After No: lessons from the indyref dress-rehearsal

Posted: September 21, 2014 in indyref, politics and ideas
Tags: , , , , ,

Well I never said I was a great tipster…

We lost. So what now?

Wise heads have reminded us that independence is a process, not an event. We should take comfort from this insight. You don’t become independent after a thunderclap. It’s a shared learning experience; a collective journey made over time rather than an isolated moment of clarity. The result on 18th September made clear that Scottish society had further to progress along the path to independence – the learning process was not complete.

I want to argue here that this is not something for Yes voters to despair about, nor is it a cause for lashing out at No voters as traitors.

I will begin by (a) fleshing out more fully the idea of independence as a process.

Then I will (b) discuss the relationship between the two campaigns and the paradox that Yes suffered in the final days because Better Together wouldn’t engage until the last minute.

I will then offer some analysis of (c) where the vote was lost, and how this points the way forward for the Yes movement.

I will finish with (d) some thoughts on the nature of the Yes and No cohorts, before speculating on (e) what might happen next.


Independence as a process

The electorate is always right.

If you believe in democracy it’s important to learn to love this political truism. It doesn’t always sit comfortably, but it’s a healthy way of approaching the results of representative elections and certainly helps you keep your sense of proportion when things go against you.

As a committed Yes voter I want to make absolutely clear that the electorate was right to opt against independence this time around. Why? At the risk of making a circular argument, if the population weren’t ready then they weren’t ready. They weren’t ready. It wasn’t time.

Say we had won, with 50.1% of the vote. Would that have been a truly independent country? We would have presumably pushed through the settlement and created our autonomous instruments of government, but half of the country would not have been on board. I’m not sure this would have been desirable.

Independence must be understood as a state of mind first and a political arrangement second. There are too many of our fellow citizens who have not embraced the possibilities of independence for an autonomous state to be viable at this point.

Again, say we had won by a bawhair. Would that have been a sustainable basis on which to build a new society? With half of the country skeptical at best and actively opposed at worst? It is now clear to me that it would not have been.

So we must recognise the defeat for what it is: a blessing in disguise.

Far better to win next time and win well, than to have forced a new state to splutter into life without a substantial mandate from across our community.

None of this is meant to trivialise the disappointment of the last few days. It’s disappointing because it felt like the community was on board. It felt like we were going to win and win decisively. Those of us who voted Yes and shared in the most exciting and imaginative political carnival of our lives know what the psychological breakthrough felt like, and it seemed widespread. And it was. But it hadn’t quite spread far enough.


I’m not too proud to admit that I fell victim to confirmation bias as much as the next Yes believer. The echo chamber is difficult to escape, especially when you live in a Yes city like Glasgow, and you sit within a Yes age-group. But there was more to it than some of us getting our hopes up prematurely, as I hope to explain in the next section.


The missing campaign

One of the themes of the final run-in to the referendum vote was the potential impact of the “missing million” voters. I discussed this phenomenon in my previous piece, but this time I want to talk about another invisible group. The Better Together campaigners.

To this day I still don’t know what the Better Together campaign was trying to tell us. If anyone can shed any light on this, please get in touch.

The most generous explanation I can provide for their hapless invisibility is that it was a deliberate ploy. Pretend this isn’t happening. Don’t engage. Ignore them and they might go away.

If the No campaign had actually taken part in the referendum earlier than the final six weeks, it would have validated the process and provided the Yes campaign with a degree of exposure. Maybe Blair McDougal, John McTiernan et al actually had a plan all along. A sort of political version of antifutbol, like Mourinho’s famous approach to the 2010 European Cup semi-final in the Nou Camp. We don’t want the ball, we want nothing to do with this. It isn’t happening.

One consequence of this spoiling approach was to grant the broader Yes campaign the space to develop organically. This was a massive boon, because a focused No campaign might have strangled at birth a rainbow alliance of socialists, ecologists, situationists and non-aligned citizens taking their first steps towards a political awakening. The vibrancy and breadth of the movement owes much to the lack of attention it was afforded in its emergent phase.

