GLASGOW — At 6:30 a.m. on September 19 last year, Natalie McGarry sat alone on the pavement outside the glass-fronted Emirates Arena in this city’s East End. Inside, the counting of votes in Scotland’s independence referendum had ended a couple of hours earlier — Yes had won Glasgow but lost overall, by just over 10 points. Scotland would remain in the United Kingdom.
“I was the last person left in a very sad and lonely Emirates,” recalls McGarry, who spent months campaigning with Yes Scotland in the run-up to last year’s ballot. “I was devastated.”
McGarry’s despondency did not last long, however.
A few days after the vote, the then-33-year-old policy advisor was due to speak in Brussels, at a meeting of stateless nations from around the world. As she prepared her speech, the big story in Scotland moved from the 55/45 referendum result to the tens of thousands joining the pro-independence Scottish National Party.
“I had prepared to talk about this heartbreaking loss but instead I was talking about this huge new engagement in politics,” says McGarry.
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A year on from the independence referendum, Scotland and its politics has “changed, changed utterly” — as former SNP leader Alex Salmond, paraphrasing W.B. Yeats, remarked in his resignation speech last year.
On September 18, 2014, the SNP’s rolls numbered just more than 25,000. Today the nationalists have more than 110,000 members — and, in May, increased their representation at Westminster from just six seats to 56, winning all but three Scottish constituencies.
“The political landscape across Scotland has changed completely,” says McGarry, who is now the SNP MP for Glasgow East, overturning a Labour majority of more than 10,000 to win with a swing of more than 32 percent on a greatly increased turnout, a post-referendum trend repeated across Scotland.
In May’s general election, the SNP managed to attract the support of the vast majority of the 1.6 million Yes votes, including many in traditional working class areas disillusioned at the inability of Labour governments to solve the problems that plague much of post-industrial Scotland. Polls put the nationalists on course to win an unprecedented third consecutive term in the devolved parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh next year.
“It is now self-evident to most Scots that decision-making should happen — on most issues — in Holyrood not in Westminster,” says Scottish political commentator Iain Macwhirter.
Although Scots voted No, the referendum hastened the unraveling of the Act of Union that joined Scotland and England in 1707, says Macwhirther.
“The independence referendum of 2014 was the most transformative political moment in Scotland in 300 years. It marked the beginning of the end of the Union of 1707, the consolidation of a distinct Scottish political culture, the end of Labour’s political dominance of Scotland.”
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Alex Salmond previously declared last year’s vote a “once in a generation” opportunity. But, in the febrile arena of Scottish politics, a generation could prove as short as a few years.
Calls for another referendum are growing. Thousands of Scottish nationalists are due to rally in Glasgow this weekend.
Amid polls showing support for independence gaining strength, Scottish First Minister and SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon has come under pressure to include a commitment to a second referendum on the party’s manifesto for next year’s devolved elections.
A loose pledge on another vote is likely, but having built its success on a “gradualist” strategy, the SNP is unlikely to rush a second referendum. Sturgeon has said that a “material change” in Scotland’s constitutional position would trigger a ballot — if the U.K. votes to leave the European Union and Scots chose to remain, for example, or even the election of another Conservative government in 2020 with no mandate north of the border.
While British Prime Minister David Cameron has insisted that he would not countenance another referendum, last year’s vote “will be the focal point of Scottish politics for the future and will continue to be until the next referendum,” says David Torrance, the biographer of both Salmond and Sturgeon.
Nationalists are highly unlikely to risk a second referendum until polls show a consistent support of at least 60 percent for leaving the U.K., but independence “is now the inescapable prism of politics” in Scotland says Torrance.
“Once things are framed in those terms [independence or the union], it is very hard to shift the focus back onto “normal” politics. That is reflected in the fact that the Scottish government doesn’t have that fantastic a record in areas like health and education but is wildly popular.
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In 1995, then Labour Shadow Secretary for Scotland George Robertson predicted that “devolution will kill nationalism stone dead.” Two years later, Scots voted overwhelmingly for a devolved Parliament in Edinburgh — but far from ending demands for independence, the clamor to leave the United Kingdom has grown stronger in the almost two decades since.
Westminster has struggled to accommodate growing demands for Scottish self-determination. The cross-party pro-U.K. campaign during the independence referendum — so negative that it was nicknamed “Project Fear” — began with a commanding 40-point lead and ended up relying on last minute promises of fresh powers for the Scottish Parliament to secure victory.
The Smith Commission, established in the wake of last September’s vote, recommended more devolution, but for many nationalists the new levers proposed do not go far enough. Meanwhile, Conservative plans to introduce specific voting rights for English MPs in Westminster have drawn the SNP’s ire.
Adam Tomkins, professor of public law at Glasgow University and a Conservative candidate in next year’s Scottish elections, says that “the union isn’t going away anytime soon” but unionists need to make more of the benefits of the three centuries-old relationship between Scotland and England.
“People need to know what the union does for them. The union feels very abstract; it feels very distant from the life of, say, a working class man in Glasgow.”
Tomkins’ solution is two-fold: to nurture common cultural bounds across the border through proposals such as twinning pupils in English and Scottish schools; and to build an “architecture of shared rule” that would give Scots greater representation in the institutions of Whitehall and the British state.
“The ingredients that held the union in the 20th century are not going to be the ones that held the union together in the 21st century,” says Tomkins. “But some kind of replacement glue is going to be needed.”
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Despite the SNP surge, victory for nationalists in a second referendum is not a given. The economic and political uncertainties that contributed so much to the Yes side’s defeat — particularly over what currency an independent Scotland would use — are no closer to conclusive answers.
Political developments elsewhere in Britain might also change the dynamic in Scotland. The SNP’s social democratic rhetoric has played well at the ballot box, but with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, Scottish nationalists could face a threat from the left.
“Corbyn is a huge black swan that has sailed into the middle of the constitutional debate. Suddenly, the SNP cannot claim to be the sole inheritor of social democratic politics in Scotland,” says Macwhirter.
“The nationalists have done very well by adopting all the policies — like free tuition fees, council housing, prescription charges — that Labour abandoned under Blair. But now Corbyn is coming along and reappropriating them, which is a fascinating development.”
This piece originally appeared in Politico Europe.