ON 18 SEPTEMBER LAST YEAR, Scots voted in a referendum on whether to remain part of the United Kingdom or whether to return, after a break of 307 years, to independent rule. In George Square, in the centre of Glasgow, a boisterous crowd spent much of that night celebrating that the question had been asked at all. They sang songs, waved Scottish flags, passed wine and whisky around, and told the anti-independence Conservatives in London, and the Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, where they could shove their Union. But by 3 or 4 am, as more and more regions declared results, the crowds, now sheltered in pubs and bars, quietened. Once it became clear that the pro-Union “No” vote was going to win, they began trudging home in droves, muddle-headed and despondent.
That morning, I took an especially subdued early commuter train into Edinburgh. As it pulled in, the historic Royal Mile was sombre, dreich and mysterious, with mist and low cloud clinging to the spires and chimneys that flank it. At Holyrood, at the bottom of the Mile, where the Scottish parliament exercises its devolved powers, a giant tent set up for television crews stood almost empty, sagging under a drizzle. Instead of becoming the legislative centre of the world’s newest country, the news was saying that morning, Holyrood would instead be receiving a new plethora of powers that politicians in London had, ahead of the referendum, hastily promised to devolve in a desperate attempt to save the Union. Throughout the city, which had largely voted “No,” there was a feeling of relief, but tinged with sadness—the party was over, and with it the massive media focus on Scotland. An English journalist talking into a camera said, “Up till now, it’s been about what the Scots want. From today, it’s about what the English want.”
That pronouncement was premature. The campaign for independence was spearheaded by the Scottish National Party, though it also took in the Scottish Green Party and the Scottish Socialist Party, and disparate other organisations. Each pursuing their own agendas, these groups remain united behind what was, and is, their primary complaint against the United Kingdom—what they see as the marginalisation of Scotland by the UK parliament at Westminster, dominated for the last hundred-odd years by the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives, or Tories (these last two parties form the current ruling coalition).