The Day After a Year Ago
With the Clackmannan result in, I really needed to go. In the time it took to get to the door The Glad Café had become sad. Walking back to Glasgow’s Mount Florida, the Yes ‘bubble’ where Claire and I had encamped in the final week of the Referendum, we were unable to rouse our hostess, despite a steady flow of calls and texts. She had left the festivities with our special selection of Yessers earlier, saying she had to work the next day. When there was then no answer at the door there was nothing else but to crash in ‘Kirk’ the car. The downside of this decision was not only that sleeping in cars offers a constrained, thus limited relaxation quality, but the fact that ‘Kirk’ was parked round the corner, immediately opposite the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party’s Offices, bedecked in Better Together livery. This was not the night I had hoped for, that fantastic, but unexpected party remained but a mirage. Instead of one of the best nights of my life, I was peering through a condensation drenched windscreen onto blurred, but non-the-less prominent, No Thanks window posters.
It was certainly a triumph to reach 45%. In the space of two years of intense debate Yes went from being certain losers in the 30s to achieving 45% of the vote, a truly remarkable achievement, even more remarkable if you take a long-term view. When I think back to my university day’s independence had but fringe support amongst the general public.
But we lost, and things then moved fast. The next day driving up to Inverewe for a family event, Radio Scotland was on, not a channel I listen too much, and it was Call Kay, a lazy program I particularly dislike. Just after 10am the State broadcaster switches live to Kirkcaldy so the populous can hear the wise and conciliatory words of one, Gordon Brown. I can remember almost nothing about what he actually had to say, it was another ramble, but I do remember thinking he has got the tone a bit wrong, playing up his own role. The call in then resumed and I was heartened the first two callers reflected my views. A quite amazing woman then came on brilliantly mimicking the pompous Brown: “I’ve taken congratulatory calls from Bill Clinton and Kofi Annan”, get over yourself. As no other callers were stacked she continued to entertain right up to the 11 o’clock news. Scotland had indeed changed.
Then Alex Salmond resigned, in a most dignified way, and Nicola Sturgeon, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the Scotland’s Future White Paper and her capacity to properly engage with people, one of the stand out features of Indyref, took up reins of the SNP. If there was ever a model example of succession planning this was it. This shift provided an opportunity for the SNP to capture the entire Yes vote, sweeping all before its electoral path at the General Election and leaving just three political stumps as a helpful, if caricatured reminder of our political past. But that whirlwind of electioneering left no real space to ask the question, why did Yes lose? So why did we lose, and what implications can we draw for this in moving forward, especially given another Referendum will almost certainly be required to finally secure independence. So one year on and with some fore shortening offering the benefit of hindsight here are my thoughts.
Much was made of Clinton’s old political adage “its economics stupid” and that certainly played out. But remember this was because the neo-liberal lexicon has so claustrophobically narrowed the political narrative right across the world. Big international business concerns bolstered by their City and banker partners controlled and congested this space. This was anticipated, but could Yes really have done anything to limit or challenge this? Their threats to pull out, price up and mess us all about, may well have contributed more votes to Yes, than convince others to vote No. And Business for Scotland proved quite a surprise and revelation, in its professionalism, making financial and business matters accessible, thus offering a good counter weight to corporate self-interest. The cooperative and community enterprises voice was perhaps quieter than expected, for as charities the UK government made it clear they needed to shut up, but again perhaps not delivering the outcome they envisaged.
Fiscal matters, and core within that being the potential hydrocarbon wealth and its subsequent taxation, was also well up there – so wealth and taxes. Lots of discussion was offered up on oil, and its potential wealth and fiscal capacity, which also rightly troubled the environmental lobby. Less was provided in fleshing out what sort of fiscal regime we would need to ensure a humane civil society. But that was an “its politics stupid” moment, the desire to offer something to the poor, while not scaring rich. Being told by a six-year-old pupil of a private school, that Yes was just for the poor people illustrated some clearly understood that point.
And then there was the currency. The Yes side knew they had to offer the apparent security of a currency union, otherwise their support would crumble; the No side realised this was a key weakness and they should attack it. Hence Osborne’s full frontal, but again the question is whether this was as big a problem? Yes support rose significantly following his Edinburgh speech. Would offering the other options have helped here, illustrating differing views, or was the strategy pursued of sticking to your plan, stating political realities following independence would simply resolve this the correct approach?
As well as currency and businesses defecting south there were two other fear factors, pensions and tax, all carefully managed from within the Treasury, the core UK government department. And if the current narrative is to be believed Yes lost because too many older and wealthier people – the two are not the same – with lots of (unearned) assets, denominated in Sterling, whether in pensions and/or property were scared, and a good few were also that bit selfish. The RIC’s slogan ‘Britain is for the rich, Scotland can be ours’ did not offer this cohort much comfort.