What do I mean by Better Together not engaging? Well, they never held any open meetings. They would regularly refuse to put representatives up for mixed-platform debates, leading to countless event cancellations. They did no campaigning in any of the public spaces I spend time in until literally the final week before the poll. You didn’t even see any badges or window posters until the final stages of the campaign. It was as if they weren’t there. It was just weird.

However I think that the No campaign’s curious absence for most of the referendum process did (probably inadvertently) set the Yes movement up for defeat in its final days. By refusing to engage with anyone on the Yes side, with the exception of some rough and tumble with the First Minister, our arguments weren’t really exposed to any serious, forceful scrutiny until it was too late.

When MIT’s Paul Krugman got stuck into the currency plans, or Gordon Brown savaged the entire economic basis of independence in his “I’m saving the union” speech, there was no time to react.

When the Yes campaign was skewered by the entire spectrum of the print and broadcast media – with the exception of the Sunday Herald and (in my view) Channel 4 News and Faisal Islam of Sky News – it was too late to fight back.

When the financial sector and the odd supermarket conspired with Downing Street and the BBC to undermine Salmond’s credibility, he was left relying on people accessing YouTube videos of his responses.

When the main Westminster parties scrambled together their “Vow” of increased devolution in the event of a No vote, the clock had run out for the Yes campaign to warn the electorate of the sheer unlikelihood of those promises being realised.

In short – they waited until the very last minute, and then knocked us out.

These were far from Ali’s rope-a-dope tactics, of course – Ali actually meant it – but the effect was similar.

There were holes in our arguments that we could have filled in – but we had no time to work on them when interests opposed to independence finally got round to expressing skepticism or hostility to the Yes vision.

This is where the opportunities can be found amidst the debris of the defeat, as I will explain.


Learning from defeat

We deserved to lose. Not morally – few campaigns in political history can have deserved to win more. But you don’t get prizes for effort when it comes to major constitutional reforms. We have to be honest with ourselves that the vision presented to the voters was incomplete.

Can any of us say with hand on heart that the economic basis for independence was fully established in a way that made sense to the lay person? I can’t.

I’m not an economist so I found the economic debates very challenging. However it never even occurred to me that Salmond would push the currency union line so hard (no criticism of Salmond intended, by the way). Once he did I was convinced he was right about Westminster bluffing, but before he pulled that rabbit out of his well-worn hat I had assumed we’d have our own currency with our own central bank. Y’know, like a normal country.

I don’t know enough about economics to argue the toss about this stuff so my position was probably the same as most Yes voters – we’ll work something out. There are more important things at stake here. This isn’t scare-mongering as such, but it’s a distraction. A tactic. Ride it out.

In retrospect this was a massive weakness and probably a fatal one. If you’re undecided you need more than a “trust me” line from one side and a massive campaign of doom-mongering from the other. That can’t have reassured anyone about Scotland’s economic prospects.

As I noted earlier, we ran out of time to get this right. But if we recreate the referendum in our minds as a dress rehearsal for the next one, then we know what we need to work on. And we will have a good few years to develop a coherent vision for our currency and banking policy that won’t come as a surprise to the financial sector and create that state of affairs that seems to terrify Labour politicians so much: “uncertainty” in the markets.

This isn’t to suggest we need to tie ourselves to a neoliberal policy platform in an independent Scotland – the whole point of independence is to not do that. But at least if we’re clear about what the Yes movement wants, well in advance of the next round, we might drain some of the casino banks’ poison and (more importantly) establish the sustainability of our plans in the minds of our fellow-citizens.

Maybe it would have been a disaster. Maybe the currency union ideas would have fallen apart. We can offer a more reassuring position to the electorate next time. This might prove to have been a good thing in the long run.

