So that was that. 18 months after the date of the referendum on Scottish independence was announced, the vote happened and the answer was ‘No’. The result was closer than most would have expected back then; wider than most probably expected in the final month. The emotion and rhetoric ramped up in the final run-up to the vote, culminating in a massive Yes rally in George Square. No-one could possibly argue that this rally wasn’t well-intentioned and good-natured (especially when compared to what came later, which I’ll come back to) but it inadvertently highlighted a big part of the problem with the general pro-independence movement. Its considerable denial that nationalism was playing any part in their movement meant that they couldn’t understand what was happening outside the bubble; its conviction that all progressive thought and moral righteousness was with them was alienating to anyone who hadn’t drank the Kool-Aid. The movement cemented into a self-defeating narrative of the enlightened (who were able to pierce through the bias and scaremongering of the mass media, ‘Westminster’ and ‘establishment’) versus the scared and huddled masses who were blinded by all of the lies. Critical thought was replaced by grasping onto anything and anyone who supported a pro-independence stance and dismissing everything which didn’t as part of some wicked conspiracy. This absolute, passionate certainty made itself known very vocally and, I think, was largely to blame for the incredibly different experiences of the campaign reported by Yes and No voters.
The thing is, I don’t think most engaged people would deny that the media isn’t ‘objective’ and has an inbuilt bias towards the status quo. Greater minds than mine have already tackled this. The answer to this, I think, is to cultivate a critical approach which enables you to consider everything you read/see and why/how it is being presented. This allows you to understand and form arguments which don’t rest on any single source and, crucially, make the argument to others in your own way. It’s not to repeatedly assert that the media is biased while continually posting columns and articles from this media which support your point of view – that’s completely nonsensical. It’s definitely not to vocally make the argument that most people are being fooled while you can see ‘the truth’, leading only to the misguided notion that the people you should be convincing are idiots.
While it was undeniably the case that many of us got carried away in the heat of the campaign’s final days, it’s to be hoped that the aftermath will let everyone step back and take stock. It’s already clear, however, that at least a sizable minority of the independence campaign remains firmly in the grim of an almost pathological certainty that their cause is the only ‘good’ and ‘true’ one. In the space of a few days we’ve gone from rhetoric centred on the ‘sovereign will’ of the Scottish people and the ‘democratic carnival’ of the referendum campaign to a wounded, embattled pride that the vote was stolen by ‘fear’ and Yes voters are the forces of light. Jim Sillars has thrown his toys out of the pram quite spectacularly, throwing around allegations of fraud and insisting that pro-independence forces dispense with a referendum strategy completely. Many, led by the vile Wings Over Scotland, have been directing deeply unpleasant rage at Scotland’s over-65 year olds, who voted overwhelmingly against independence compared to 16-17 year olds who voted for it. Even on its own psychotic terms (any consideration that your vote at 65+ is going to be influenced by radically different factors than if you are a teenager is entirely absent) this makes no sense – a majority of 18-24 year olds voted against independence while the disparities in support from those aged 35-54 are hardly significant. Astonishingly, much of this has been fanned by the First Minister himself today.
(23rd September edit – @urbaneprofessor has pointed me towards this Yougov poll of the referendum voting, which is far more statistically significant than the Ashcroft one. It pretty much blows a hole in most of the above lines– No won all age groups other than 25-39 and the ‘rich people were No, poor people were Yes’ claim clearly isn’t nearly as neat. Also, if you look at a majority of people born outside Scotland voting No, with those born elsewhere in the UK doing so decisively, you quickly see how sinister the rhetoric about No voters could get.)
So far, then, there has been no significant attempt to take stock by pro-independence forces. In fact, there have been concerted attempts to make sure this doesn’t happen, with lots of talk of ‘keeping the momentum’ and ‘building the movement’. There can be no question of doubt creeping in. This statement by National Collective is fairly typical: they lost because of “the full might of the British state, corporate and media power, that was designed to demonise, smear and alienate”. There are the usual mentions of ‘hope’ and ‘fear’, complaints about ‘scaremongering’ and statements that the Yes campaign wanted “to make people think”. There is not an inkling of self-criticism. They write of pensioners being ‘lied to’ about the affordability of their pensions as if the alternative view is self-evidently correct – but it’s not. They would have had to make the case beyond ‘it’ll be fine’ and ‘it’s scaremongering’, which was the response to far too many of the concerns raised. This isn’t to argue that an independent Scotland couldn’t afford pensions but that the claims of scaremongering and ‘fear’ largely replaced actual argument. ‘Fear’ is clearly in the eye of the beholder anyway – once the SNP decided on its ‘vote Yes or the NHS is doomed’ line, the entire Yes campaign swung behind it without criticism. Anyone who’s looked at National Collective’s Twitter over the past few weeks would have seen plenty of ‘scaremongering’ that a post-No Scotland would be a dystopian hellhole. Their complaint is not so much that people were scared but that people weren’t scared into the right result. It’s risible and embarrassing.
