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Spirit of 45: Glasgow after the referendum

The movement which convinced 45% of the Scottish electorate to vote for a whole new order must refocus on the future, not hark back to the referendum.

Maxim Edwards
24 September 2014
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Reconciliation in a Byres Road shop window. Glasgow, 2014.Glasgow is dour and sour, with quite a few Yes badges clinging on to jackets and shirts in defiance. One of the country’s largest cities, an industrial centre for Empire and host of the Commonwealth Games, has voted to leave the United Kingdom. The four areas which voted for independence – Dundee (57%), Glasgow (53%), North Lanarkshire (51%)and West Dunbartonshire (54%), all suffer from unemployment above the Scottish average. Inverclyde nearly joined them, with a No vote of 50.1% to a Yes of 49.9%. Supporters of independence tended on average to be younger and often poorer than those favouring the Union, a fact seized upon by the Yes camp in the throes of post-referendum dismay.‘The Union hasn’t been saved’ wrote Adam Ramsay, ‘but put on life support’. The badges and posters remain, in the words of a fellow Yes campaigner, in the hope that they may be of use again in another twenty or thirty years. ‘I wouldn’t have had it done if I wasn’t sure we’d win!’ said a Yes campaigner on Sauciehall Street last week, as he rolled up his sleeve to show a lurid tattoo – Scotland, 2014, YES. A saltire tethered to an anchor, whose rope had finally split. ‘A Catalonian guy did it for me. Aye, he thought it was fucking great!’ Defeat – and tattoos – are smarting at the moment. The few calls for a recount of the results are part of that pain. Cameron’s speech, watched bleary and teary-eyed by Glasgow’s nocturnals, used the phrase ‘our United Kingdom’ nine times. He said it in italics – our United Kingdom. With all respect to this publication, how peculiar it sounds could reflect how dispassionately see our Union – or theirs. It was in this city that Cameron launched his campaign to save ‘broken Britain’ in 2008, in St. Jude’s Church, Barlanark. Appropriately, St. Jude – as Imogen Tyler noted – is known as the patron saint of lost causes. When 45% of one of its constituent nations votes to leave, then Britain is still broken, if not yet broken apart. And all this despite the fearmongering, urgent Whitehall phonecalls to business leaders, and opposition of most mainstream media. The rare and inconvenient enthusiasm shown in this referendum must not be put back in its box – it is the spirit of the 45%.

Glasgow citizens say Yes. George Square, 2014.

‘This is the kind of thing that will end when Scotland is free!’ I joked, as a couple of our group, face-painted and kilted, with flags as capes, and belly laughs were refused entry to a west end Glasgow bar. I say these things in a southern, middle-class English accent – or a ‘neutral’ accent, as middle-class English southerners call it. It seemed appropriate to recognise its inappropriateness that night, as we inched into the city centre, anxious for referendum results. I spent a while with new friends from the rest of Europe, discussing why some English might support this ‘nationalism’. The love letter from England to Scotland says it better – and briefer – than I ever could. Nationalism did exist as a motivation that night, on both camps – though there was qualitative difference as to its use. The rare chance at a fairer society, I believed then and I believe now, came better wrapped in a Saltire than a Union Jack. We reached festive, restive George Square, its Saltires and Lions Rampant joined again by the Basque, Catalan, Palestinian – and tonight Kurdish – flags. Occasionally, the mood gets warm enough up here for a carnival – thank the Gulf Stream and other dreams. We waded through pools of bitter beer and bitter spectators and reached the Orkney and Shetland Islands on a flatscreen TV, voting a strong no (63% and 67%) to independence. Eilean Siar, the Gaelic-speaking Western Isles, soon followed suit (53%). Clackmannanshire had been the first to declare – a no (53%), leading to a roar of ‘where the fuck is Clackmannanshire?’ Uneasy, we teetered home along the Clyde by foot and bicycle to catch the final results – the pubs had had enough – and by dawn we were better together. Glasgow citizens say Yes. George Square, 2014. The following day was one of shock and an air of quiet triumphalism – which as the evening progressed grew louder as Unionists rallied on George Square. Social media was quickly inundated with reports that they had attacked supporters of independence and burnt the Saltire, to chants of Rule Britannia and the famine song. Police struggled to contain the rally as it grew, closing nearby Buchanan Street subway station and making 11 arrests. Yes campaigners, still reeling from the result, took to the internet. ‘Look what you voted for, Better Together’, noted one tweet ‘this is just the beginning’. Another simply noted that there had been another Battle of George Square in 1919, between the City of Glasgow Police and striking workers. I sat at a bar at the University Campus, swiping at my phone, scrolling through the Tweets. Students were holding a referendum themed poetry recital – one read out that speech from Trainspotting. Fondly remembered with a little irony before the referendum, its sentiment now seemed deadly serious. ‘Just say No’ began another poem ‘or why I left my boyfriend on the eve of the referendum’. As we left into the night, I was advised to remove my Yes badge, ‘just to be on the safe side’. Alarmist, perhaps, but it illustrates the atmosphere. The clashes on George Square that night weren’t my Union, nor did they represent the overwhelming majority of No voters. For some, they are the Union – and that scares me.