Then playing a strong second fiddle came the media. Through a combination of both ignorance and design they opted to play it as an SNP gig. So it was not the Yes and No show, but a variant of Question Time. No space then for those who did not have a party political label. The media fed us all an endless stream of UK government manufactured and endorsed propaganda, of highly variable quality, scare stories that were designed to engage core cohorts critical to the NO camp. Such a fear-inducing media spectacle made it a real challenge to present an alternative political system as being plausible, but then we did. And again while such negativity had its successes, the sheer crass clumsiness of approach again greatly added much to Yes credibility and support.
The media also relied heavily on lazy constructions of nationality and populist romanticism about the Union. What was also revealed throughout the campaign was just how limited, hollowed out and dated these British identifiers actually were – the NHS, a range of BBC programmes, a shared history of Empire and conflicts, and it’s now depleted military remnants. Britain was revealed to be no longer what it once was, another consequence of its wholehearted embracing of neo-liberalism. Hankering back to some foreign field, in some foreign land was no doubt aided by the trench-to-trench jingoistic World War One commemorations. Bannockburn, not surprisingly got a collective swerve from both No and Yes, but for quite different reasons.
While the media was an issue, without its focus would the alternative, diverse, creative, passionate and clever grassroots Indymedia ever have got of the ground? Undoubtedly this had its limitations, in that it appealed to a demographic well used to accessing information via Twitter and Facebook. The older demographic, perhaps concerned by currency, tax and pensions, did not fully engage with social media, still relying on papers and the Beeb. And yes this does raise the idea of those ‘in the bubble’ being blind. But that assumes it was the lack of exposure to the alternative views that made them vote No, rather than the fear of uncertainty and change. They saw a risk that others, for a variety of diverse and different reasons, were happy to take. And yes perhaps this was a group whose concerns were missed by Yes and a group whose identification was more strongly British.
National identity discourses also presented a political hot potato, but as such demand careful consideration, rather than an embarrassed ignoral. If you identified as being Scottish, rather than British, you were far more likely to vote Yes, and with seeing yourself as British, No. But although statistically very significant, it was not dominant and that’s in part because of changing civics in Scotland. Identity does not cut as easily as it once did, and such simplistic polarisation leaves to many people out. Those born in England were a major group here, who while supporting progressive change found the identity framing of the Yes rhetoric challenging. Further, despite serious attempts to engage with Polish, Lithuanian, Estonians, too many other nationals felt insecure about their rights if Scotland was not allowed to continue membership of EU. In canvassing in Garnethill in Glasgow the Chinese community felt similarly about the potential loss of Britishness, although this was not so evident amongst Pakistani’s. Again risk factors were weighed up and considered differently.
Ironically then, as support for independence continues to grow, identifying as Scottish is now in decline. Indyref was a celebration of civic nationalism, and a proper challenge to the ‘blood and soil’ variety the media and certain Unionist politicians tried desperately to pin on it. But British and Scottish ‘blood and soil’ was there, or there abouts, and although both challenging and complex it needs careful discussing and debating. That said, I would not perhaps advocate a George Square approach to this topic, one of the saddest events of the Referendum, along with Lord’s Jack McConnell and George Robertson curious and threatening prediction of such events.
The core contribution of women to the body politic, while fully fore grounded within the White Paper, took time to gain traction, this eventually being achieved via childcare and its implications for considerable labour market engagement, a fitting legacy to the work and tenacity of Ailsa McKay. But that narrow frame was quite clearly inadequate, so the space here was emphatically filled by a strong feminist voice, Women for Independence, another stand out grassroots political grouping. The Patronising Lady ad campaign proved to be another gift from Better Together, an organisation which throughout the campaign just kept giving, and in this case offered up one of the creative highlights of 2014. Women for Independence went on this year to have the proposed new women’s prison comprehensively rejected, and no doubt Sturgeon’s enacting, not apologising, for gender inequality offers another indication of follow through policy.
Finally, in this review there has been some criticism of the SNP not helping matters by insisting its White Paper was the only true way, exuding other truths and some light. But that is churlish given there needed to be something solid and tangible in place to frame the debate and discussions. Whether anyone, apart from Salmond, Sturgeon and the Rev Stuart, read it through and knew it paragraph by paragraph is a quite different matter. It was a hard act to offer the vision of a new country, without providing an indicative programme, both of which were also designed not to scare away to many horses. So the “change everything, so nothing changes” mantra that produced, dispense with one Union, but reserve six others, stay in NATO, keep the Queen, pound and Dr Who. These issues were political judgements and this caused rightful frictions. And yes Alex could have done a bit more to celebrate the others who were walking along Independence Road with him. But seasoned politicians all found the Referendum a difficult call.
