In Whisky and Scotland (1935) Neil Gunn wrote: “any effort on the part of any section – such as Ireland or Wales or Scotland – of the Celtic fringe to form itself into a nation is not merely opposed but bitterly resented as if it were something in the nature of a betrayal of human progress.” It was just as true in 2014 where the spectre of a Scottish democracy created a state of shock and horror among the political classes firmly embedded in the Westminster establishment, the upper echelons of the British state and the cosy backwaters of the palpably failing Scottish elite.
The absence of self-awareness, the lack of history, the shallowness of empty promises all combined to make the Better Together an extraordinary campaign to behold. And still they won. A campaign (openly) predicated on lies distortion and fear recalling distant glory but unable to summons any coherent future vision lost and is still losing. It’s not that a campaign based on hope beats fear, it’s that a movement that has ideas, vision and a future-focus will always overcome one based on the past.
On September 19 the Better Together campaign shut up shop and went home. Job done. But in the following days – inspired by a mixture of bloody-minded thrawn indefatigability and adrenaline – the Yes movement picked themselves up and got going again. That’s the difference. We are a movement, they were a temporary campaign.
Whilst the Unionist side will always have the might of the propaganda machine behind them, they will also always be hamstrung by being inexorably tied to a backward-looking political culture and set of institutions. The bizarre practices of the House of Lords, this year exposed like never before, the ancient relics of Monarchy which will presently demand Jeremy Corbyn, kneel, actually physically kneel before the Queen, the power of patronage and privilege which swirls around the corridors of Westminster and the endless parade of remembrance, jubilee and commemorative trophies which litter everyday Britain, like a Dismal Land fete make the selling of Britain a thankless task requiring more and more wild and ridiculous claims and unrealisable promises.
But if Britain’s political culture is endlessly backward looking this is a trap that the insurgent movement for Scottish democracy must avoid. We should reflect on last years events with a critical eye but move on. We should look back with a sense of self-awareness and move on. We should learn everything we can and be open about all of our mistakes and move on. The tendency to blame any concoction of: the media; MI5; Better Together; Gideon Osborne; lying politicians; the Foreign Office; corruption, John Barrowman or the BBC for our loss, blinds us to problems within the Yes campaign, the key weaknesses and the absolute requirement for the next referendum to be fought on stronger ground.
Self-criticism is key to building a stronger Yes 2.0. But we shouldn’t wait until the ‘next moment’ is here but begin to build the institutions, structures and projects that make the case for self-determination not in some vague abstract sense but in real-life experience today. This isn’t a case for gradualism it’s based on the notion that people believe something when they actually experience it not, when you tell them about it or promise them it in the future.
I Know What You Did Last Summer
After the vote last year there was a sense not just of disappointment but of actual shame that swept Scotland. Not shame in the campaign we’d run and the movement we were part of, but shame at living in a country so lacking in self-belief and so filled with duplicitous politicians and unthinking ‘Proud Scots but…’.
If the Yes movement has to face up to a series of challenges to win next time (and we do), the problem for the Unionist club is far worse, as an entire political class has been exposed. From the hilarious protestations of Alistair Carmichael that lying is an essential part of politics – to complaints about Ruth Davidson being investigated by the police – to a House of Lords stuffed with moat-cleaners and cronies – to the ongoing cash for access culture – the respect for the institutions of British politics has never been so low. Next time round, bar a Lazarus-style resurrection, the Better Together campaign will have to operate without either the Liberal or Labour parties, now routed from parliamentary politics. Exposed and removed.
As we look back we can see the Project Fear as a form of inoculation against British propaganda. Having been exposed to a small amount of the virus, next time we will be immune.
It’s not just the political education of the referendum campaign that is and will transform Scotland, it’s the real-life experience of failure under British governance.
On the 11 September the i newspaper had the headline: “Scotland’s child poverty levels so severe teachers are sent advice on spotting malnourished students’. The report concluded: “Child poverty in Scotland is now so severe that teachers are being sent advice on how to spot if a child in their class is going hungry, amid evidence that the problem is having an increasingly serious impact on education.The new guidance, which will be distributed to schools and colleges across Scotland next week, warns that the issue of hunger among pupils is “moving from the exceptional to the more commonplace” as families struggle to make ends meet.”
A few days later the same newspaper reported on ‘Life and death in divided Britain’ – that Southern England is best in the world for life expectancy, but Scotland finishes second bottom for developed nations. The coverage was of a report published in the Lancet that showed the health gap between rich and poor had barely altered in 25 years.
We will win not because of the blatant democratic deficit, the absolute lack of any political mandate or the failure to deliver The Vow, we will win because of the long-term social and economic failure under British rule. Foodbank Scotland, the day-to-day grind of poverty, poor housing and low wage Britain cannot believe in UK:OK. It’s a lie lived every day.
It’s Time to Get Above Ourselves
We are not alone in experiencing collapsing belief in our rulers and their systems. Across the world you can see evidence of systems of belief and deference to the old models falling apart. You can see it in the incredible campaign being run by Bernie Sanders in the US. You can see it in the rise of the Icelandic Pirate Party, you can even see it in the rising opposition to Fracking, to TTIP and the incredible uprising of solidarity for the refugees as people across Europe reject the lies and racism of the media and the political right.
One year on the fear and panic that set amongst the ruling elite endures and the subaltern movement of Yes is still here – sometimes confused and regrouping – but still here. It’s here in everyday speech, it’s here in the network of thriving Women for Indy meetings, it’s here in the still rising expression of cultural self-confidence, it’s here in the growing anger about land and power, it’s here in the growing anger when yesterday tax credits, money that helps the working poor to make ends meet, were cut by £750 per year and in the consciousness that grows out of the Tories Trade Union Bill, it’s here in people’s ability to cut through the media crap and make sense of the world and it’s here in young people’s expectations for a better future.
The era of managed decline and terminally low expectations, carefully nurtured by the political class is over.
For the first time in decades, a socialist is at the head of one of Britain’s two main parties. For the first time in decades people are bypassing their own governments and demanding shelter and support for displaced people across Europe. For the first time (ever) the vast vast majority of our representatives in Westminster are SNP and next year we can expect a huge majority in Holyrood demanding independence. This isn’t a betrayal of human progress it’s a growing consciousness of routes away from a failed state and a broken system.