But in a sense I’m not trying to push the content of this point too hard. The broader lesson for us here is that we have time to analyse what made 55% of our fellow-citizens prefer a disastrous Union to a free country rich with potential. We’ve never done this before so there’s no shame in getting some things wrong. The imagination and resourcefulness of the Yes movement is its greatest strength so it’s not as if we don’t have the people to solve these problems.

So what lessons have we learned?

1) People who had never previously been involved in the public sphere now know how to build a movement that is admired around the world.

So now we have to make it even bigger and better.

2) First-time activists now know how to reach massive swathes of the public, and enable them to embrace independence.

So now we have to reach those we missed this time, mainly (if Lord Ashcroft’s analysis is accurate) the elderly and the 18-24 age group.

N.B. While some disappointed Yessers were bemoaning the risk-aversion of the oldest group of voters, few have noted that the 18-24 age group might have swung the election in favour of the No side. What happened to them?

3) We all know that the mainstream media isn’t going to help us.

So we must continue to build our own.

Meanwhile, I genuinely don’t think the coordinated shitstorm trained on the Yes campaign reflects a reasoned and principled consensus within the media against independence. The media simply missed this.

They clearly didn’t appreciate the impetus behind the Yes campaign and misunderstood the position of the SNP (the line that they are a UKIP-esque protest vote continues to be peddled by journalists who should know better). A number of very experienced commentators made fools of themselves over the referendum. But the signs are that some sections of the media are starting to recognise how far their knowledge and understanding fell short. And with the agenda broadening into a UK-wide constitutional review, the press and broadcast media will be reading up on the Scottish referendum as we speak. I don’t think we’ll see such ill-informed guesswork again. Well, not from the Guardian, anyway.

4) Finally, we know where we fell short.

Better Together proved an unworthy foe throughout the campaign, but we got a proper going-over from Paul Krugman, Gordon Brown and the likes of Faisal Islam, Larry Elliot and other clear-headed analysts who didn’t have a horse in the race.

We must rid ourselves of the notion that critique equals scaremongering. Not everyone who sought to expose weaknesses in the independence prospectus were actually the stooges of Downing Street. We can now consider their challenges at leisure.

Indeed, now that the referendum has proven that there actually are some No voters in the country, perhaps we can find out from them what they care about.


The voters after No

Well the No voters really did turn out to be a silent majority. While the Yes campaign was reclaiming public spaces and reimagining political action, you never heard a peep from the other side. The accusations levelled by No voters that they were somehow “intimidated” into silence are clearly ridiculous, but something was keeping them quiet. A useful exercise in mass observation would explore this further.

I want to make one observation though, and it won’t be popular with many people. Before I do so, let me be clear that this is not a provocation, nor is it supposed to be a blanket explanation of the No vote. That would be ridiculous – there are many principled explanations for voting No, and I’ve just suggested that they might have had a point. But I want to say something about Loyalism.

In the aftermath of the Loyalist riot in Glasgow on 19th September, it was stated charitably by many Yes figures that the hate-contorted faces seen in George Square were simply those of thugs, rather than representatives of the Better Together campaign. That was noble and reflected well on all who said it. But I’m not sure matters are as simple as that.

It’s popular to dismiss the rioters as a lunatic fringe. They are clearly lunatics, but are they really a fringe? I’m not sure they are.

A significant number of Scottish people embrace, or at least tolerate, right-wing loyalist politics. The relative obscurity of Glasgow Rangers in recent years has perhaps obscured in turn the prevalence of this worldview. But it’s still there.

Okay, so most people in Scotland have moved on from the days of visible anti-Catholic discrimination, but what we might term “shallow-Loyalism” remains widespread (I use this term to refer to feelings of attachment to Loyalism that do not pervade every aspect of one’s identity – that would be deep-Loyalism – but which remain a comforting backdrop to one’s worldview). If you live in central Scotland you should realise this.

