The Scottish referendum: what victory looks like.

In real life assessing social movement victories or defeats is rarely like figuring out which runner breaks the tape in a sprint.  Achievements are virtually never all that activists demand–or want–and apparent defeats are not always what they seem.  Look again at Scotland:

The independence referendum was defeated clearly, with opponents posting nearly 400,000 more votes than supporters (55%-45%).  But what did the “no” voters want?  Remember that UK Prime Minister David Cameron rejected a referendum ballot with three choices: independence, no change, and devolution of powers, in favor of an up/down vote on independence.  To defeat the nationalists, however, he had to add devolution to the options covered by the no side, frenetically making promises of reforms in the last days of the electoral campaign.

The Nationalists will work to hold him–and the UK–to those promises.

So Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond accepted defeat, but explained that it was one step in a longer march toward increased autonomy for Scotland.  It wasn’t just the defeated trying to find some smattering of hope.  Alistair Darling, who headed the no campaign, claimed victory by announcing that the UK would have to afford Scotland more control over taxing, spending, and the contours of its own welfare state, sentiments echoed by the leaders of the UK’s major parties–including David Cameron, whose authority and leadership was clearly damaged by the entire campaign.

It’s certainly not an unambiguous victory for the nationalists: Trident submarines armed with nuclear weapons will continue to sail in the North Sea, while the Scots will continue to send taxes and representatives to London.  But the debate and the politics will be about negotiating greater autonomy for Scotland and greater power for its parliament.  It’s not all the nationalists wanted, but it’s more than Cameron wanted to give, and it’s far more than most people thought possible two years ago when the referendum was negotiated.  Cameron says the issue is now settled for a generation, but it’s hard to think that 1.6 million Scots who voted for independence (and many of the “no”s as well) are ready to accept that.  The rapid growth of support for independence reflected, more than anything else, gross dissatisfaction with the current Westminster government.  That’s not going to go away so quickly.

Alex Salmond has announced that he will step down as First Minister and leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, but there are many others eager to stand in his place and conduct negotiations for autonomy.  David Cameron did not make a similar commitment, but the course of this independence/autonomy battle didn’t do any good for his authority as Prime Minister or leader of the Conservative Party.

While we may want to keep score at the ballot box, social movements are always playing on a broader field.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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1 Response to The Scottish referendum: what victory looks like.

  1. Pooyaka says:

    Nice argument. I don’t think it was a total defeat, either.

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