EVERYONE has their favourite anecdotes about the 2014 independence referendum.
How people were queuing up to vote at 7am; pensioners turning out to vote for the first time in their lives; people discussing the finer points of monetary policy at bus stops. It wasn’t just journalistic hyperbole either. The country was alive with politics.
But what in the end did it all mean; what really changed? It is a question many are still asking. The referendum was, as we all know, a transformative event, a turning point, a watershed. David Greig, the playwright, said that it was “more like the summer of love than a normal political campaign”. And he was right, it was a little like that. Even the weather was good.
But was it as evanescent as the summer of love? Had Scots all taken mind-altering messages and given up thinking straight? All those public meetings; the wish trees; the Yestivals. Unionists insist that it was an emotional spasm, a kind of Nationalist psychodrama during which Scottish voters temporarily took leave of their senses.
This is now becoming a kind of establishment view. The Liberal Democrat MP Charles Kennedy says the referendum experience was “slightly spooky”. Unionist academics talk about it as if it was a relatively peaceful mob running amok.
But those who dismiss it all should remember that the summer of love in 1967 was also a tranformative moment which led to profound changes in the social and political landscape. The old order of deference, uniformity, convention was swept away by a colourful tide of positivity and sometimes wacky togetherness. Something like that happened in Scotland in September. Conventional Unionism was finally swept away in an unprecedented festival of political engagement, though the drug was political solidarity rather than LSD.
There was an unprecedented 97% voter registration, bringing the dispossessed into electoral politics for the first time. Some 85% turned out to vote – the highest proportion in the history of universal suffrage; 1.6 million people defied the warnings of the media, politicians and the financial establishment and voted for independence. Journalists don’t need to embellish these kinds of numbers.
Of course, the Union was saved in the end. The 45% weren’t numerous enough to win independence, but they gave the establishment a hell of a shock. September 18 was the moment, I believe, when Scotland became, psychologically if not constitutionally, an independent country. The growth of the Nationalist movement since then confirms that things will never be the same again.
The losers in the referendum somehow became the winners – much to the fury of Westminster politicians who have spent most of the past three months trying to persuade the Yes camp that it lost and that it is “time to move on” even as the SNP have more than tripled their membership.
During the referendum campaign, Better Together had played very much to the transformative script with its scolding, establishment tones; its threats of economic and political isolation. The No campaign was almost a parody of a complacent, out-of-touch, ancien regime. A dry-as-dust coalition of bankers, Conservatives and right-wing Labour politicians which had about as much colour as an income tax return.
Westminster politicians like David Cameron grudgingly accepted that Scotland could become an independent country, but made clear they wouldn’t lift a finger to help it if it did. Indeed, Chancellor George Osborne said that the rUK would reject a continuing currency union without even discussing it. Ed Miliband said he would put in Labour’s UK manifesto that Scotland would never, ever be allowed to use the pound.
The press presented independence as oil-fuelled economic madness which would destroy pensions, jobs, mortgages and could even spark a new Great Depression. The coverage was so intemperate and one-sided that many voters simply stopped believing what they read. This hyper-negativity was counterproductive. The proposition that there might be something positive and even progressive about remaining in the UK was largely lost in the attempt to monster nationalism.
So it is hardly surprising that there were few celebrations at the Unionist victory because there was little to celebrate. It was a grumpy, negative No from people – especially older people – who refused to be moved either by Unionists or Nationalists, and who voted No because they suspected that independence would be chaotic. You don’t celebrate not stepping off a cliff edge.
BUT it was a desperately close shave for the Union. After tail-ending for two years, the Yes campaign sprinted to the finish. On the eve of the vote, Professor John Curtice’s poll of polls had Yes at 48 to 52. This suggests that the Gordon Brown-inspired “vow” on more powers, 48 hours before polls opened, allied to headlines about economic apocalypse, played a decisive role in halting the Yes momentum, securing the final 45% to 55%.
What we do know is that most No voters were middle-class homeowners and tended to be older. The over-65s voted No by more than 70%. It seems also that women were more sceptical about the merits of independence than men. The No voters were generally suspicious of Alex Salmond and felt that the Yes movement was altogether too flaky, green and revolutionary.
Interestingly, the polls also indicate that, by polling day, even most No voters had come round to the Yes campaign’s argument for a currency union and thought it was the most likely outcome after the referendum. But many Scots also thought: why chance it? The rUK obviously had the power to wreck an independent Scottish economy if they really wanted to, and the way Unionists like Osborne talked, they did want to.
The remarkable thing, when all is said and done, is that so many people voted for independence despite the obvious threat to their economic wellbeing. But politics is always about morality as much as money and the Yes campaign effectively colonised the moral and emotional high ground. It did so without resorting to the usual emotional appeals of Nationalism. The emphasis was almost entirely on social issues – foodbanks, benefit cuts, NHS privatisation – rather than identity. It was the financial and political establishment who were presented as the enemy, not the English.
Flag-waving and overt expressions of Nationalist sentiment were avoided. Yes Scotland, the official independence campaign, didn’t even hold any rallies for fear that it would be accused of staging Nuremberg-style gatherings. The protest demonstrations outside the BBC were not authorised by the Yes campaign, and nor were the Hope Over Fear demonstrations in George Square led by Tommy Sheridan’s Solidarity campaign.