The progress we’ve made as a community in Scotland in the last two decades can’t have actually eradicated sectarian thoughts from people’s minds yet; that sort of poison isn’t drained so swiftly. Significant numbers of our citizens have in fact learned to keep their shallow-Loyalism to themselves. Clearly they would have wanted to preserve the union – that’s their thing. But maybe they thought it was off-limits to publicise this, because their motives were, essentially, sectarian.

And so, while they don’t account for 55% of the electorate, I think it’s naive to dismiss Loyalist shows of strength as the preserve of an extremist fringe. The difference between the George Square rioters on one hand, and, on the other, the shallow-Loyalists who voted No because they identify with Rangers, the Queen and muscular Protestantism, is one of degree rather than category.

Can we win them over to our cause? If we did then we’d not only win the next referendum, we’d transform our society.

We have, I think, moved beyond a poverty explanation for sectarianism. It was never true. Loyalism is about identity (some poor people have found succour in such identification, but that’s a second-level explanation). So all we can do as a Yes movement is offer a progressive vision of identity and let it continue to do battle in the sphere of ideas with the regressive cries of Loyalism.

Crucially, we cannot ignore these people. The rioters themselves are perhaps unlikely to be persuadable – and even less likely to be on the electoral register in the first place – but their more respectable fellow-travellers constitute a sizeable stratum of our community. The SNP has worked hard to foster strong relations with the Catholic community in Scotland, but perhaps there is another cultural constituency to which the broad Yes community can reach out more effectively.

So were the rioters representative of Better Together? In one sense, clearly not. It was to the No campaign’s credit that they didn’t blow the Loyalist dog whistle (or if they did, no one noticed). But going back to my argument in the previous section, the sheer invisibility of Better Together and it’s yawning lack of any sort of message whatsoever, created a vacuum which extreme right-wing groups were able to fill. So while I have no doubt the Better Together team were as embarrassed as the rest of us by the Orange Order march and the bizarre victory party in George Square, none of that would have happened if the No message had been positive and pluralistic. They certainly saw something to identify with in Better Together, so the campaign’s architects cannot dismiss the association.

But what of the Yes campaign?

The referendum was an almost unthinkable success for the independence movement. Even three months ago we didn’t have a prayer. Scottish support for independence sat at about 30% for generations, and had barely moved by the time the White Paper was published. And yet we got 45% of the vote in a turnout with no postwar precedent. It seems unlikely that any of the 1.6m are going to go back to the unionist side any time soon. All good stuff.

Nevertheless, there are already alarming signs that the coloratura joy of the Yes movement is darkening into bitterness and vendetta.

Most visibly, plans are afoot to punish the Labour Party for its role in the No campaign through targeted action to unseat each of its 41 Westminster MPs. I don’t criticise this ambition – I understand it entirely and part of me hopes it succeeds – but there’s a risk that we dissipate our political energies with diversions such as these.

Wouldn’t it be better to build our own party and put what we’ve learned to use by giving voters something to identify with positively, rather than wasting our energies on trashing a Labour Party that has already dug its own grave?

The glory of Yes was its progressive optimism. Focusing on blood-letting cannot be anything other than a distraction from the business of building a pro-independence coalition, and it’ll kill the vibe too. There are good people in the Labour Party who have been keeping quiet. The present leadership can’t have long left. Maybe we can work with the uncontaminated sections of the party and rebuild the trust that has been lost?

The playwright David Grieg has been talking on Twitter about the essence of Yes as mass engagement with our governance. We have educated ourselves and put our learning into practice. For me, the next stage in our learning could be Rudi Dutschke’s “long march through the institutions” as a broad leftist alliance. How better to strengthen our arguments where they were found to be lacking this time around, than by exposing them to broader political scrutiny outside the unique pressures of a referendum? And how better to build acceptance of the logic of independence in the City, in the media and in Westminster than by tactical entryism? It may be the only way to prevent another last-minute artillery attack.