It’s important to reiterate at this point that this does definitely seem to be a minority response. This blog from Peter Matthews, who voted Yes, is a masterclass in a reasoned, thoughtful response and I’ve had some great discussions with people who were vociferously Yes. Yet the reason the minority response made me want to write something is in the indications that it wants to make itself a dominant force in Scottish politics. That indication is in the movement christened ‘We Are The 45%‘. On the morning of the referendum I wrote that I feared a Yes vote would send Scotland down a cul de sac of self-delusion and this is exactly the kind of thing I meant. It underlines how divisive this has been, and how accurate the predictions of the debate eliding class solidarity were, that we have thousands of people engaging in hyperbole essentially resting on the idea that they are the ‘goodies’ and the people who voted No are the ‘baddies’. Someone who voted Yes because they hoped that an independent Scotland would tackle a ‘something for nothing culture’ (Tory language if ever there was) took me to task for criticising this movement, highlighting how utterly bizarre things have become. The denied nationalism remains denied but is more overt than ever, with the movement’s central conviction being that independence is the only path to social justice and many pleas to ‘make Scotland yellow’ by voting for the SNP en masse in 2015, albeit with a smaller benefit for the Green Party also. Indeed, the ‘it’s not about the SNP’ arguments have swiftly fallen apart with a movement utterly unable and/or unwilling to critique them in any way, despite them never once (for example) coming out against the TTIP or explaining how they would avoid austerity (especially as a new member of the EU). We Are The 45% is more of this ‘things will get better because independence’ magical thinking. Apparently there are suggestions that it may change its name to be more ‘inclusive’ but I don’t see how a movement premised on ‘independence will lead to social justice, No voters were scared and tricked’ can ever reach beyond its bubble. It’s the Yes campaign making the same errors and being too wrapped up in sentiment to question it. There are already movements for social justice across the UK which we could all pour our energies into.
The awful events in George Square on Friday night were a gift for this bruised pride in being the ‘good minority’. I wrote about the likelihood of sectarian violence kicking off in Glasgow on Twitter last May, after spending a couple of hours walking around its East End and seeing countless union jacks and ‘no surrender’ slogans. I lived in Bridgeton, an area mired in sectarianism, for about five years and I was unsurprised to see allegations that the George Square trouble had its roots there. This problem has existed for my entire lifetime and these people were always going to make themselves heard, whether the result was Yes or No. Yet some, whether because of a desire to lash out or a lack of understanding of sectarianism, have attempted to portray these people as ‘what No voters wanted’ (actually written on Facebook) and an example of the British nationalism which independence would have magically made disappear. I can understand the temptation to make these arguments (and certainly when faced with polls like the Buzzfeed one above) but they’re entirely cynical and profoundly depressing if they offer a glimpse of the future. People can unite to tackle the horribly complex problem of sectarianism, as they can unite to tackle the horribly complex problems of poverty, misogyny, racism and more, or they can retreat into a conviction that it’s all the fault of those other people and that only getting independence will sort them. This will go absolutely nowhere. On the part of No supporters stepping back, we need to be wary of responding to Scottish nationalist sentiment by turning a blind eye to or inadvertently supporting British nationalism, whether that be the extreme kind we saw or the more insidious kind which boasts of ‘British values’ and the like. The goal must be social justice and solidarity, not the ‘United Kingdom’.
Clearly it’s still very early days and the chips are still falling. We have the greatest chance in our lifetimes so far of a massive devolving of power across the UK and we have to ensure it happens. I can understand and can’t complain about people fixating on the ‘timetable’ promised by Gordon Brown but, for my part, I’d actually rather the change was more considered. A constitutional convention looking at the entire state seems like the best option and the one most likely to deliver lasting, useful change. I think a cobbled-together ‘devo max’ delivered in the next 7 months or so will only lead to further issues. What’s now clear is that the majority of people in the UK want to continue pooling resources, sovereignty and effort and we need to make that work. More importantly, we need to tackle the regressive attitudes which most people in every region of the UK have about welfare, immigration, employment and the like and actually build a movement to try and make things better. It’s important that we realise that there are no politicians and no parties who will just ‘make things better’ – I just finished reading this book which is a sobering account of the range of forces which stood against radical left-wing change. The British state was such a force but I agree with Phil Burton-Cartledge here that this state is now weakened and is best tackled by unity; the might of the capitalist system, on the other hand, is even greater now. The author argues that any response must be as united and as international as possible to have any hope of success. God knows this will be difficult but I firmly believe it’s something we can only do together – a hefty part of the left in Scotland setting off on an endless quest for independence will only damage us. I hope we can progress from recrimination and bitterness to forge alliances anew – or even for the very first time.