The campaign around the referendum in Scotland was a remarkable and unique example of political engagement writes Terry Conway. The success was partly summed up by the numbers – a 97% registration rate in a situation where voter registration has been falling across Britain – and where many in Scotland have never reregistered since the country was used as the testing ground for Thatcher’s hated poll tax. A 84.6% turnout where the 1997 referendum which led to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament was only 60.4%.and where the highest previous turnout in a British election since universal suffrage was achieved was 83.9% in the 1950 General Election.
But it was also obvious in so many of the interviews which eventually broke through into the mainstream media south of the border that the majority of people on the streets of Scottish towns and cities knew what the issues under debate were – and had an informed opinion on them.
And the media reluctantly conceded that it was the Yes campaign with its dynamism and diversity which was the motor force behind this mass engagement. Mass canvasses around the housing schemes (estates), street meetings and stalls and public meetings were combined with a consistent and imaginative use of social media not only to announce initiatives but to engage in discussion. There was a consistent message up to the moment that the polls closed that every single vote counts – that no one should be taken for granted in a way that completely contrasts with the way the three big Westminster parties have behaved, particularly in the last decade or so. Millions of people who had been previously sold a message that politics was not for people like us were engaged in vibrant debate – and responded not by staying at home in apathy but by going out to vote – with queues at some polling stations before they even opened. And its almost impossible for anyone to put forward a coherent argument that the franchise should not be permanently extended to 16-17 year olds throughout Britain.
Part of the strength of the Yes campaign was its enormous diversity – different groups organising to mobilise particular communities, or to promote the particular arguments that they believed would be the most effective in persuading people to vote – and to vote Yes.
A vote against ne-liberalism
Contrary to the accusations made by the No campaign, including their supporters on the ‘left’, it was not a message of nationalism that was propagated by campaigners for independence. It’s true that the formal message of the Scottish National Party (SNP) itself can be understood as independence-lite – with the maintenance of House of Windsor, retention of NATO membership and the failure to break with the Bank of England and its chains by putting forward an independent currency.
But for the majority of Yes voters what they cast was a vote against the neo-liberalism Westminster has imposed on them – without a democratic mandate. It was a vote against tuition fees, for free prescription charges and against the privatization of the NHS. It was a vote for getting rid of Trident.
SNP politician George Kerevan put it like this in The Scotsman on September 19: “The reality is that, by the end, the Yes campaign had morphed into the beginnings of a genuine populist, anti-austerity movement like the ‘indignant citizens in Greece or the May 15 Movement in Spain. Put another way, it was class politics – not old-style nationalism – that fired the Yes campaign”[i]. While thousands more saltires have been sold and waved on the streets of Scotland over recent months, Palestinian flags have also fluttered alongside them. Hundreds of Catalans came to Scotland to work in the campaign, joining the many young people from across Southern Europe who have found a welcome haven there in recent years from the effects of Austerity Max at home. Indeed it is no exaggeration to suggest that the No campaign with its grotesque appeal to Empire and Union was much more nationalist than the Yes campaign.
For anyone who missed this fact initially, the scenes of the Orange Lodge canvassing for the No campaign and then waving the Butcher’s Apron in Glasgow’s George Square with their chants of No surrender should have made it clear. When the results were announced, both the fact of the defeat for this magnificent campaign and the size of the gap given the fact that everyone had been saying it was too close to call was initially rather deflating. But the Yes campaign had gained a massive 15% -20% increase in support for independence from that showing before the campaign started. And it is clear that a huge amount of the energy that was generated within the campaign itself has not been dissipated by the result.
Alistair is nobody’s darling
One significant consequence of the seismic shift in politics in Scotland that the referendum campaign had engendered is that Scottish Labour, under the lack-lustre leadership of Johann Lamont is likely to get a drubbing both at the General Election in 2015 and at the Scottish Parliament elections in 2016. They worked hand in hand with the Tories in the Better Together campaign in a sickeningly bipartisan way. It was clear from the beginning that in order to defeat Yes it was Labour voters that had to be delivered for the No campaign.
The role that Alistair Darling played heading up Better Together has certainly sealed the hatred against him in the schemes across Scotland – including in his own constituency. Douglas Alexander was also a central figure in that campaign. And of course Gordon Brown played a significant role in those vital weeks after the panic when the first poll showed a majority for Yes, being the key spokesperson for Better Together, arguing that devo-max could have some real substance if independence was defeated.
