Scotland stands on the edge of history. 4.2 million of us, the largest registered electorate in Scottish history, are weighing up the arguments, considering the implications, calibrating the risks.
There has never been a political debate like this in my lifetime and I’ve been covering politics in Westminster and Scotland professionally since 1979. The UK financial and political establishment has already been rocked to its foundations. A 22-point opinion poll lead evaporated and the referendum is now too close to call.
Last week, we saw an exercise in constitutional panic as UK party leaders, past and present, stumbled blinking across Scotland, making improbable promises of federalism and protestations of undying love, while behind the scenes the UK Treasury tried to engineer a state of financial crisis. Number 10 rounded up supermarket bosses and tried to get them to spread forecasts of inevitable price rises in the shops. UK civil servants briefed the press on RBS’s relocation before the bank’s board had even made the decision to go public.
The UK media descended on Scotland as if upon a foreign country and demonstrated its ignorance of a mature debate that has been going on in Scotland, not just for the past three years but the past three decades.
The BBC managed to shoot itself in both feet. It over-hyped the “more powers” that were being offered by the former prime minister Gordon Brown in his road map. Then, the BBC’s Nick Robinson told the 10 O’Clock News on Thursday that the First Minister had refused to answer his question on the banks, unaware that fully 100,000 people on the internet had already watched a viral video of Salmond doing exactly that, to apparent applause from the international press corps.The level of ignorance about Scotland in the metropolitan media was a revelation, even to me. I spent much of last week appearing on UK BBC radio and TV programmes, repeatedly being told by interviewers that “11,000 jobs RBS jobs were to leave Scotland” when the banks themselves had said there were no implications for jobs.
Numerous outlets reported that Lloyds was to leave Scotland, even though it has been based in London for decades; that BP was going to reconsider its investments, as if an international oil company was going to opt out of the current boom in the North Sea. Of course, large firms moving their registered offices is news. But so many of the stories, such as Sir Ian Wood’s gloomy oil forecasts and Standard Life’s threat to move head office functions, were old news in Scotland. There may be tax implications of bank departures, perhaps even some job losses at the top. But the brass plaque transplant could also be positive.
Not having RBS and Lloyds on the books relieves an independent Scotland of much of the responsibility to bail them out in the next financial crash. Since one of the main indy scares has been that Scotland would be like Ireland in 2008, and likely to drown under the debts of its delinquent banks, you might have thought this at least worth a mention.
The press recycled alarmist stories about “mob politics”, “fear and loathing”, and “savage racism” – even in sober journals like The Spectator magazine which is edited by a Scot. Yet, this campaign has been one of the most peaceable independence movements in history. So far, not a shop window has been smashed, not a punch thrown. The only missile hurled has been one solitary egg, thrown at Labour’s Jim Murphy’s shirt, which he paraded around for days as if it were a sucking chest wound. The secret weapon of the Yes campaign has been its discipline. Those journalists writing of mobs seem to have forgotten what real mobs are like – the poll tax riots, the anti-capitalist demonstrations in London, the student fees takeover of Parliament Square, the miners’ strike.
Laced through these accounts of mob behaviour were dark hints that the ugly face of nationalism and racial hatred was appearing. Better Together’s George Galloway tried to evoke images of fascism at the debate at Glasgow’s Hydro before 6000 young voters, and was righteously booed for his efforts. Who now says that these intelligent 16 and 17-year-olds are too young to vote?
The UK state threw everything it had at the referendum campaign last week – “shock and awe” it was called – but if anything the Yes vote grew stronger. Friday’s ICM poll showing another surge of support for independence was conducted on the very days that David Cameron was pleading with Scots not to give the “effing Tories a kicking”.
The front page of every paper last week and every news bulletin, was leading with stories about the banks leaving, food prices rising, Scottish stocks falling. Yet somehow, the Scottish voters – around half of them it seems – have already discounted the scare. The Daily Record’s front page on Saturday, quoting Deutsche Bank’s claim that independence could “spark the next Great Depression”, took Project Fear to another level.
So, why isn’t it working? Why have so many Scots refused to heed the warnings of press, politicians and banks? This has been a truly bottom-up movement, that rose from obscurity in drafty halls and internet chatrooms; ignored by the establishment and ridiculed by the press; dismissed by polling gurus like Nate Silver who said a Yes was “almost inconceivable”.
It has been mediated through new-fangled social media and old-fashioned word of mouth. The internet has given anyone with a computer the ability to correlate, often in real time, what they are being told is going on with what is really going on. This may be the first election in which the mainstream media ceased to be the mainstream.
Perhaps the atmosphere before the 1945 Labour election landslide was similar to this. That was the last time that ordinary people in this country took charge of the political process by the scruff of the neck and demanded radical change. Certainly, 1997, the year of the Labour landslide and the devolution referendum, was a non-event by comparison. There was none of the optimism, engagement, cultural and political – the fun. The Scottish people have entered history, not to pick a fight with England, but to have a party.
Yet, if Scots take the momentous step of voting Yes on Thursday, the shockwave will be felt across the world. In Europe, governments will look at regional movements like Catalonia in a new light. America will watch in amazement as the old country disintegrates, concerned about the strategic implications for Nato of Trident moving elsewhere. In England, social democrats, who have felt excluded from British politics for that last 30 years of neoliberal economic hegemony, will gain renewed hope that it is possible for people to challenge the political and economic establishment.
No-one will be able repeat the old lie that voting never changed anything. Scotland has moved toward self-government over 25 years, not by taking to the streets but by using the ballot box peacefully, incrementally, tactically. First, it eliminated Tory MPs in 1997; then it voted by a margin of three to one to establish a parliament with tax raising powers; and then, appalled by the poor quality of Labour administration, Scottish voters handed a landslide majority to the SNP in 2011, ensuring that this referendum, the most pregnant constitutional moment in 300 years, will take place.
I am still of the view Scots could have been satisfied by federalism. It’s what the vast majority of Scots have said they want. But David Cameron made it a condition of the UK signing the Edinburgh Agreement in 2012 that there would be a binary referendum splitting the Scottish consensus into boxes labelled independence or the status quo. Even then, most Scots were still minded to vote No. So what happened?
Well, in a nutshell, George Osborne happened. The shock announcement in February that Westminster would rule out any currency union after independence – not even think about it, not even discuss it – was a key moment in the disintegration of the old Union. That was the moment many Scots realised that the Union they thought was a partnership of nations was not a partnership at all. London was claiming exclusive rights to the common currency of the UK. It was as if the whole history of the Union had suddenly been rewritten as an afterthought to the British imperialism.
I never say how I will vote in elections. It is not my role as a journalists to tell people how to vote or promote the interests of any particular party. The only party I’ve ever been involved with is Labour and that was an eternity ago. But this isn’t an election; it is a referendum on the future of the country I live in, and I will be voting Yes.