Forget about 2014
I remember waking up to a hangover that was worse than Cordoba. We had stayed with our closest friends in Glasgow and had stayed up most of the night. We all walked about the next day in stunned silence. Our country had voted for dependence.
The seventh anniversary of the independence referendum has triggered a rash of memories and remembrance. There’s no surprise as this was for many many people the most remarkable political experience of their entire lives, a unique moment when millions were mobilised and inspired like they never had been before. Arriving in Glasgow just before the referendum felt like arriving in the closest to a revolutionary situation we’d ever created. The atmosphere was intense. The 2014 referendum was defined not by the official Yes campaign, not by the political parties but by the people. The defining characteristic of the campaign was self-organisation and mass participation. It re-created the ‘town hall’ meeting and face-to-face public debate and gave voice to a multitude of people who were previously disenfranchised. If the movement was derided by some for being ‘idealistic’ I firmly believe that was (and is) one of its greatest qualities. Having said all of this there’s very good reasons why the Yes movement should forget about 2014.
Nostalgia about how great 2014 won’t help us win next time. Fight the campaign of today not the campaign of yesterday. The political landscape, the figures and personalities of 2014 have all gone. Scotland and Britain are very different places in 2021:
- In 2014 the Better Together campaign attempted to put across the idea that Britain was a progressive, multi-cultural project, it was all Mo Farah and “Remember the Olympics opening ceremony”? Now the idea of presenting Britain as a progressive force is just laughable. The ‘hostile environment’, the reality of Priti Patel as Home Secretary and the racist Prime Minister mean that’s just not feasible.
- In 2014 supporters of Scottish independence were presented – and vilified – as “separatists” – Post-Brexit that’s no longer credible. England has led an embarrassing retreat from the world. The idea that a new contemporary Scottish democracy would be ‘parochial’ no longer has any potency. Scotland would be, like Ireland just now, be bypassing rUK to re-engage with the world.
- In 2014 the Better Together campaign relentlessly presented Britain as a rock of stability. “Why move house in a storm?” played on peoples fear of change and instability. Now with the supply chain teetering on the brink of collapse that claim looks pitiful. Project Fear 2 will have to navigate through this reality, and a general public weary and wary of unionist scare tactics.
- In 2014 Unionist politicians played on the idea of Britain being a powerful and respected entity in world affairs with influence and reach. After the fall of Kabul and the self-inflicted shambles of Brexit the idea of Britain being a respected and powerful force holds no credibility.
- Our place in Europe was said to be guaranteed by voting No – according to Ruth Davidson and Blair MacDougall – now people know that to be the opposite of the truth. That betrayal won’t be forgotten, nor will the economic fallout from the Brexit debacle.
- The leadership of Jim Murphy and Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie has been replaced by the leadership of Anas Sarwar and Douglas Ross and Alex-Cole Hamilton. Whatever you thought of Murphy and Davidson and Rennie, there’s no doubt that their replacements have even less standing and even less credibility. That’s going some. While Cameron was a discredited and reviled figure, seen as entitlement personified, he is nothing next to the ratings for the current Prime Minister. Gordon Brown is the ever-present of the unionist campaign, but even his elevated status has diminishing returns as the folk-memory of a viable Labour alternative fades into the rear-view mirror of history.
- The demographics of independence are overwhelmingly with the young. For those who voted Yes in 2014 in their droves they have been abandoned by the British State ever since. The new cohort that were too young seven years ago are only voting one way. We desperately need to make space and new spaces for the voice of the young.
- The climate crisis didn’t have the prominence in 2014 it does now. This is the defining existential issue of our time and it has created a completely new dynamic in the debate about Scotland’s future. In this dynamic elements of the old guard of the Yes movement have little relevance.
- The realities of the pandemic are not, as some have contrived, something that we are passed or over. How we recover, how we reconstruct society – and who has the most compelling case – are the defining features of the next referendum.
- The Unionist case is in tatters, they are leaderless and reduced to an embarrassing effort to deny democracy. They are more desperate than they have ever been.
Added to this the perfect storm is coming of “a very difficult winter” – a spike in fuel bills and food prices, the Universal Credit cut, and talk of a three day week. Johnson is presiding over a shambles.
All of this is like one giant open-goal. The independence case has been hampered by SNP over-caution, lack of strategy and direction. The sterlingisation policy is a farce and the inability to ratchet up pressure on the British Government is inexcusable. The inability to advance a national energy company, the failure to create institutions and structures that could create a momentum towards independence is a huge loss.
Now, the Yes movement, more united than it has ever been is returning. After years of being in a defensive mode we must now be in development and a flourishing mode. We should use the moment of trying to recover from the pandemic as a springboard to envisage a new Scotland as the post-war era saw the creation of the NHS, we should see this time as momentous as it is, a moment for big change and transformation. To do this we need to forget about 2014 and fight the campaign ahead of us. Nostalgia pulls hard on the heart particularly when the romance of creating a Scottish democracy is at play. But we now need hard-heads not tinfoil ones, to build new strategies and speak OUT to the electorate and wider society not IN to the movement and each other.
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