But despite this huge effort made by Unionist leadership, along with the deep tribal hatred of the SNP (long known as Tartan Tories despite the fact that this hasn’t summed up their programme or practice for some time), in many Labour households, over 40% of Labour voters voted yes on September 18. In fact as Chris Bambery pointed out in an article for the International Socialist Group[ii] , this may be an underestimate as these figures are based on 2010 voters and so ignore those who were previously Labour voters but didn’t vote for them in 2010. )
Appeals from Shadow Scotland Secretary Margaret Curran that everyone voted for change so the divide is not so important are, not surprisingly, not being met with a warm reception. One of the co-convenors of Labour for Independence has resigned his membership of the Labour Party following the vote and he is clearly not alone as the massive increase in membership of all the pro-independence parties shows. And fury with the Unionist parties – particularly Scottish Labour – is not confined to those who voted Yes. The Unionists won in the end with a stick and carrot – the carrot being the ‘vow’ of devo-max and the stick the dire threats delivered not only by politicians but by representatives of banks and supermarkets of what would happen if the Yes campaign won.
David Cameron’s statement when the result was announced was an illustration that he is more concerned with trying to undercut UKIP’s political impact in his own backyard – by pandering to their most reactionary ideas – than with talking to people in Scotland. Ever since the discussions started which eventually led to the creation of the Scottish Parliament, Unionists of every stripe have peddled the myth (and often convinced themselves of its veracity) that a tiny modicum of self-rule will satisfy the Scottish electorate. That hasn’t been the dynamic of Scottish politics for more than 30 years and it is not going to become so now.
Twenty per cent of those who voted No did so because they believed in the promise of more powers for Holyrood and didn’t respond well to Cameron’s speech. These are people who can be won to supporting independence in the longer term because their No vote wasn’t cast with the reactionary Unionism of the leadership of Better Together.
The parties have made their submissions to the Smith commission. The SNP is proposing that all powers other than foreign affairs and defence are devolved to Holyrood. The Unionist parties are fighting between themselves particularly on the question of income tax. Gordon Brown seems determined to continue a high profile role of mediating between the Unionists and denouncing the SNP for trying to introduce independence through the back door. The debate in Westminster predictably focused on English questions, leaving people in Scotland even more convinced that their voices and aspirations were being ignored.
SNP is main beneficiary
The command paper published by the Smith commission will make formal proposals at the end of January. In the meantime though submissions from individuals and groups as well as political parties are still open a strong demand for further civic involvement is being demanded by a powerful combination which includes the STUC, Scottish NUS and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations[iii].
The maintenance of the dynamic for a better Scotland has been illustrated by the remarkable numbers joining the pro-independence parties since the close of poll. Not surprisingly the SNP has been the main beneficiary of this – and by the evening of 22 September had achieved the remarkable result that they now exceed the membership of the Liberal Democrats. The party grew by 63% in 85 hours from 5pm on Thursday 18 September, an increase of 19,558 and reaching a total off more than 44,000. In 2013 the Liberal Democrats registered 43, 451 members.
The Scottish Greens saw over 3,000 people joining in the same period while the smaller SSP had 1,600 new members. This all takes place in the context that many people are saying that they have never been in a political party before but see joining one as an obvious way to continue their involvement. There were many call outs on social media for people to join people to join any one of the pro-indy parties – a sentiment which has contradictory dynamics. On the one hand it is right to recognize that there is a danger of the energy of the campaign becoming dissipated, of people dropping back out of politics if they don’t find a political home. But on the other hand it wrongly implies that there are no significant differences between the three parties. Another key element in the post referendum context is the Radical Independence campaign. RIC, which has twenty one branches across Scotland, has made it clear that it absolutely isn’t going away and is and has been much more than a single issue campaign. It organised huge meetings across the country to discuss where next – the Edinburgh meeting on September 22 the meeting had to be moved outdoors because that was the only way the 150 people who turned up could participate. They have called a major conference in Glasgow on November 22 which has had to be moved from the Radison Hotel which has a capacity of over 1000 to the massive Clyde auditorium because of the huge interest shown on social media before tickets were even issued. It is also calling for a Yes vote contingent on the STUC demonstration on October 18.
Kerevan in his article in The Scotsman quoted above talks about the possibility of a Scottish equivalent of Podemos which he believes could get 15% in the Scottish Parliament elections of 2016. Such a possibility is being seriously discussed amongst the Scottish left. This would in my view have advantages over assuming that only the SNP on its own can channel the continued campaign for Scottish independence, based on an aspiration for greater democracy and for an end to the neo-liberal policies which continue to wreak so much devastation.
The parties that lost the vote on September 21 won the political argument and have demonstrated their renewed energy in the weeks that have followed. The Scottish left is certainly in a stronger position coming out of the referendum defeat than it has been since Sheridan’s ego destroyed the SSP though the divisions that resulted from this have not gone away.
A new initiative would in principle be welcome but only if it has at its heart a genuine commitment to women’s liberation as a key part of its core commitment and an understanding that collective leadership is essential to win the struggles ahead. The left in the rest of Britain and indeed across the world has in the meantime much to learn from what the Yes campaign did in the run up to September 21 and the continuing vibrant discussions and initiatives that those involved in that process are now putting forward.