Last week, after more than two years of campaigning, the people of Scotland finally had the opportunity to cast their ballots in the independence referendum.
When the final votes were tallied, the result was 55.3% No and 44.7% Yes. In Edinburgh, the two sides polled 61% to 39% respectively.
One of the most remarkable things about the vote was the turnout. Across the country, 84.6% of those eligible to vote took the opportunity to have their say – a record for any referendum held in the UK since the introduction of universal suffrage and far, far higher than the turnouts for elections.
Prior to the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, I had campaigned my entire adult life for devolution of powers to Scotland. In the 15 years since, the Parliament has brought power closer to communities on key areas like health and education and progress has been made. I continue to believe that devolution offers a positive way forward and, as a result of the vote, the continuing debate on Scotland’s future will now turn to how we can strengthen devolution further.
In the first week back in Parliament, MSPs participated in a two day debate on what comes next. That began with a statement from the First Minister and a powerful response from Johann Lamont. In her speech, which can be viewed in the video above, Johann reflected on the campaign – the positive and negative – and of the need now to come together to work for Scotland rather than foment division. She spoke about the need to put politics back to work to address issues raised across the country during the debate.
The referendum has mobilised political participation in Scotland and re-engaged a huge number of people who had never before voted. We all have a responsibility to ensure that this momentum is not lost. I recently wrote on this issue in relation to falling turnouts at local government elections and the need for politicians to reconnect with the public.
There is also now agreement across the parties in the Scottish Parliament that the extension of the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds was a success and should now become standard in future elections. Part of that success was the sustained programme of civic education and many many hustings and debates that young people took part in and had access to. The challenge now is to ensure that there is sustained involvement in a whole raft of other political campaigns and for future elections.
With a Yes/No question it was inevitable that the outcome of the referendum would leave a lot of people disappointed. However, I sincerely hope that following the vote, people on both sides can come together to work towards addressing the issues and inequalities that were central to the debate. I spoke with a Yes voter at the weekend who commented that although he was disappointed he was not disheartened as he believed that in the end the result of the referendum would lead to faster change and more powers to the Scottish Parliament.
We also need to focus not just where power lies but how power is used. Many of the debates I attended focused on issues that demand our attention: arts, equalities, social justice and how we build a fairer, more sustainable economy. We now have the chance to build on those areas where there has been success as a result of devolution such as renewables and academic research. But we also need to redouble our efforts to tackle the inequalities that too many people and communities in Scotland face. That’s why I look forward to hearing the Scottish Government’s programme for the rest of this term of the Scottish Parliament and debating the many more policy and spending initiatives that we could act on now.