We are one Scotland: anatomy of a referendum

The independence referendum shows a need in Scotland to reach out.

Gerry Hassan
27 September 2014

It was a momentous moment in Scottish and British history. The Scottish independence referendum. It dominated Scottish and British airwaves in the last couple of weeks, and became a huge international story.

Nearly every single cliché has been dug up, used and then over-used to exhaustion. What then as the excitement, claim and counter-claim quieten down, is there left to say and do? Actually, there is quite a lot.

Let’s talk about the immediate reactions post-vote from the Scottish and British political classes. They both have so far let us down, speaking for their narrow interests and party advantage, with no one addressing wider concerns.

Take the SNP leadership. Five days after the vote neither Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon has reached out to the 55% or offered any words of congratulation, recognition or understanding. Both were conspicuous by their absence from the Church of Scotland service of reconciliation on Sunday. The three pro-union parties were all represented by their leaders; the SNP by John Swinney.

Then there is the Westminster political classes. From David Cameron’s first announcement on Friday morning at 7am, they have been out on political manoeuvres advancing and promoting narrow self-interests. Cameron in that morning address was conciliatory in tone and style, but in content, was ruthlessly and naked calculating, linking Scottish ‘devo max’ to the idea of English votes for English laws.

By the afternoon, Ed Miliband disagreed with Cameron, refusing to agree with him on the Scottish-English linkage, resulting in the fracturing of the three pro-union party agreement and front only hours after polls shut. The solemn pledge that had been presented as ‘the Vow’ of what Westminster would deliver to Scotland lasted even less than the Lib Dem promise of ‘no tuition fees’. Better Together no more.

The Limits of #the45

Now is a time for national political leadership. For people talking not just from their base. Instead, so far Scotland and the UK has had to endure partisan politicians speaking to and reinforcing the prejudices of their own moral tribes and echo chambers.

There was the understandable social media outcry of #the45 (reflecting the 45% Yes 55% No result) as people wanted to find voice, come together, find strength in numbers, and show their anger and defiance. However, #the45 does not reach out to #the55, and attempt to understand and connect with them on any level – politically or emotionally. It was a natural reaction in the immediate aftermath, but it doesn’t offer any political route for the future, instead having an element of bitterness, self-denial and labelling people who have different views.

Part of the immediate aftermath of the vote was framed by a kind of misguided collective rage against the machine. Thus, the referendum, according to some, was ‘stolen’ or ‘rigged’ (a petition claiming this having over 87,000 signatures by Monday afternoon)’ – all comments which were given permission by Salmond’s unhelpful, ungracious comments that No voters were ‘tricked’.

None of this is helpful or mature. It also on the Yes side doesn’t come from the best of the independence movement which has shown generosity, dynamism, enthusiasm and positivity, and which has reshaped politics and energised democracy.

Anatomy of the Vote

Political contests, victory and defeat, offer a time for reflection, renewal and learning how to do things differently. In the last 30 years plus, British Labour’s humiliating defeat in 1983 was a cathartic release and liberation for the party; the same was true to a lesser extent of the Conservative third successive defeat in 2005.

The Tory pollster Lord Ashcroft conducted a super poll post-vote and reflected on the blame and denial prevalent in sections of the Yes side: ‘A political movement never flourishes by blaming its defeats on the media, or by deploring the motives or gullibility of the electorate’. He went on to say, ‘Tories have generally been guilty of these things in the past, and I found the attitude was prevalent in the Labour movement in my post-election research in 2010’.

There are also perils and dangers in English responses. Matthew Parris has pointed out that such initiatives as ‘The Spectator’s’ ‘Scotland, please stay’ front cover one week before the vote, had a hint of desperation and self-abasement.

Parris observed that in all these initiatives (clearly thinking of the Dan Snow-Tom Holland ‘Let’s Stay Together’ intervention) almost all the English No voices ‘have come either from the kind of Englishman who hunts, sails or skis in the Highlands and Islands, or from talented Scots who have migrated South in search of a larger arena for their talents’. He concluded with a hint of irony, ‘This is a group well-represented among the commanding heights of British journalism and politics, and a distinctive and distinguished demographic. But it is not, I’m afraid, a representative one …’

What do the results and reactions to Thursday tell us about Scotland and the union? The vote showed on the surface a distinctly united nation: the yellow wave of the SNP’s 2011 national landslide, replaced by an emphatic No vote which ran from North to South, West to East. Yet, underneath this there were lots of fascinating patterns. For example, the long hailed ‘gender gap’ was present, but not very strong: men voted 47% Yes, women 44% Yes; 16-17 year olds were 71% Yes, while 18-24 year olds only 48% Yes.

The biggest issues given for voting Yes were dissatisfaction with Westminster (74%) and the NHS (54%); in relation to No it was the currency (57%) and pensions (37%). When asked to choose between three reasons for voting Yes voters split: Scottish decisions should be made in Scotland (70%), Scotland’s future brighter independent (20%), and no more Tory Governments (10%); with No voters split: the risks of independence were too great (47%), attachment to the UK (27%), and a No vote means more powers (25%). Just over half the Yes vote was made up of SNP voters (53%), while the No vote tally (2,001,926) was higher than the number of people who voted in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections.

