Scotland Votes: The Logic and Rhetoric of the Independence Campaign

Charles Crawford





Scotland has voted decisively against breaking from the United Kingdom and becoming an independent country.


The key thing to grasp is that there is no precedent for a modern, highly integrated country breaking into two pieces in peacetime. True, Czechoslovakia divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia back in 1992. But both new countries were emerging from communism. Both had to bring in huge numbers of new laws, rules and regulations to create modern, market-based democracies almost from scratch. In such a tumultuous all-change situation, the fact that Czechoslovakia split more or less neatly down the middle was arguably an advantage: the two new smaller units could each advance at their own pace.


The Scottish case is not like that. The relationship between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom has unfolded over centuries. There is no one single written constitution. All  sorts of laws, regulations, conventions, legal precedents and informal understandings bring together Scotland and England (with Northern Ireland and Wales) in one of the world’s most sophisticated economies.


So, question. If Scotland had voted to become independent, how would this process have unfolded? There is only one answer: It would have been protracted, messy, bad-tempered and astonishingly expensive.


Any large organization thinking about making a strategic change of direction typically makes two basic mistakes. It plays up the glories of the shiny new situation after the big changes have taken place. It plays down the steadily compounding benefits of doing nothing drastic and underestimates the transaction costs of moving from where it is now to where it wants to be.


Hence, the basic logic of the Yes to Independence campaigners in Scotland. They did not want voters to look in any great detail at the benefits of staying in the United Kingdom, and they did not want scrutiny of the costs and upheavals that would inevitably accompany any separation. Why? Because they had no clear answers to searching questions about the scale of those costs and upheavals.


In general terms, we can accept the proposition that after a choppy and unhappy few years Scotland might get on track to become a small, independent Nordic-style modern country featuring clean living and enviable high-tech industry. But getting there would be tough, given Scotland’s engrained populist socialist bad habits and wider economic uncertainty across Europe. There was no chance that the Yes and No campaigns could agree on how to calculate the cost/benefit analysis of this turbulent transition for the coming decades.


The Yes campaign, therefore, had to present a Yes vote as something natural, reassuring and almost natural. This meant glossing over reality, telling voters that they could have all the benefits of independence as well as the stabilizing benefits of staying within the United Kingdom. Scotland would be independent but keep the pound sterling as its currency. Scotland would not have to re-negotiate in any serious way its membership of the European Union. Scots would continue to enjoy the doubtful benefits of the decaying British National Health Service. Scotland could afford anything it wanted since it would have its huge oil reserves. And so on.


As the independence debate gathered steam, British Prime Minister David Cameron seized on the issue of Scotland’s future currency. Scotland could not expect to use the pound without the consent of what remained of the United Kingdom, and what remained of the United Kingdom would not give that consent. This was a crafty but powerful move. It helped create generalized unease across Scotland. Scots began to wonder what was going to happen in an independent Scotland with the very money they used every day.


This question also played into Scotland’s future (or not) within the European Union. The Yes campaign wanted to distance itself from nasty, Eurosceptic English Tories and not get involved in discussing the merits of EU membership. However, there is no precedent for part of one EU member becoming independent. Does it stay within the European Union, and on what basis? Surely it must apply for EU membership – that’s what being independent means. But if that’s the position, what about the requirement that any new EU member must promise to join the Eurozone?



Alex Salmond, leader of the Yes campaign, tried to bluster his way through these vital strategic questions. During the second televised debate with former British Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, Salmond hooted victory at Darling’s exasperated admission that indeed Scotland would be free to use the pound sterling if it wanted to do so. Darling’s point was that an independent Scotland could do what it liked for its currency, with any number of options available. However, different options had different costs, and the costs to Scotland of trying to use the pound in the face of opposition from Westminster would be devastating.


Salmond then tried to deflect this too, arguing that Scotland could force Westminster to cooperate over Scotland’s use of the pound by threatening to create generalized economic confusion otherwise. This clumsy blackmail threat made no sense at all even in its own terms.  If Scotland wanted to launch itself as an independent financially sophisticated country, why would steely international capitalists invest funds in an Edinburgh behaving like this? Plus such belligerent talk undermined the wider Yes claim that a vote for independence was the calm, rational decision.


Into this furious final bickering came former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, himself Scottish. As Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave some of the worst speeches ever emitted by a top British public figure: clumsy, boring and stuffed with bizarre mixed metaphors. On 17 September 2014 he made the speech of his life in favor of a No vote. He grabbed the banner of national confidence from the Yes campaign, and carried it triumphantly into the No camp:


What kind of message does Scotland send to the world if tomorrow we say we’re going to give up on sharing, we’re going to smash our partnership, we’re going to abandon cooperation and conflict, and we’re going to throw the idea of solidarity into the dust?


This is not the Scotland I know and recognize and we must make sure it is not the Scotland we become…


Have confidence that people know that our Scottish Parliament and its new powers give people the powers they need and meet the aspirations of the Scottish people. Have confidence, stand up and be counted tomorrow.


Have confidence tomorrow and have confidence enough to say with all our friends: we’ve had no answers. They do not know what they are doing, they are leading us into a trap.


Have confidence and say to our friends: for reason of solidarity, sharing, justice, pride in Scotland, the only answer for Scotland’s sake and for Scotland’s future is vote No.



Gordon Brown’s stirring but pragmatic view of the independence issue prevailed. Scotland did vote No.


Conclusion? In any fierce but honest democratic campaign, basic truths always come out.


In this case, the Yes campaign in Scotland had too many obvious contradictions. Its specific policies were incoherent if not dishonest: it promised improbable gain with negligible pain. Too many of its supporters claimed to represent Team Scotland, but jeered at fellow Scots who tried to ask tough questions. The heavy if not humiliating defeat of the Yes tendency was richly deserved.


The partnership between Scotland and England has been one of the greatest motors of liberty and innovation in human history. Those wanting to end it need to make a mighty strong case. Perhaps there isn’t one?


Author Bio:


Charles Crawford is a British former career diplomat turned writer, public speaking specialist and mediator. His work for HM Diplomatic Service featured postings in communist Yugoslavia, South Africa as apartheid ended and Russia after the USSR collapsed, then three ambassadorships: in Sarajevo after the conflict (1996-98); in Belgrade after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic (2001-03); and in Warsaw when Poland joined the European Union (2003-07). He also served as FCO Speechwriter in the 1980s and has drafted or contributed to speeches by members of the British Royal Family, Prime Ministers and different Foreign Ministers and other senior figures.



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