After voting ‘no’, Scotland’s future is still its own

With questions remaining over how much more devolved power Scotland will now be granted, Nicola Witcombe reflects from Denmark on Scotland's failed push for independence – and on whether Denmark is an appropriate role model

“Without a bodyguard?” exclaimed my friend from London incredulously. I was explaining that the jogger, who had just run past, was none other than Margrethe Vestager, former deputy prime minister.

Spotting politicians in Copenhagen is quite normal, judging by the number I have seen in my five years of living in the city. Their physical proximity and general ordinariness reminds me of Edinburgh, where I also lived for five years up until 1999, the year the Scottish Parliament sat for the first time in 300 years. In Edinburgh I also risked bumping into Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSP), and remember once seeing Scotland’s deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon, who was widely tipped to be Scotland’s first elected prime minister before Thursday’s ‘No’ vote.

She is five years older than me and I remember thinking that I too could have been a politician had circumstances been a little different. I was even on a cross-party committee where I discussed issues directly with MSP’s of all denominations. In their bid for self-determination, Scots presumably want more of this kind of thing – more connections and less distance between ordinary people and the political and financial elite.

Scandinavian equality
The ‘Yes’ campaign has of course looked to Scandinavia, and particularly Denmark, which has roughly the same population as Scotland, to bolster its campaign. “Denmark can do it, so why can’t we?” echoed the voice of one Scot on the Danish program Horisont last Monday. Another DR journalist reported on P1 that he was heralded a ‘hero’ in Scotland, simply by virtue of being Danish. The ‘Danish’ card was also not lost on Nicola Sturgeon, who did not miss a chance to be photographed with Borgen star, Sidse Babett Knudsen, on her trip to Scotland last year.

But how far does this comparison go? Scotland’s first minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond, has a vision of following Scandinavia’s lead and transforming Scotland into a more socially-just country. And when it comes to inequality and poverty, Scotland has its work cut out – one million people lived in poverty – living on less than 1,225DKK (£130) per week after housing costs – in 2013, including 15 percent of all children, compared with 10.2 percent of children in Denmark.

But according to Matthew Brander, Senior Research Fellow at a leading Scottish university, reducing poverty is a challenge that Scotland is unlikely to be able to finance alone. This is a key reason why he voted ‘No’ to independence. Brander is in good company. Gordon Brown, the Scottish one-time Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer of Great Britain, declared numerous times that he believed that an independent Scotland would be more unequal rather than less throughout the campaign.

One Scot I know who is the epitome of Scottishness – a ‘Yes’ voter had he been allowed – admits that the comparison between Scotland and Denmark is limited. Having lived in Denmark for most of his adult life, he recognises the affinity and connections between the two countries. Despite this, he thinks that Salmond’s Scandinavian dream would have taken many years – probably decades – to achieve. Salmond promised to reduce income inequality after coming to power in 2007, but the Child Action Poverty Group has reported no progress. The relatively equal societies of Scandinavia cannot, as my Scottish friend says, be taken out of context – a context where paying high taxes is seen as an obligation of citizenship.

Devolved powers
What is not commonly known this side of the North Sea is that Scotland already has extensive devolved powers, covering agriculture, forestry and fisheries, education and training, environment, health and social services, housing, law and order, local government, sport and the arts, tourism and economic development, many aspects of transport, education, healthcare and environment.

Brander gives an example of how devolution works in practice. While Scotland has its own Climate Change Act, it still has to work with England to achieve the UK’s overall emission reductions under the Kyoto Protocol. Another example is that Scottish students do not pay fees to go to Scottish universities, while their English counterparts do.

Devolved powers were originally given to the re-established Scottish government in 1998 following the 1997 referendum and extended in 2012. But as another Scottish friend sees it, the UK parliament in Westminster has refused to hand over control of the things that really make a country a country, such as energy, immigration and trade and industry. And while prime minister David Cameron promised to further devolve powers to Scotland should the ‘No’ camp prevail – so-called ‘Devo Max’ – some people I spoke to expressed concern that this option wasn’t presented earlier, or even put on the ballot as an option during the referendum. It is clear that many Scots remain unhappy that devolved powers ultimately remain contingent on Westminster’s will and can technically be changed at any time. To them, devolution is simply not enough.

Photo: Tine Bek Hansen

Photo: Tine Bek Hansen

Lacking a clear independent vision
Andrew Johnston, a Scot who has lived in England for 14 years, has always regarded devolution as a positive move, but would have chosen ‘No’ to independence if he could have voted. Despite growing up in Scotland, wearing a kilt to weddings and having a Scottish accent, he considers himself British rather than Scottish. His wife and mother are English and he has made his home in the North East of England near the border. The Better Together camp would have had his vote partly due to his personal affiliations, but also because the ‘Yes’ campaign did not have a clear enough strategy to move Scotland forward as an independent country.

Whether they were ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ voters, all the people I spoke to  agreed on two things. First, that there was always an element of pure instinct in their decision. Second, that Scotland would never be the same again. But far from what some newspapers would have us believe, hatred of the English or aggressive nationalism wasn’t the instinct that propelled people to vote ‘Yes’.

Andrew Ross, from Gourock, Inverclyde, described the 84 percent turnout as “incredible” and argues that it was the first time many people had even engaged with politics.

“There was a parade of a couple of hundred young people waving Saltires and Lion Rampants and shouting Yes-Yes-Yes,” Ross says of his experience returning to his hometown on the eve of voting day.

While this happy atmosphere came to an abrupt end for some when the news of a ‘No’ vote trickled through, the sense of unity and moving forward as a nation reminds me of 1999  when the Scottish Parliament held its first session after 300 years and I was forever bumping into MSP’s. This time was of course different, given the higher stakes – a ‘Yes’ vote would have been irreversible. It is clear, however, that the historically high turnout means that Scots are more politically engaged than they have ever been.

Irrespective of what the political horizon looks like for the Scottish people, it remains to be seen whether the similarities between Denmark and Scotland will extend beyond politicians without bodyguards. I, for one, hope that they do. M


By Nicola Witcombe

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