The Dynamic Earth evolution exhibition opposite the Scottish parliament was not a very happy place to be a 6.00am on the morning of Friday 19th.. The venue of Yes Scotland’s “victory” party had presumably been chosen to suggest that a dynamic new independent Scotland was going to evolve to the next level. Instead Scotland decided to stick with where it was, half in and half out of the union.
What triumphed on Thursday a very traditional form of canny Scottish small-c conservatism that sees nothing wrong with accentuating the negative and scorns the excitable optimism of the “Polly Annas”, as the Yes campaign were called.
As the SNP politicians and Yes Scotland luminaries milled around waiting for Alex Salmond to deliver the speech they all knew he’d prepared but hoped he wouldn’t have to deliver, there was an air of resignation rather than bitter resentment. The chair of the Yes Campaign, Blair Jenkins, wrestled visibly with his emotions as he endured the torture of endless media interviews asking him how he felt about the result. How did they bloody well expect him to feel after devoting every waking hour to this campaign for two years. He gathered together some platitudes about the great campaign and the civic engagement.
No one realised at this stage that Alex Salmond was himself about to become the number one casualty of the referendum night. But there were already suggestions in his short speech accepting the democratic result for those with ears to hear. There was a sense of an era passing, though at that stage the expectation amongst most SNP activists was that he would wait until the next UK general election. But Salmond, always the man for a bold gesture, rightly calculated that if he was going to go, it was better he went now.
There was very little recrimination among the Yessers at the referendum result. No thumb-over-the-shoulder blaming of other people in the movement – at least not yet. This was largely because everyone is agreed, even on the unionist side, that the Yes campaign had been the better one – positive, cultural, high-minded and energetic. They deserve most of the credit for delivering the highest electoral turnout in modern Scottish electoral history – 85%.
Mind you as one guest remarked ruefully, they’d been a bit too damn good at generating voter engagement and had inadvertently motivated the “shy nos” as they are called, to troop to the polls – the silent majority who told the pollsters they didn’t know how they were going to vote, when they were planning to vote No. All the media attention focussed on the queues of eager yes voters outside the polling stations in the morning. The no came in later, without fanfare,
But what’s the point of an imaginative campaign if it doesn’t win? As Blair McDougall of the victorious Better Together had famously remarked, “you don’t win elections by sitting on bean bags reciting poetry”. The No campaign snorted at the wish trees, poster competitions and folk concerts. They ran a traditional professional political campaign, ruthlessly exploiting their support in the press and using the party machinery to get out the vote. They knew exactly how to appeal to the anxious underbelly of Scotland, who worry about where the money is going to come from if England takes away their pounds.
Some in the Yes campaign are claiming that they were denied the prize through dirty tricks by the Westminster establishment, which engineered a financial and economic panic to scare Scottish voters. This Great Scare was amplified by that other auld enemy of the nationalist left: the press and media. The Scottish press was undoubtedly partizan – sometimes hysterically so. Of all the newspapers, daily and sunday, published in Scotland, only the Sunday Herald backed a Yes vote. This undoubtedly unbalanced the campaign. Questions have rightly been asked about some of the intemperate coverage – not least by the Scottish Police Federation. “Any neutral observer” said the SPF’s Brian Docherty in his second intervention on press reports of ugliness, “could be led to believe Scotland is on the verge of societal disintegration, yet nothing could be further from the truth”.
However, the SNP has managed to win elections in the past in the face of media hostility, so that is not a satisfactory explanation for the defeat. Indeed, one of the Yes campaign’s great strengths was its ability to cut through the so-called mainstream media through deft use of social media and old fashioned street politics. The arguments were out there – it’s just that many Scots just failed to respond to them.
There is of course a long tradition in the nationalist movement of suspicion of English perfidy, and a belief founded on not a little experience that the London establishment is a devious and uncompromising opponent. The new offer of extended devolution – the Vow – has been rejected out of hand by many in the nationalist movement as a con, a bluff and a diversion. Certainly it isn’t looking as quite the coherent package of “near federalism” that was promised by Gordon Brown in his barnstorming speeches.
However, the search for conspiracy is in danger of obscuring one simple fact about the 2014 independence referendum: even though it lost, the Yes campaign achieved a very impressive result, even a sensational one. Six months ago, few commentators would have believed it if they’d been told that fully 45% of Scottish voters were going to vote for independence after an extraordinary campaign in which the turnout was 85%. For most of the past two years, the Yes campaign appeared headed for certain defeat in a campaign marked by public apathy, even incomprehension.
Many unionists had forecast a result of 70/30 in favour of the Union. And with cause. For most of the last thirty years, one of the abiding constants of Scottish politics has been that only around 30% of Scots consistently tell opinion polls that they wish formal independence for Scotland. The vast majority, over 60%, have always insisted that they wish to see a Scottish parliament with enhanced economic powers. And even then, few of the respondents had a very clear idea of what these powers should be. .
So to have persuaded 1.6 million Scots to vote for independence was a great achievement. The Yes campaign shook the UK political and financial establishment to its very foundations last week. It was a brilliant campaign, full of energy and intelligence and it has left an indelible mark on Scottish civil society. It took the United Kingdom to the verge of disintegration, a fate from which it was only saved by a desperate appeal from a humiliated Prime Minister, and the offer of a package of measures which amounts – surely – to a considerable advance in the powers of the Scottish parliament.
That is , if the package is ever actually delivered. Alex Salmond resigned yesterday from the party to which he devoted his life, because he believes that Westminster has already reneged on the timetable for the new devolution max. That places Scotland he said in a new place. It also meant that his personal commitment not to hold another referendum for a generation is an impediment to future negotiations with Westminster. With his departure, all bets are off. Perhaps we may see that Neverendum after all.