With the SNP in its imperial phase, the Green Party moving rapidly to the very forefront of our politics, and a Yes coalition in Holyrood (and Westminster?) we would have no excuse for the public and the establishment deeming our 2023 independence prospectus not worth the risk.


The Vow and other stories

But before we get to Indyref Round 2, let’s look at the situation before us in the aftermath of defeat.

David Cameron has the opportunity before him to go down in history as a legendary statesman. He could be remembered for generations as the leader who oversaw the creation of a new and lasting constitutional settlement across the United Kingdom, one that reconciled the distinctive political character of its various regions and nations with the maintenance of a shared sense of community.

He could do, but it doesn’t seem especially likely. He’s never shown much capacity for anything beyond flukey survival. But maybe he’ll surprise us.

If he does, he’ll have to do better than insisting that the Scottish referendum was all about England. The wanton stupidity of some of his backbenchers is, of course, remarkable, and any canny leader has to calculate how much he can get away with, but Cameron’s craven focus on English Votes for English Laws after a Scottish independence referendum was startling.

Just as amazing was the way the potential unravelling of The Vow was laid at Ed Miliband’s door when he quite understandably refused to be bounced into a significant change to the Westminster electoral calculus without warning or discussion.

After my last blog I’ve given up making speculations – and *Glenn Hoddle voice* I’ll never make any ever again. But here’s my take on the current impasse.

1) What was the story with Gordon Brown? He really did play a serious blinder, and impressed more than any other No campaigner: that much is agreed. But under what authority was he acting? He wasn’t even part of the bloody Better Together campaign, let alone part of the government. When he made his celebrated final speech he sounded more powerful than he ever did as Prime Minister, tossing promises hither and yon. What made him think he could do that? It was all rather peculiar. And then after the vote he made another speech reassuring voters that he is a promise-keeper. But how, Gordon, how? You’re a semi-retired backbencher from an opposition party!

It beats me, it really does.

That said, it was most entertaining. As someone said on Twitter (I can’t find the quote, annoyingly) it was as if Cameron had abdicated in favour of his predecessor.

2) With the exception of the above, my favourite quote from the entire referendum was made by Bernard Jenkin, chair of the Public Administration Select Committee. “We must honour the promises we have made to Scotland, whatever they are. We have got to find out what they are”.

They weren’t especially clear, were they?

One abiding question from the referendum is whether Gordon’s giveaway swung the result for the No campaign. It would only have needed 200,000 No voters to swap sides for Scotland to be independent, so it’s not implausible that Brown’s promises and The Vow that followed from the party leaders did indeed preserve the union. So there will be much wailing and more than a few teeth being gnashed if nothing comes of any of it. Not so much on the Yes side, it must be said, but rather among the swithering Noes.

Imagine the impact of a few hundred thousand disillusioned No voters on the Scottish political landscape in the years ahead. And perhaps even more importantly, imagine how the more responsible political commentators who sympathised with Brown’s intervention will react if the parties smother the devolution promises. The media tone would change significantly. Some Yes supporters may indeed cross their fingers that such a scenario plays out in full.

3) The sudden appetite among English Tory backbenchers for constitutional change that benefits England is both hilarious and depressing. As if England, particularly the south, needs more political protection!

But there are interesting points of order to consider.

Not least, the West Lothian Question. Yep, it’s still going. Wallpaper connoisseur Derry Irvine had the best solution to this question, which was to not ask it in the first place. But it’s being asked again so we better look sharp.

The problem I have with English Votes for English Laws (EV4EL) is that people vote in a UK General Election for the party they want to govern the United Kingdom. Well, that’s a gross oversimplification – people vote for all sorts of things, most obviously who they want to represent their constituency in parliament. But fundamentally, governments are elected on a UK-wide basis.

If EV4EL was progressed, voters in England would have to work out tactically whether they were voting for their preferred UK government, or for the party most likely to constitute a majority of English MPs. It’s not impossible that these could be different parties.