From this flowered Indyref, and although some of the policy ground was stony and unproductive, these proved but small patches. This is what surprised, no astonished me and just about everyone else on the Yes side. We became part of a far greater whole and we were not at all sure why this happened. As it transpired what actually occurred was a reawakening of authentic local democratic engagement, exercised through the slow emergence of a truly genuine social movement, Scotland’s own unique contribution to a wider worldwide trend.
There were also criticisms of Yes Scotland messaging being, on the whole bland, some thought arthritic, looking as if it was modelled on a banking or building society marketing strategy from better days. What was officially offered was felt not to reflect the grassroots movement, and largely failed to capture that vibe. But to my mind that was again no bad thing for it allowed a space for imagination, diversity and sheer creativity, from the likes of Greg Moodie’s strips, Lady Alba, the almost endless Patronising Lady spoofs, Matt Lygate’s Imperial Masters trolling extravaganza, to the real sheer raw emotion of Stanley Odd.
So on reflection, a full year on, Yes was never quite going to win. There were still to many uncertainties and perceived risks, over the likes of currency and fears about our economic survival. Had we had a few more months, we would still not have won. Not at this time, I am sure of that. The balance of risk will continually change, so the task now is to generate confidence in adopting and embracing a different approach. The SNP’s anti austerity agenda at the General Election is illustrative of this.
But what has been achieved is highly significant, and worthy of celebration. Independence is now firmly on the agenda as an absolutely serious option, and the unfairness of getting Tory governments and the inadequacy of the Labour opposition have been exposed. Remember the campaign revealed the amateurism and crassness of the British ruling political classes in stark, painful detail. So it will take a few more years of injustice, incompetence and arrogance for it to dawn on enough additional people that maybe the Yes camp was right, and the risk of going out on our own is now well worth taking. If the SNP picks its moment well, and politically they hold that card, it should be fine next time.
So it will require one more push. But not until the fatigue of last year’s campaign has fully worn off. And we had better get the moment just right because if Yes loses again the next time, independence will be off the agenda indefinitely. Much has been made of the impending Euro referendum offering just up such a trigger, but popular anger at both the cruel consequences of austerity dished out on the Greek people and the quite inhumane and inept response to the growing refugee crisis could well throw up a result that neither the UK nor Scotland was expecting. Corbyn is illustrative of how this can happen.
So now is the time to work through options and offer clarity about currency options, engage European partner supporters, offer up hard evidence about pensions and make a huge effort to move it away from speaking solely to ‘the Scottish people’, rather than to the people. We also need to stop fixating over a second referendum, for it will come when it comes. Rather we need to take fully on board the Alistair Gray mantra to “work like you are living in the first days of a new country”. And there is no shortage of work needing done, in areas such as land reform, housing, criminal justice, policing, arts policy, planning, food, health, poverty, mutual care, communal energy – the list goes on, but that is what governance is all about. Pat Kane, in an earlier Bella piece, called this a kind of Scottish autonomism, the Italian original of which he argues inspires much of Paul Mason’s book Post Capitalism, which has also had a fair bit of Bella coverage. So instead of fretting about a Referendum date start acting “as if” the desired conditions of Scottish independence now pertain, and if they don’t then you have got your work cut out. What Women for Independence, RICs and our Indymedia have done and are now working on doing, should be a template for other autonomies. The SNP, in government, has a core role here, but as facilitator not controller, so there is also a need for a new kind of civic pressures to bear down upon them. In this regard the rise of RISE, another Indy grassroots product, and the growth in a wider community-based polity are hopeful signs.
I have now lived through three Scottish Referendums. In the first I voted Yes, and we won, but thankfully we lost given the offer. In the second I voted Yes Yes, in a surprisingly dull, low-key campaign and although expecting a win, was quite taken by its actual scale. In the last one, a year ago yesterday, I voted Yes, we lost but in the long term we have won. So the next Referendum could conclude this piece of history, if we work though the risks so many saw in the past, and we not only take forward a more democratic and socially just society, but I get to have that party.
Thanks for the comments, ideas, suggestions and conversations held intermittently over the last year with Mark Stephens, Jen Stout, Jean Urquhart, Bill Dunlop, Miriam Brett, Iain Docherty, Pat Kane, Zara Kitson, Chris Cunningham, Craig McAngus and Alec Finlay.