Insider/Outsider Scotland

Two frequently cited tropes about the vote were first, it was all about class, and second, Labour heartlands voted Yes. These need some qualification. Take the different layers of insider/outsider Scotland. In terms of social class this produced some evidence of insiders, those who were financially better off, and felt they had more to lose, voting No, while outsiders, who were less well off and assessed they had less to lose, voting Yes. Yet this wasn’t clear-cut, and in terms of geography and place, there was another divide of insider/outsider with the biggest Yes votes in the Central Belt (Dundee aside), and the outsiders of Dumfries and Galloway, Borders, Shetland and Orkney, decisively voting No.

The politics of social class were a bit more complex than presented. It wasn’t completely the case that the middle classes voted No and the working classes voted Yes. The AB professional class voted Yes 40% No 60%, and the CI intermediate class Yes 49% No 51%. But there were significant divisions in the working classes: the C2 skilled manual group voting 52% Yes 48% No and the DE semi and unskilled manual working classes Yes 45% No 55% (leaving aside for the purpose of this essay, academic debate on the use and limits of these particular terms). And most Labour areas voted No, some quite decisively.

Another dimension was that the higher the Yes vote the more an area was deprived and poor: hence Dundee, Glasgow, West Dunbartonshire and North Lanarkshire voted Yes, and Inverclyde just missed by a whisker. These are all areas with lower economic growth and prosperity, and significant social problems. All of the major growth centres and hubs in the country voted No: Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness and Shetland for example.

This is a telling picture of now and future patterns. The Yes side positioned itself as being optimistic and visionary, and that anything was possible in an independent Scotland. The No case had little positive to say over the long campaign; instead they went on about the past, risks and problems and were relentlessly negative. It worked for the moment.

Despite this Yes won areas that have traditionally been wary of economic and social change, having seen it for the last 30 years as a threat. The No side carried prosperous, middle class Scotland in part because of fear and anxiety of losing the security, position and even place they had in society.

This illustrates that the future shape of politics in Scotland has to be built on addressing the increasing parts of the electorate. It cannot be focused primarily on the most deprived, excluded parts of the country.

A traditional left approach of embracing ‘the ghetto’ or minority ‘rainbow coalition’ will not deliver a majority to Yes. This is something many on the left and left nationalists have not understood over the last three or four decades: namely, that a political contest carried out by constant retreat and conducted defensively, only results in defeat and demoralisation.

The politics of Scotland’s future has to entail getting into the heads and hearts of the middle classes with all their varieties and different sub-parts, from the well-heeled and affluent, to the doing comfortably, and struggling to keep up appearances. It cannot be about such mindsets, as some have said about older voters, ‘waiting for the old to die’. Nor can it be about the self-limiting mentality of the politics of #the45.

It has to embrace being outward looking, embracing and understanding economic and social change, and having a grasp of how society and the economy are changing. An illuminating perspective in all this has been Guy Standing’s work on the emergence and rise of the precariat and with it increasing inequality, insecurity and the retreat of status, security and the notion of a career. Standing has observed that the logic of contemporary capitalist exploitation is towards not just zero hour contracts, but use of crowd labour contracts. Such is the brutal leviathan of Anglo-American crony capitalism.

This can only be overcome by creating majority alliances which address large parts of the middle classes and recognise their concerns and anxieties. It entails reframing the debate from the traditional leftist welfarist concerns, to talking of a citizen’s income, and a different vision of political economy.

The Scottish Debate in an Uncertain World

Large parts of the Scottish debate took place as if none of this was going on not just in the world around us, but at home, in Scotland and the UK. There was a prevailing assumption, not just in Yes and No, but across society which went unchallenged which stated that ‘this was as bad as it could get’ and that ‘things couldn’t get any worse’, particularly under independence. These assumptions need to be taken on and shaken to the core, because out there the world is a very shaky, scary place.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and other war zones, but the economic instability of the global economic order, the perilous position of the West, and the possibility of a second banking crash. A telling piece of Madrid graffiti says, ‘The worst thing would be to return to the old normal’.

Scotland is a conservative country. Its opposition to Thatcherism was in many respects a yearning for safety and security, as well as being influenced by progressive values. One potent element of our debate has been pitched around a contest for Scotland’s political soul centred on a battle for the Scotland of the 1945-75 era.

In this there have been two distinctly different visions, the first, the British variant which stresses the triumphs of ‘the common people’ and Liberal and Labour parties historically; the second is a Scottish expression of this which has an attachment to the post-war period as some kind of ‘golden era’. Both miss the inadequacies of that period, that the economic and social settlement was only possible because of the managed capitalist order, and do not recognise that such certainty and order are no longer possible in today’s world.