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That it took a resurrection of the pre-Ministerial Gordon Brown to save this Union (and that outside the Better Together campaign) was a tacit understanding that Westminster could not do so on its own terms. ‘My view is that the Union can only be saved once’ wrote Adam Tomkins, in last week’s New Statesman. ‘If No win narrowly, as they did in Quebec in 1995, the British state must reinvigorate itself - and that means more devolution. If circumstances require us to have a second referendum in a parliament or two's time, Yes will win by a country mile.' As Salmond highlighted in his resignation speech, some of the guarantees made in Brown’s timetable already appear hollow – and if the grassroots activism of the continued Yes campaign is to have a role, then one must be to ensure that the British state stands by its promises of meaningful devolution. Does British Federalism entail simply one assembly for an English administrative unit seceded from London (perhaps located in the north of the country), or devolution to English regions themselves? These are wider structural questions which cannot be comprehensively addressed without a constitutional convention, separated from party politicking, or in time for the next general election. Pre-referendum newspapers, 18 September.  Crucially, not all regions of England enjoy the same strong levels of regional identity. While the Cornish actively call for a local assembly, a referendum in North Easter England in 2004 comprehensively rejected them. Wessex regionalism, meanwhile, is considered more a hobby than a political movement. For many people, local Assemblies simply mean more politicians, and are likely dismissed as another opportunity for career politicians to feather their nests. England’s regions, particularly in the North, would see palpable benefits from further devolution and the political engagement it could generate in local communities – but to impose local assemblies on the unwilling would hardly be an exercise in democracy. English Federalism would likely develop asymmetrically if at all. After all, ‘if Northern England’ as Owen Jones recently wondered ‘was a nation rather than a region, it would surely be bolting for the door by now’. Given the role of Scandinavian social democracy as one of many supposed models for a fairer Scotland, the word ‘Danelaw’ suddenly has a more pleasant ring to it.

Cameron’s greatest fear was that he would go down in history as the man who lost the Union. However, the concessions he’ll have to make to save it may be seen among irritated Tory back benchers as exactly that – losing the asymmetrical Union they know and cherish. Time will tell whether they see that 45% of Scotland as nearly half of one of the nations in the Union, or merely less than 4% of the UK population as a whole. Cameron has not only sprung a trap for Miliband, but potentially tapped into a rich vein of English national sentiment which all parties have taken pains to co-opt from UKIP (that the de-facto English national party in these islands identifies itself with the United Kingdom is quite another identity conundrum). While there are a surprisingly small number of occasions since 1945 when the composition of government would have changed without Scottish Labour MPs, a solution to the West Lothian Question – making Scottish MPs unable to vote on matters of relevance to England – could affect Labour’s ability to pass legislation in future. This time, however, Scottish Labour votes may well matter in an impending general election which is frustratingly difficult to call. With 38% of its supporters having voted for independence, Labour can no longer take Scotland for granted. The SNP and Scottish Greens are set for an influx of disaffected Labour supporters, while new political space is open for a Scottish party of the Left. Freed from the need to appease small numbers of Middle England swing constituencies, genuine representation for Scotland’s working people and disenfranchised could be a possibility.

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Many who supported the Yes campaign did so out of wider concerns for social justice than the ‘narrow nationalism’ of Unionist caricature. The issues which galvanised it will not disappear, and neither will many of their activists. If English and Welsh supporters are to be consistent in their solidarity, then they must accept a weakening of the Labour party’s Scottish base in order to give Scottish people a chance for real representation and to break from the logic of tactical voting. ‘We must honour the promises we have made to Scotland, whatever they are’ said Bernard Jenkin MP. ‘We have got to find out what they are’. One certainty is that devolved powers to Holyrood will continue devolved austerity – and an SNP government will continue to enforce it, their concessions to education and healthcare notwithstanding. Importantly, the open sores of Trident on the Clyde and British foreign policy will still remain. 'Pedestrians, the Union needs you!' Argyll Street, Glasgow. One criticism of merit about the left throughout the twentieth century is that it has too often rationalised its defeats as successes. This referendum saw a higher turnout than any UK general election since 1951. It has demonstrated that the apolitical and apathetic are as much a product of a decaying and distrusted political establishment as of their own temperament. ‘You’ll never find as many experts on the 1905 Norwegian independence referendum as in Scotland today’ quipped the Jimmy Reid foundation’s Robin MacAlpine at a London panel discussion on Scottish independence. This was a defeat, and a rare, missed chance to construct a political system anew. There will be no more opportunities like this. Alex Salmond believes that, given the demographics of its supporters, independence is inevitable. Its supporters were younger, and often poorer. While I can guarantee that they’ll age, I am not naïve enough - given current socioeconomic trends - to assume they will become any richer. Yet that their wish for a better society will always manifest itself in a campaign for independence is not an assumption I am prepared to make.

Concerns have been raised as to whether naming a campaigning group – and in many ways a political generation – after the losing percentage in a referendum is the most positive strategy. Combined with calls for recounts or even further referendums, a cause for social justice risks being dismissed as a manifestation of the bitterness and resentfulness of the defeated. Scotland needs to come together again and divisions need time to heal – though not at the price of reconciling itself to the political status quo. If I am wrong, and a chance for independence does come again, then it should be seized upon. That the activism which has defined this referendum has not simply dissolved is wholly positive – but the 45% must evolve in its turn, accepting its defeat in the referendum but not being defined by it.

Glasgow’s streets will bear the memories and the emblems of this referendum for a while to come; the Yes posters are gradually peeling from the windows, though the badges are still there. One flyer on the Great Western Road reads ‘Better Together or Else’ on a Saltire background. The ‘else’, the opportunities and possibilities independence brought, is gone. If the 45% can be portrayed by their detractors as the scattered, bitter remnants of a failed independence campaign – and they will be – then their campaign for wider social justice will be less effective. To refuse to allow Scotland and the UK to degenerate into ‘politics as usual’ – that must be the new spirit of ‘45.

Images: Maxim Edwards 

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