Friday 19 September 2014

The Morning After

Yesterday, my country held a referendum on its future. I have made no secret of the fact that I voted Yes to its independence, that I felt it would be better for all involved if it were to disentangle itself from the UK. In the cold light of dawn, after a result that was disappointing but not altogether surprising, I still feel much the same way.

I'd like to make clear, first and foremost, that I respect the choice of my fellow Scots. 1.6M of them agreed with me. I don't think that the other 1.9M are stupid (though I continue to lament the poor standard of finance education in schools that makes it easy to be misdirected). I certainly don't see them as my enemies. I just don't buy the notion of a deep divide that many people (mostly outside Scotland) have been pushing. Almost all of us did what we did because we wanted the best for our country and for the wider world. Compared to that, disagreements over the means of getting it are trivial. I am awed by the fact that some 87% of the Scots electorate came out to support that cause.

The struggle to reach this point has been long and hard. Parts of it have been quite distressing, particularly the hatred for Scottish people, especially Yes voters, expressed in parts of the UK national press, where we have been repeatedly accused of being members of some fascist cult, with little meaningful opportunity to dispute this notion. It's one of those things that sums up the discomfort one can feel as a Scottish person in England, despite all the assurances of love we have received from that country recently. The togetherness everyone now vaunts (one does wonder how many have only just thought of it) must involve action being taken to resolve these problems, which have their roots in the othering and exoticisation of Scots. In other words, it cannot just be about what we do here. Despite what you may have heard, nobody is going out today to hunt down No voters in the streets. It has been a long campaign; most of us would far rather have a nice cup of tea and a sit down.

That campaign now being over, people are talking about three things: a No victory; where things go from here; and what happens to the major figures involved.

On the first of those topics, yes, the No campaign has achieved its aims, but it's hard to ascertain what that 'victory' means. What has been gained? What is there to cheer about? The land has been defended: we have our feet planted on the same slippery ground. Soon, some tell us, we will have a much better life. Soon, after what? That part is unclear, probably because there is no consensus on it within Better Together itself. In fact, do a little digging and you'll find that quite a number of Better Together supporters actually want independence; they just didn't feel that the were being offered the right model, or that now was the time. If this movement is to have any real political meaning it must first identify its own point of focus. All it can be said to have achieved otherwise is a muddled delay. Perhaps that's better than the alternative would have been, perhaps not. If it starts to look more like the latter, uncomfortable questions will be asked.

On the second, Scotland has been offered a bizarre assortment of assurances, most of which are next to meaningless in real terms but some of which have the potential to cause great complication. There is a strong suspicion that what will ensue is an attempt to cripple the Scottish parliament by giving it many new responsibilities and few, if any, real powers. Taking away powers would be politically unwise but remains a possibility, and not all of us have forgotten how Scotland was punished last time it flirted with independence. What's intriguing, however, is the political corner that the Conservatives and Labour may have painted themselves into in relation to this, given the fragile balance of power at Westminster (and the very real possibility that whoever is in government after next May's election may need the support of SNP MPs in order to actualise its manifesto commitments). Given their close rivalry, neither of these parties will want to incur the wrath of Scots just yet, so there will be pressure to act on some of those promses, and that will put certain politicians in very difficult positions indeed.

So we come to the third point. David Cameron has had a difficult month. If he had 'lost' Scotland, his political career would not have survived, so he took  desperate gamble and made his wild promises. In doing so, he created fury among powerful elements within his party, and any move to make good on those promises will make that worse. Furthermore, because of the impending general election, his party has only a brief window in which to dispose of him before it becomes too difficult to get away with. The only thing really going in his favour is the lack of an alternative likely to gain popular support within the party, which illustrates its deeper problems. Its best candidate may well actually be Theresa May, yet she has proven herself to be incompetent at a basic level (such as quoting laws inaccurately whilst serving as Home Secretary) again and again. Gove is electoral poison, Bois has limited appal outside London and, well, it doesn't look good for them.

