Scotland and Britain have changed: the ‘big bang’ of the indy ref and after

The Scottish independence referendum was only one part of a wider democratisation of public life. 

Gerry Hassan
21 September 2015
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Flickr/ Jordi Gabarró Llop. some rights reserved.One year ago Scotland went to the polls. An amazing 85% of us voted: 45% for independence and 55% against – both expressions of Scottish self-governance and a desire for a different Scotland.

Scotland did not vote for independence, but nor did it settle for the status quo of the existing union. Instead, it voted to continue in a kind of interregnum – a transition from something familiar to something still hazy with a destination as yet unknown.

This is a time of great upheaval and unpredictability here, in the UK and globally. The SNP May landslide, the Corbyn surge, the Greek crisis, the humanitarian disaster of Europe, and Chinese economic shudders. Yet; paradoxically, Scotland one year on seems to be sitting waiting for the next big thing to turn up.

The SNP in summer to autumn 2015 are probably at peak popularity, regularly polling well over 50% for next year’s Scottish Parliament elections, and at one point hitting 62% - a record for a Scottish party.

This kind of success breeds its own pressures and expectations. Supporters quickly take stratospheric popularity for granted, and demand instant results and change. Peak SNP, like all political parties before it, will find that its popularity can only go one way from this point, and that eventually it will be impossible to defy the laws of political gravity and incumbency.

The nature of ‘the Big Bang’

Where then is Scotland and the cause of independence one year on? What has to happen for independence to win a future vote, and is there any prospect of a revitalised pro-union case emerging? Finally, in this world of change and instability, what developments could have an impact on all of this?

First, the indyref produced a huge, epic ‘Big Bang’ – of engagement, hopes, dreams, conversations, and arguments. Some of it can be dismissed by commentators like David Torrance as, ‘the equivalent of a student debating society’, but that misses the bigger picture.

Scotland, the land of permission and authority – of the park keeper tying up the swings on a Sunday and of ‘No Ball Games’ signs in housing schemes – has undergone dramatic change which we are only just beginning to make sense of, and in which the indyref was only one part of a wider democratisation of public life.

This affected and altered so much. It dramatically shook up society in three obvious and fundamental ways – which I would describe as ‘3 G Scotland’ – generation, gender and geography.

In terms of generation - it brought lots of younger people into political activism who had never been involved before; it challenged the male grip of much of public life to such an extent that the three major parties are now all led by women; and it allowed a wider spectrum of the nation to speak than the previous Central Belt cognoscenti. 

Since last year, such is the nature of a ‘Big Bang’ – a new kind of balance has emerged in public life. The hyper-activism evident until last September has died down, and there has been a retraction and contraction in energy.

The most obvious example of this is that last year there were two distinct pro-independence campaigns. There was the official SNP/Yes Scotland effort and there was the self-organising, start up Scotland of new voices and initiatives.

One year after ‘the Big Bang’

Now a year on, the environment has changed again. There is a powerful SNP and a much smaller movement, independent of it. Many activists and campaigners have joined the SNP; some have even become SNP candidates or elected representatives. Some of the groups of last year have closed (National Collective) or not delivered on their promise (Common Weal); others such as Radical Independence are focusing energies into setting up the new left party, RISE.

This means that the SNP and independence have again become synonymous. This is bad news for the cause of independence because what happens when, as is inevitable, the SNP becomes unpopular?

For some the answer is to go the polls as soon as is possible. Two recent polls have put independence ahead, the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon are popular, and the pro-union forces weak and in disarray.

For others, this raises questions about organisation, tactics and strategy. Jim Sillars this week launched his book ‘In Place of Failure’ and laid the case for a co-ordinated independence force distinct from the SNP. And for developing a more coherent offer for the next time.

One year on there has been no real reassessment by the SNP, Yes Scotland or pro-independence opinion of why No won. This has to go beyond complaining about ‘Project Fear’, ‘the Vow’, or Gordon Brown’s late intervention promising ‘near federalism’.

A serious examination would look at the limits of the SNP offer. It would address the currency position, the continuation of Treasury and Bank of England oversight over the economy, and the combination of Nordic social justice aspirations with neo-liberal economics – which was most visibly expressed in the proposal to cut Scottish corporation tax below RUK rates. It would face up to the over-reliance on North Sea Oil at $113 a barrel, and the position on European Union membership.

The SNP in its White Paper on independence that Patrick Harvie MSP dismissed as ‘their big book of answers’, had little to offer on all of this beyond assertion. Partly this was because much of the above was outwith their control, for example, on EU membership, but also because little preparatory work had been done pre-2011.