Many in the independence movement felt frustrated at the lack of street activity. Why did Yes reject the celebration of Scottish identity, appeals to patriotism and overt demonstrations of social solidarity? Where were the Barcelona-style million-person marches? The former SNP leader, Gordon Wilson, said that the Yes campaign hadn’t been negative enough and should have whipped up more righteous anger at England and the “cancer” of London. The Greens and the socialists wanted Yes to say “up yours” to the Bank of England and for Scotland to set up its own currency.
But looking back, I think positivity remains one of Yes’s great advantages. It turned a campaign for national independence, which usually implies ethnic division, into a campaign for a better society, which is inclusive, ethnically and culturally. It was almost entirely peaceful too. Not a pane of glass was damaged, not a single punch thrown. The only missile was a solitary egg thrown at the Labour MP Jim Murphy during his 100-town tour. The press covered it as if it were a sucking chest wound, but one egg doesn’t make an Easter Rising.
The largely benign character of the Yes campaign allowed a lot of non-Nationalists and significant numbers of non-ethnic Scots to feel ownership of it. A whole array of left-wing groups overcame their traditional hostility to the SNP and Nationalism. “I’m not a Nationalist, but … ” became the catchphrase of the referendum.
I’m still coming across people who I never thought would have voted Yes – including my own brother-in-law and his partner, who never had any time for Alex Salmond and the SNP and always argued for socialist internationalism. The Yes campaign managed to turn Nationalism into a kind of small-nation internationalism, a people’s nationalism which challenged the pervasive power of international capital, as represented by the Better Together coalition of big business and the big state.
What I kept hearing also was that it was the movement as much as the message that persuaded non-Nationalists to vote Yes. The inspirational engagement of working-class people in Glasgow housing estates defied the conventional wisdom that “ordinary people” aren’t interested in politics and don’t understand issues like currency and constitutions.
There has always been a groundswell of patriotic Scottishness among working-class voters, which has historically been held in check by Orangeism and latterly Labourism. In speeches during his last-minute “Midlothian campaign”, Gordon Brown revived the traditional Labour argument that Nationalism is divisive and that the interests of the working class lie in solidarity across borders in the “pooling and sharing Union”.
But while his belated intervention may have stemmed the tide, it didn’t reverse it. The kind of solidarity working-class voters were offered by Better Together was solidarity with George Osborne, the Royal Bank of Scotland and all the other big businesses which threatened to leave if Scotland voted Yes. This was profoundly objectionable to many and turned disillusion with the Labour Party into rejection of it in key constituencies.
The near-death experience for the Union nearly killed the Scottish Labour party stone dead. Only weeks after victory, the Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont, resigned claiming that Scottish Labour was merely a “branch office” under London domination and that Westminster MPs were “dinosaurs”. It was what SNP politicians had been saying for years, of course, but coming from the Scottish Labour leader there were few more damaging things that could have been said about the party.
Her howl of anguish was partly personal. Lamont was a relatively weak leader who felt she had not been taken seriously by the Labour establishment, and in truth wasn’t. But it was also a lament, if you’ll excuse the pun, for the collapse of Labour support in the key constituencies of Glasgow, Dundee and North Renfrewshire.
The SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon exploited Labour’s distress by setting off on what looked like a victory tour, addressing crowds of up to 12,000. Even the Radical Independence Campaign, an alliance of left-wing groups and Greens, managed to attract 3000 people to its conference in Glasgow’s Clyde Auditorium. People began to wonder if Labour’s time as the “national party of Scotland” was now over.
The new Scottish Labour leader, Jim Murphy, has tried to paper over the cracks in its electoral base by rhetorical appeals to patriotism and Old Labour values. He has sought to reinvent himself and the Scottish Labour Party as a party of home-rule social democracy. This is on the right track, clearly. Alex Salmond stole Labour’s clothes during the Blair era, and Murphy is trying to steal them back, even though as a former Blairite moderniser himself, they don’t fit him very well.
But he has a formidably difficult task securing, as Murphy has promised, all of the 41 seats Labour won in 2010. By December, under their new leader Sturgeon, the SNP were fully 20 points ahead of Labour in voting intentions for the next General Election. There could be 20 or 30 Nationalist MPs sitting in the House of Commons in May, and one of them will almost certainly be former SNP leader Alex Salmond.
As Salmond heads for Westminster, wearing the mantle of the Irish home ruler Charles Stewart Parnell, there is talk of a UK coalition and the possibility of a new referendum. The recent opinion polls suggest that if there were an early referendum, the Nationalists would probably win. But I suggest Nicola Sturgeon will be very cautious about trying to hold one in the near future.
Many Scots would feel that the SNP had betrayed their own promise not to subject Scotland to a “neverendum”. And anyway, the Nationalists do not need another risky referendum. They need only to consolidate their command of the Scottish Parliament, reveal the Smith Commission income tax reforms to be partial and contradictory, and then prepare the ground for further concessions to self-government.
English Votes for English Laws will further weaken the sinews of Unionism, but reducing Scottish influence in Westminster. After this extraordinary year, Scottish independence now seems only a matter of time.