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14 lessons from the Scottish referendum

A month on from Scotland's independence vote, here are 14 lessons it taught us.

1) People care

The concept of apathy has always been offensive: it implies that people don't care about their neighbours, their families, or even themselves. No. The problem is that people are alienated from politics. They have been convinced that engaging in the world as a citizen will do nothing to transform it. It's been said a thousand times, but the Scottish referendum showed that when people do think they can make a difference, they most certainly do engage.

2) Now is the time for radical politics

When the Yes campaign launched two years ago, the SNP talked about attracting business to the glens and yes support sat at around 30%. But as socialists and Greens mobilised thousands to a much more radical message, Yes Scotland and the SNP followed their lead. They became convinced that the road to a yes vote ran up the left.

They explicitly campaigned for nuclear disarmament, with the yes office distributing car stickers saying “bairns not bombs”. John Swinney shut up about corporation tax cuts, fessed up to his Keynsian instincts, and pledged to borrow billions to end austerity. Nicola Sturgeon spoke again and again about the evils of the benefits sanctions regime and Salmond talked about the horrors of the Bedroom Tax. Even the business wing of the Yes campaign explicitly called for an industrial policy and for free education – putting it to the left of Labour.

And that's before you consider the more radical parts of the campaign. CND handed out, across the country, an instruction manual “how to disarm a nuclear bomb”. The Radical Independence Campaign, under the slogan “Britain is for the rich, Scotland can be ours” won the support of thousands of people in abandoned, working class areas by highlighting the opportunities for policies more radical than will ever be permitted in Westminster.

This isn't because Scots are much more left wing than English people. It's because the Westminster consensus is a long way to the right of the people of Britain. That Yes Scotland got more votes than any political party in Scottish history, and increased its support by 15% over the course of the campaign by talking about such radical ideas tells us something important – people are ready for radical politics. That's as true in the rest of the UK as it is in Scotland.

3) People can change their minds

Image via Poll Bludger

Much of current politics in the UK seems to be plagued with the idea that no one can ever be convinced of anything. Politicians use focus groups to find out what people already think, and repeat it back to them. But in the course of this referendum, around 15% of Scots shifted from supporting no to voting yes – in politics, it's important to remember that it is possible to persuade people of your case.

4) Canvass!

There is a really easy way to communicate your campaign message directly to people – go and knock on their doors and talk to them. It's time that the English left learnt to do this – first, because we convince the people we're talking to, but also, just as importantly, it's the best way there is to get good at explaining your ideas in all of your other communications channels. I have never understood press officers who think they know how to persuade people of something through the media, but never go and talk to the people they are trying to persuade to see if their messages are effective. It's easy to knock on doors, and we should do it much, much more.

5) Our support lies in the working class

People in working class areas were much more likely to vote yes. Partly, there's a question of identity there - “British” has always been a label used more by the elite (apart from among ethnic minority communities in England and Ulster loyalists). But largely, it's because the less well off you are, the less stake you have in the world as it is, and the more stake you have in change.

Too much of the left has become convinced that we are basically a middle class club, and that working class people are bigots. Persuading us of this self-fulfilling prophecy is the greatest trick the right ever pulled, and we have to stop believing it.

6) Build your own media...

The yes movement was built up around its own alternative media – Bella Caledonia did a brilliant job of this, but was not the only example, and hopefully openDemocracy contributed a bit too. Most of the traditional media will always ultimately be a part of the establishment, and so cannot be relied upon to communicate the key arguments for radical changes.

In particular, what was important about the alternative media was its role in movement building – in bringing new people into the campaign and in communicating within the campaign: I doubt many of the people who started out as no voters or undecideds were avid readers of any of the prominent Yes sites. But their yes voting friends and relations were, and it was through these that they found their arguments: you've got to preach to the choir to get them to sing.

7) ...but don't ignore the traditional media

The point at which the yes campaign started to catch up was the second debate: an absolutely traditional TV moment – if one which couldn't be filtered through their editorialising. If the yes campaign had ignored the newspapers entirely, would the Sunday Herald have endorsed? The demographic among whom it lost heavily – older people – is that which is least likely to be on social media, and most likely to rely on old fashioned newspapers, radio, and telly. Whilst we need to do everything we can not to rely on the old fashioned press, we can't get away with ignoring it entirely.