Imagine for argument’s sake that Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories were likely to achieve broadly similar numbers of MPs at the next general election. One voter wants to vote Labour, but is equally adamant that the Tories should be kept out of government. Labour are likely to win several Scottish seats (stay with it, dear reader), while the Lib Dems should continue to carry much of middle England.

To be clear, Labour might win an overall Commons majority, but the Lib Dems might be more likely than Labour to deny the Tories a majority of English MPs.

Should she vote for her preferred party, Labour, or hedge her bets and go with the Lib Dems to ensure that English-only legislation is not dominated by a Tory Grand Committee (or whatever mechanism is used to orchestrate the England-only readings)?

The point is, English voters might end up forgetting that they’re electing a UK
Government and fetishise the electoral calculations for English-only bills, when in fact almost all legislation affects more than one part of that United Kingdom.

Ed Miliband is worried about this because he might not be able to command an EV4EL majority even with an overall Commons majority in 2015. As such we can understand his objection to Cameron plucking this stuff out of the air, as some sort of bizarre quid pro quo for honouring promises made to Scotland without anyone in Scotland asking for them.

Speaking of things no one asked for, the Lib Dems apparently favour a broader federal solution to the current impasse. Doesn’t that just sum up the metropolitan elite? Scotland self-generates the greatest grassroots community movement British politics has ever known, and some politicians decide that what everyone really wants is a federal structure mentioned by precisely no one.

4) If Britain votes to leave the European Union, despite Scotland voting to stay in, the ensuing imbroglio will put the West Lothian Question into stark perspective. Maybe Gordon Brown could drag himself back into the spotlight for that battle too? He seems to be good at saving unions.

5) Crucially, if nothing happens, or if something even worse happens to Scotland, we could be independent within a decade. The SNP can’t exactly campaign in 2016 for round two, but backsliding on further devolution, followed perhaps by a European Union exit (or even just an embarrassingly right-wing English campaign for one) could see a consensus emerge between the major Scottish parties that the 2020 election should be our last as a region in Northern Britain.


So, we are where we are. Yes captivated the world, and changed lives. None of us will ever be the same.

I wrote about the February 15th 2003 march against the Iraq war in my first indyref essay. While we weren’t listened to, the experience of participating in that movement was a huge part of people’s lives – something they will have remained proud of and won’t have forgotten in the years that passed.

Something even more transformative happened in Scotland recently, because, almost uniquely for leftist politics, we had the opportunity to advocate dreamily for something beautiful rather than to struggle vainly against something terrible.

In the last two years, and particularly the last two months, and especially the last two weeks, 1.6m people across Scotland left the United Kingdom.

We’ll hone our arguments and fine-tune our campaigns over the next few years, and get ready to welcome the missing two million into free Scotland next time.

  1. Stuart says:

    Thanks, that was engaging and made me think!

    I’ve just read Peter Geoghegan’s piece and Paul Mason’s too. All articles convey the sense of joy and confidence I could see around the Yes campaign – reminded me of the anti-poll tax campaign.

    As a leftist (in England) I’ve been hoping to see something like the the “broad leftist alliance” you mention emerge so that the energy isn’t lost. But – outside the Radical Indy Campaign and the organised left – is there an appetite for something called socialist, especially after the SSP/Sheridan debacle? This isn’t post-poll tax 1992 – there’s been 20 years of neo-liberalism that (as Paul Mason says) is all that a 22 year old has experienced. It’s “normal” to them. Perhaps that’s why there was that strange blip in the Ashcroft poll where 18-24 year olds voted No unlike their slightly younger and slightly older friends and workmates.

    Anyroad, I wish you well.


  2. […] the referendum was won by the No side, I wrote in this piece that the next step for Yes was the “long march through the institutions”. I assumed a […]


  3. […] the referendum was won by the No side, I wrote in this piece that the next step for Yes was the “long march through the institutions”. I assumed a new […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s