Paul Wells

Scotland after No: Giving meaning to a vote

Pitfalls and opportunities after Thursday’s referendum

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond. (AP Photo)

Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond. (AP Photo)

And then pro-independence leader Alex Salmond resigned as first minister and leader of his political party, and Prime Minister David Cameron promised a revolution in the management of the U.K., and Conservative House leader William Hague was pressed into service to find ways to advance English interests in a reform that was promised to Scotland, and it’s all very exciting and fraught with danger.

If Great Britain’s administration isn’t changed to give Scots a sense of greater control over their affairs, then that’s a promise broken. And since the 1995 Quebec referendum was largely about separatist assertions that promises made in the 1980 referendum hadn’t been kept, the stakes here are high. But if Scotland gets the sense that its needs have been met and England doesn’t, that’s trouble, too, because the English outnumber the Scots 10 to one. Nigel Farage, the U.K. Independence Party leader, is working hard to emphasize points of disagreement.

“I think this is part of keeping the United Kingdom together,” Hague told The Telegraph, and already I’m a little nervous. The dynamic set up by “The Vow” the three parliamentary leaders published the day before the vote is annoyingly similar to the dynamic that prevailed in Canada after both the 1980 and 1995 referendums. The No leaders began the campaign asserting that the choice was simple—in or out?—and ended up making vague promises of change in return for a No vote. Well, then, if you don’t deliver “change,” and indeed, if you do deliver change but fail to satisfy the definitions of “change” set by cultural arbiters like newspaper editorialists, then you’ve “failed” and your country has “failed” and the separatists were, they will tell one another, “right all along.”

And yet a very large number of the No voters on Thursday were expressing affection, not for “change,” but for Britain. An exit poll shows that fully 72 per cent of No voters knew they’d vote that way at least a year ago. So they can’t have been lured to that camp by late-inning promises from David Cameron and Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband. And No voters were as likely to cite “strong attachment to the U.K.” as a reason for their vote as they were to mention “extra powers for the Scottish Parliament.”

So millions of people voted to stay in Britain because they like Britain. Cameron and Hague and Miliband and all the rest need to keep that in mind as they try to fulfill the promise (sorry, “Vow”) of the campaign’s closing days. They must avoid the temptation toward brinksmanship. They can’t, as former prime minister Brian Mulroney did with the Meech Lake accord, accept or make themselves the argument that disaster will certainly befall the country if this or that reform isn’t passed. As late as 1998, at a premiers’ meeting in Calgary, Saskatchewan’s premier, Roy Romanow, was telling reporters, “You can’t fight something with nothing. And right now, Canada has nothing.”

That wasn’t true for Canada then, and it’s not true for Great Britain now. Most of the people who voted to stay in Britain like Britain. They were right to do so. There’s no need to start telling them they weren’t.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.