If Cameron goes, things get more complicated elsewhere. Labour may well seize the opportunity to get rid of the increasingly flaccid Ed Miliband, with Yvette Cooper a likely replacement. In Scotland, Johann Lamont, who was almost invisible to voters during the latter stages of the referendum campaign (with those in strong No voting areas more likely to enthuse about Ruth Davidson - if you're less popular than a Tory in Scotland, you're in trouble). No's campaign was shambolic in general and has little to do with its victory (which hinged on the concept of risk, introduced early on and gradually growing less effective as time passed); it is difficult to see what Lamont contributed. Despite the official victory, she too may disappear before long.

Of all the major players, the one who seems to have come through this best is Alex Salmond, despite him officially having lost. It's broadly agreed that the Yes campaign could not really have done more. If he resigns, it's likely to happen after the negotiations of the coming months, and will probably involve a decision to step down at the next Holyrood election (in 2016). Should that happen, Nicola Sturgeon will slip easily into his shoes, and the degree of precision with which Yes crafted its campaigning will become fully apparent. Take Salmond's statements about the unlikeliness of a future independence referendum, for instance. They may have sounded definite (they had to, or people might not have bothered to vote in th one), but not a one of them was presented as anything other than personal opinion. In other words, if the Conservatives and Labour (and, for what it's worth, the LibDems) fail to live up to the promises which they strongly disagree on (and some of which would be extremely difficult to implement at a technical level anyway), there will be nothing hypocritical about the SP calling for another referendum. For that matter, the Greens could call for one any time they liked. It would probably take at least five years to engineer, but it's a credible threat. And sure, Westminster could refuse permission for it, but if a clear majority of Scots wanted to go, that would place them in a very difficult position in terms of their international reputation.

Why do I suggest there might be a clear majority in favour when there isn't this time? For several reasons. Firstly, broken promises don't go down well, especially if they inspired people to change their votes this time around. Secondly, if you look at the demographics examined in polling, you'll see a clear trend for No voting to correlate with age, and one that doesn't seem to relate to people's preferences changing as they get older; in time, much of the unionist vote will simply die off. Thirdly, looking at the pattern of No votes in this referendum shows a correlation with areas of poor internet penetration. As people get online, they become less dependent on mainstream media, they are better able to educate themselves, and they are more likely to encounter a diversity of political opinions. Internet access is expanding geographically in Scotland at a considerable pace. Over time, this will have a political impact.

That relationship with the internet has been one of the most interesting aspects of this campaign because it illustrates the increasing breakdown of traditional networks of power, of traditional frameworks through which ideas can become dominant. This isn't easy territory for Britain's traditional institutions to lay claim to. Despite the threat posed by increasing censorship, the internet is a real force for political change, enabling ordinary people to participate in public life as never before. It's a game changer.

Given the old choices familiar in Westminster elections, barely half the electorate turns out to vote in most places. Yesterday, when presented with the prospect of influencing something that actually mattered, with real choice available, voters achieved turnouts as high as 91%. That's what democracy ought to be about. We have a choice now. We can sit back and 'go back to normal' (which mans, essentially, accepting imposed changes we normally do), or we can stand up - not just in Scotland but all across the UK - and demand real choice in other elections. We can tell our politicians that we want leadership and vision, not just frantic clustering around whatever the Daily Mail says is the issue of the day. We don't need to sit around passively and let those who are supposed to be our servants take us for granted.

If Westminster hoped that a No vote in a referendum would pacify the Scots, they were wrong. Not only are we still here, still engaged, still capable of hoping for and fighting for something better, but we all stand together now in pressing for change. Westminster, stand and deliver!


  1. Interesting thoughts, thanks for writing. Did you mean Yvette Cooper not Goodwin btw?

  2. Duh! Yes, I did - thanks for noticing that. It's the product of too little sleep. Duly amended. :)