Three big changes post-2014

Three big changes have happened since last year. First, independence has been transformed as an idea and in popular support. Historically, with the exception of the odd rogue poll it has stood at one-quarter to one-third support. At the beginning of the referendum campaign it was at 30% regularly in polls, and ended up on polling day at 45%.

Second, how and where Scotland is governed from has become more than ever before one of the central questions of Scottish politics. When people are asked to choose which institution they trust most to look after Scotland’s interests: the Scottish Parliament or Westminster, consistently two-thirds choose the former.

Third, British politics no longer exists as a national contest at elections, as can be seen by the results of the May 2015 election. The difference between Scotland and England in voting patterns was the biggest ever on record. In Scotland, the SNP went up 30.1%, Labour down 17.7% and the Tories fell 1.8%; in England, Labour went up 3.6% and the Tories rose by 1.4%. The only national pattern across the UK was the collapse of the Lib Dems.

At last weekend’s ‘Imagination: Festival of Ideas’ (which I co-organized) in the discussion on Scotland after the referendum, Professor John Curtice observed that ‘Scotland has psychologically separated from the rest of the UK in how it votes.’

The Irish writer Fintan O’Toole in the same session stated that one of the most powerful provocations in theatre and drama was to use three words: ‘act as if’ to imagine a different outcome. He posed that ‘Scotland should act as if it was already an independent nation’. This would allow us, he said, ‘to skip the SNP one party state in the first 10-20 years of independence’, drawing from the Irish experience, and numerous examples such as South Africa and the ANC post-apartheid.

Scotland looks on the surface to be a 50:50 nation at the moment, but most people don’t think of themselves in closed Yes or No tribes. The SNP had half the nation behind them in May, but don’t quite know what to do with it. There is an absence of a counter-unionist movement, strategy, and intelligence.

A confident unionism would try to reframe the debate from last year when Scotland voted No to independence into something more positive. One way of doing this would be via a second referendum on greater devolved powers, perhaps in a wider UK settlement, which could attempt to pre-empt the momentum behind moves to another independence referendum. There seems little chance of this happening, because unionism is in long-term crisis and retreat.

Part of Scotland wants to see society as comprised of two divided camps and thinks it can grind its way to victory via trench warfare from 45% to a majority. Most independence supporters assume the 45% as a base to build from and that support can only go up not down. Another group want to invoke abstract concepts such as ‘the sovereignty of the people’, missing that this does not mean very much to most people.

Much more relevant is the everyday experience of public services, public agencies, living standards and who people think most understands their interests. The increasing divide between rhetoric and action – the reality gap in public life aided by austerity, Tory cuts and the lack of powers of the Scottish Government – will be increasingly significant.

Seasoned observers such as Iain Macwhirter seem happy to buy the illusion that the SNP is ‘left wing’ and content not to examine their patchy record in office. This will increasingly matter to voters in tight times. A degree of honesty would help from the Nationalists and others.

The wider world … and the arrival of Jeremy Corbyn

Two wider observations. First, a Brexit vote where the UK decides to leave the EU would be a gamechanger for Scotland and independence. Even a vote for the UK to stay in will not resolve things, and could see the emergence of a two-speed Europe with the UK more likely to be an associate, not full member. Where then would Scotland see itself in such a situation?

Second, the world is undergoing huge changes: in economic power, social change and movements of people. All of these will impact on Scotland and independence. Too often our debates have assumed a tidy, ordered world which no longer exists.

The emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as British Labour leader has shown the fluidity and impermanence at the heart of UK politics, and the widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo and political elites. That doesn’t mean that the Corbyn phenomenon will impact to the detriment to the independence cause, but makes it even more necessary to not regard any moment or movement as irreversible: ‘the forward march of Scottish independence’ included.

In more mundane terms, the Corbyn Labour Party will live and prosper or not on the issues of electability and credibility in England, and the South of England in particular. The prospects for a revivalist, unreconstructed 1980s left populism which still does not comprehend the limitations and lack of democracy in the labour movement, are to put it mildly, not good.

It is also true that there has for long been a paradox at the heart of the modern independence cause. For some it is the chance to start afresh, embrace risk and embark on a ‘Scotland Year Zero’. For others, it offers the prospect of the opposite: of stability, security and continuity, even a Scottish version of maintaining the British post-war settlement.

However our future pans out the latter isn’t a possible option. The world is full of risk, change and instability, and Scotland independent or not will have to adapt to such factors, whatever its constitutional status. Time to debate not just an independent Scotland, but an interdependent one.

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