By Stephen Bowman
In September 2014, the people of Scotland voted for their country to remain in the United Kingdom (UK) rather than to become an independent state. Precisely why Scots rejected the idea of independence as outlined by the Scottish National Party-dominated ‘Yes Scotland’ campaign group has been the focus of considerable historiographical debate. Some writers have suggested that most Scots remained happy with the level of devolution already granted to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. This interpretation chimes with remarks made in 1995 by the Labour politician George Robertson, who had argued that Scottish devolution would ‘kill Nationalism stone dead.’ This has led some writers to over-emphasise the politics of identity. Such writers tend to describe the rejection of Scottish independence as a rejection of Scottish national identity, with some pointing to an apparent resurgence in ‘Britishness’ in the 2010s as one of the reasons for this. The royal wedding in 2011 and the popularity of Prince William and Princess Katherine, combined with the London Olympics and Queen Elizabeth’s jubilee in 2012, have been used as examples of occasions when the constituent nations of Britain were able to come together and celebrate a shared identity under the monarchy.
There are, however, a number of problems with this interpretation. Firstly, Scots had a strong sense of identity within the UK and did not regard independence as a question of identity, or even necessarily of Scottish nationalism. To most Scots, nationhood and identity were self-evident facts: in or out of the UK. Secondly, writers have over-emphasised the relevance of the monarchy to people both in Scotland and England. This has been shown in recent years, with the abdication of King George and the subsequent establishment of a republican form of government in Edinburgh resulting in no evident increase in calls for English independence from Holyrood. A final school of thought has suggested that Scotland voted ‘no’ following what is presented as a ‘deep, meaningful and intellectual national conversation’, through which the subtle ideological nuances of the debate were maturely addressed by both sides. According to some writers, only then did Scots reject the Nordic model of social democracy offered by the Yes campaign in favour of Anglo-American neoliberalism. Such writers have, however, been widely discredited.
In contrast to the other studies reviewed above, this article contends that immediate short-term political considerations and events – including fears over the pensions system in an independent Scotland and the possibility that England would impose border patrols – in the twelve months leading up to the 18 September 2014 referendum were crucial factors in determining the outcome of the vote. Foremost amongst these events was the decision in November 2013 to end shipbuilding in the English city of Portsmouth in favour of keeping open the BAE Systems yards in Glasgow. This resulted in a short-term spell of acrimony between Scotland and England, with workers in Portsmouth believing that the UK Government had influenced BAE’s decision to keep shipbuilding on the Clyde in an effort to encourage Scots to vote against independence. Even though it has since been demonstrated that the UK Government did not encourage BAE to favour Glasgow over Portsmouth, and while it seemed that anti-Scottish sentiment in England would push Scots towards independence, other factors ultimately ensured a ‘no’ vote. Like the pensions and border control controversies, these were the result of a concerted effort by Unionists to highlight the uncertainties of the independence project.
In relation to shipbuilding, Unionists argued that the Royal Navy – BAE’s principal client – would no longer build ships in Glasgow if Scotland became independent. Many Unionists quoted Article 346 of the Lisbon Treaty, which allowed European states an exemption from European Union (EU) procurement law when building military vessels. The full implications and precise meaning of Article 346 were never made clear. It was argued, however, that UK warships could not be built outside of the UK without the contracts going out to tender across Europe, in which case Scotland would have been at a natural disadvantage. In truth, it was likely that the UK Government could have placed orders in an independent Scotland without breaching procurement law, if it was demonstrated that doing so was in the national interest, for example if the UK Government wished to continue working with the London-based BAE Systems.
Even though some Unionists had interpreted Article 346 inaccurately, it was suggested that independence could result in the end of shipbuilding on the Clyde. Crucially, the South West Glasgow Member of Parliament (MP), Ian Davidson, argued that, if the BAE yard in Glasgow was awarded a construction contract from the Royal Navy prior to the vote in September 2014, then the Navy should have been permitted to cancel the order if Scotland became independent. That this would result in thousands of job losses in his constituency, or that – since the closure of Portsmouth – there was nowhere else in the British Archipelago to build warships, did not enter public discourse. Instead, his message resonated with Scottish voters, increasing numbers of whom were persuaded by the Better Together campaign’s core argument that Scotland was simply unable to become independent. Scotland was a unique country that would have been unable to raise enough taxes to pay for public services, would not have had a military because nobody would have wanted to join it, would have been at risk from terrorist attacks because it would not have been part of Britain’s intelligence sharing network (even though this would have disadvantaged the remainder of the UK, given that a considerable amount of Irish Republican activity historically occurred in Scotland) and that it had very little to offer the European community and, as a result, would have been thrown out of the EU (even though this happened by default when the rest of the UK voted to leave the EU following a referendum in 2017).
As such, the independence referendum of 2014 was an interesting attempt to alter the political landscape of the British Isles. Yet, contrary to what some historians have written, separation was avoided not because of an underlying ideological commitment to neoliberalism. Nor was it because of an allegedly resurgent Scotto-Britishness. Rather, the Unionist’s core message that there was too much uncertainty surrounding the potential outcome of independence, and that Scotland was singularly too diminutive and economically unstable a country to make it work, appealed to voters from across the political spectrum. In so doing, the Unionists successfully ensured that the independence debate centred on mundane, short-term issues and technicalities, while also making clear that self-government represented a potentially dangerous hindrance and inconvenience to every facet of Scottish society. This was the way in which the debate about the future of Scotland was conducted in the early years of the twenty-first century.