Scottish Referendum: pause to reflect, then act wisely

The Open University is a Four Nations University, and takes pride in putting its students at the heart of everything it does. It remained neutral in the campaign, offering the expertise of its academics on specific issues. One angle that interested me the most was how both campaigns, for and against independence, revitalised democracy in Scotland, and will refresh interest in constitutional and political reform across the UK.

As a professional communicator, I found it fascinating to see the dynamics at work between top-down politics (with its emphasis on the words and actions of senior politicians) and ground-up civic engagement (with its emphasis on public engagement and use of social media). The Scottish Referendum was a far-reaching and potentially radicalising event. It has shaken all of us up. Far from being a matter to be resolved “out there” and “over there”, it ended up feeling more immediate, more integral to our sense of national and cultural identity, whether we lived in Scotland or not.

As a result of the referendum campaign, and with all the speculation on the constitutional implications, it is likely that further powers will be devolved to Scotland. However, there will be no immediate impact on OU students in Scotland or those intending to study with the university.

The OU in Scotland’s teaching grant will continue to come from the Scottish Government through the Scottish Funding Council, and the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS) will continue to award the Part-Time Fee Grant to OU students who meet the eligibility criteria.

A final personal thought, drawing on my experience at Ministry of Justice, and my time at the FCO, when I was responsible for the devolved government portfolio, promoting the UK and recognising the value of devolution.

It would be ill-advised to think of this decision as having winners and losers. A football match or Rugby match delivers such a clear-cut result. This referendum cut across families, friendships and professional networks. Much has been lost in heated debate: we need to recover what forges stronger links between us.

In the excitement -some would say panic- about the need now to act on the implications of the referendum and the promises made during the campaign, it is important when addressing constitutional and political change to tackle such challenges with a considered and phased approach. I am reminded of the German word, schlimmbessarung, an improvement that makes things worse. This is a time for keeping our nerve and thinking with the head, and not just the heart. The referendum result buys time, and does not drive it.

Planning is critical, and this means building a shared understanding of what to do next. If we want to build on the best of both campaigns – and they each revealed what was right and what was wrong with our politics – improve our political institutions, and restore a sense of what is positive about the union, we should adopt a three-step formula.

First, establish the scope and complexity of the issues, their relative importance and consequences for other ongoing business;

Second, seek broad-based agreement on the objectives and critical success factors to ensure the right buy-in at the outset; and

Third, structure a framework for public and institutional engagement, with clear measures of success.

The referendum is a wonderfully simple decision-making device. The rest that follows is not.

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