A politics of the past cannot be what defines the future. This is a central mistake the left and social democrats have made over the last 40 years. In the referendum campaign and since, senior Labour figures such as Brian Wilson say that the case for progressive Britishness has at its centre, the NHS, BBC and welfare state. All of these are institutions founded quite a while ago, and not one of them is exactly in a good state today. Why should Scots feel the establishment of the NHS in 1948 is pivotal to remaining in the union, particularly when the Tories are outsourcing it and handing it over to private contractors in England?

There is also the changing nature of the union. Jack Straw proposed passing parliamentary legislation making a further Scottish independence referendum ‘illegal’, an act which itself would have no constitutional standing. Jim Murphy, who unlike most Scottish Labour MPs had a good campaign, cannot answer as the English votes for English laws question comes to the fore, the basic question of what gave him the right to along with 37 other Scots Labour MPs, to impose tuition fees on England and Wales.

There are significant challenges to Yes. The SNP and Yes have to reach out and empathise with the non-Yes majority in Scotland. Scottish Labour as a tribe never grasped or cared to understand the hopes and fears of non-Labour Scotland; it didn’t feel it had to being the biggest party in the country for decades. From this there originated a politics ill-at-ease about pluralism, reaching out to others, which was arrogant and insular. Scotland cannot jump from one version of triumphant tribalism straight into another. And to win any future referendum, such a pluralism is absolutely essential for Yes.

Politics involves controlling your zealots and true believers. The referendum saw the rise of vex nats, meaning vexillology, the study of flags. This broke out in the most unlikely places, including No. 10 Downing Street as Cameron panicked when the first poll put Yes ahead, with Ed Miliband joining him, encouraging local authorities and public buildings up and down the land to fly the Union Jack.

The most overt expression of vex nats came from the Yes movement and in particular the explosion of flash mob rallies in the latter half of the campaign. These obviously made people feel good, raised morale, and gave them a sense of being part of something bigger. Yet they also gave over the impression to the innocent bystander of looking like urban Bannockburn rallies (the SNP, when they were a smaller party, having as one of its key events the annual Bannockburn rally, attending which was the mark of the true believer!). These made the mistake of getting activists to talk to themselves, and were not the right messages in the closing weeks to win over passing floating voters.

This touches on the problem of what SNP activist Kate Higgins said her father called the ‘shouty socialists’ who dominated many of these rallies, and for instance, the two Edinburgh rallies of 2012 and 2013. It isn’t enough in the early days of the 21st century to just recite a pile of predictable left slogans and mantras; it is actually counter-productive because it can kid some people that this is enough to bring about change.

That isn’t the only issue. There was a genuine explosion of activism, engagement and radicalism in the referendum, but there was also the phenomenon of astroturf organisations. On the No side there was the infamous example of ‘No Borders’ set up by Tory supporter Malcolm Gifford. In the Yes camp there were much less clear examples such as Business for Scotland and Academics for Yes set up with the support of Yes Scotland and which carried with them the air of officialness and had a sort of rigid managerial consultancy orthodoxy which wasn’t very persuasive for many who encountered them.

Despite all the above, the biggest air of decay has come from the British establishment. In the last few weeks they have panicked, love bombed and patronised Scotland. Now they think it is back to ‘business as usual’. Therefore, English votes for English laws is all the rage as it looks democratic, but punishes the Scots, undermines Labour, and is a sop to UKIP. The problem it has is that Westminster is broken and the solution cannot come from inside what is a discredited clubland.

Take the BBC. They had a terrible referendum. BBC Scotland didn’t know what way to turn, facing rival Scottish and London pressures, and being run by incompetent management. The actions of BBC London (and Salford) personnel was extraordinary in its arrogance and lack of knowledge. Many of the Radio Four ‘Today’ staff who took over large parts of BBC Scotland could not believe there was such a thing as BBC Scotland, one saying, ‘You mean you make your own programmes here?’

In another discussion, a group of BBC London staff threw scorn and disdain on the whole debate they were being paid from the public purse to cover. One said, ‘why do any Scots want independence?’, bringing another to answer with condescension, ‘who would want to be like Denmark?’, while yet another commented, ‘this has just been a divisive, horrible referendum. I will be glad when it is over’.

Think of those words, ‘who would want to be like Denmark?’ Who wouldn’t? It is one of the most successful, prosperous and egalitarian countries in the world. Who would want that, when the argument goes, you could be part of the great project that is the United Kingdom with its UN Security Council and G8 membership? This worldview has to be understood, named and challenged: it is nothing less than ‘Great British Powerism’, the ‘status syndrome’ of the imperial home country, and it hasn’t served the people of these four nations well for decades.

The independence referendum was but one stage in the struggle of people up and down these isles to challenge that self-centred, self-congratulatory view of the world. This outlook has taken hold of the UK’s political, corporate and media elites, and in so doing it has brought the UK to this sorry state, one where, despite last week’s vote, break-up looks more likely by the day.

We are one Scotland. Not 45%, or 55%, or even 99%. We need to speak up and find voice and demand the same from our so-called leaders.

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