8) Build your own organisations


The Yes campaign didn't just consist of a series of actions organised by loose collections of individuals. It started by establishing a number of organisations – the Radical Independence Campaign, National Collective, Women for Independence, Scots Asians for Yes, Common Weal, and others. Often, these were in practice hubs for a loose collection of individuals, but the fact that there were more permanent platforms allowed organisation around them, and gave people a license to participate.

9) Join a political party

The people who have benefited most from the referendum are the yes campaigning parties: the SNP, Greens and SSP. This is because parties provide a permanent structure with a clear set of values and regular meetings you can come to and activities you can get involved with. They should have internal, democratic processes through which they can renew themselves, replace their leaders and, in the case of these parties at least, change their policies.

Huge numbers of people got involved in the yes campaign without being a member of any party, and every campaign must be built to attract people like this. But many thousands of those people have since decided that, for the long haul, they need to be in a party. If we're asking what lessons the left outside Scotland can learn from the Yes campaign, it's worth starting by asking what lessons the people involved learnt. And the most obvious one is that thousands decided that they did want to be in a political party after all.

And remember that parties aren’t static. With trebling in membership of both SNP and Greens, the parties are now totally different – those who’ve joined must take some of the referendum spirit with them.

10) The markets will bully

As the referendum reached its crescendo, there was a clear feeling amongst hundreds of people I spoke to that they didn't really listen to or care what Westminster said. They didn't believe a word of it. They did, however, worry about the markets, about companies threatening to leave, etc. Of course, big businesses will make similar threats whenever any radical change is on the cards, and it's important we remember this and learn how to cope with it – another reason that radicals shouldn't rely for support on those who have too much of a stake in the system.

11) Demographic differences are real

Different polls from voting day tell slightly different specific stories, but they all have the same trend. Old people were much more likely to vote no, and so were women. For progressives to win, we need to find ways to reach out into a range of demographics...

12) You win by making your rulers fear you

Wales has long been seeking more powers for its Assembly. There have been two commissions into the question, recommending just that. But they haven't got those powers. Scotland had a referendum, and forced the British state to its knees. We haven't got the promised powers yet, but we certainly now have a better chance of securing them than Wales – and if Wales does, it will be in part because of the Scottish process.

This is an important lesson for the left – too often, our campaigning organisations put their resources into writing a detailed report and then politely asking for the changes it recommends, as if our rulers will concede to rational demands. If you want to win change, it's much more important to mobilise a mass movement for it, and to directly confront power until it is forced to compromise.

13) 16 and 17 year olds can absolutely be trusted to vote

Having watched the way in which 16 and 17 year olds engaged seriously with the referendum, even many of those who most avidly opposed giving it to them in the first place now think they should always have the right to vote. Here's what Tory MSP John Lamont, who previously opposed the move, had to say on the matter to the Borders Telegraph:

“I was hugely impressed by the level of engagement and understanding that our young people demonstrated; We should be very proud of them. Now that they have been given the vote and demonstrated their ability to participate in politics, I believe the time has come to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in all elections.”

Our experience - and lots of people have said that they found the same - was that 16 and 17 year olds were often more engaged and so more informed than older people. They cannot go back to being shut out of our polling stations.

14) It's the economy stupid

Before the campaign started, research showed people would change how they voted based on whether they felt it would make them £500 better or worse off. And ultimately, two years later, that's largely what they did. People voted no because they weren't sufficiently convinced of the economic case for a yes vote.

What's interesting about this is that it's not like there is much of an economic case for the status quo – median wages have fallen 8% since 2008, and our recession has only ended because of a growing housing bubble. But change is always more frightening than the status quo, and as long as the right can tell people that a radical change will risk pensions, huge numbers will fear it too much.

About the authors

Adam Ramsay is the Co-Editor of openDemocracyUK and also works with Bright Green. Before, he was a full time campaigner with People & Planet. You can follow him at @adamramsay.

Peter McColl is co-editor of Bright Green and rector of Edinburgh University.


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