius to work out why he is disliked so strongly by his opponents. He tried to destroy 308 years of history and break up the United Kingdom. While the Queen refused to express an opinion he arrogantly told us all what she thought (or at least what he thought she should think). He said that those who supported independence were "Team Scotland" and by extension implied that to be pro-UK was tantamount to being anti-Scottish. He didn't utter one word of condemnation when Yes supporters defaced the cenotaph in Glasgow and burned the Union Flag which flew there but attacked the No campaign because the Orange Order was marching in support of the Union.
He attacked Allister Darling for forming a united front in defense of the Union with the Conservatives while the Yes Scotland campaign was linked to Siol nan Gaidheal. Siol nan Gaidheal, or Seed of the Gaels, is an “ultra-nationalist organisation” which has attacked English people in Scotland as “white settlers” imposing the “Lebensraum of rapacious Anglo-Saxonry” on “colonised” Scots. It also claims that “Scottish ethnicity” should “form the basis for Scottish citizenship”.
Unionists in Northern Ireland would do well to learn a number of basic lessons from the experience in Scotland.
Firstly, don’t put a great deal of store in opinion polls which suggest that vast numbers of people who vote for nationalist parties will suddenly become unionists if presented with a ballot paper which asks them if they want a united Ireland. Before the referendum unionists confidently stated that many of the people who voted SNP would actually vote to preserve the Union. No one is arguing that anymore. Unsurprisingly we have discovered that people who vote for nationalist parties tend to be nationalists.
Secondly, having to argue that people should vote no to the proposition on the ballot paper leaves your campaign open to being portrayed as negative. This is one of the major flaws with the Belfast Agreement from a Unionist point of view as it only envisages a question which asks if people are now ready for a united Ireland.
Thirdly, under the terms of the Belfast Agreement no referendum on a united Ireland would resolve the issue for a lifetime or even a generation. Rather there is a presumption that a poll would be held every seven years. Therefore once the question is asked Northern Ireland will be condemned to a neverendum unless or until Nationalism manages to get 50% plus one.
Finally, as the actions of Alex Salmond show, don’t expect nationalists to accept the result of a referendum to remain part of the UK and move on with normal politics. Nationalists will only accept the sovereign will of the people if they have the good sense to make what they consider to be the right decision.
So while Unionists in Northern Ireland will rightly rejoice in the decision of the Scottish people to remain within our family of nations they need to learn from the mistakes made by unionists in Great Britain. They also need to acknowledge now that the terms of the debate around a united Ireland as laid out in the Belfast Agreement are loaded against them.
The Belfast Agreement was never about strengthening our position in the United Kingdom. Rather it is about laying the ground work for a united Ireland.
Scottish Independence Vote further reading
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