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It’s comin’ yet

September 18, 2015

I paid a visit to Hugh MacDiarmid’s last home, Brownsbank Cottage, near Biggar, this week. It’s a tiny, dark and very basic farmworker’s cottage. With a year gone since the Referendum, it seemed an appropriate time to visit and to think about the state of the nation.

I recalled that, on MacDiarmid’s death, Norman McCaig suggested, with typical wit, that his passing should be celebrated “with three minutes of pandemonium”, and it seemed a helpful phrase.

For, used in its sense of “a wild uproar”, 12 months of “pandemonium” would be a good description of what has occurred since the “No” vote on September 18th last year.

Before Referendum Day, the general consensus was that a “No” vote would lead to a lull in the political process – where the Yes supporters would retire to lick their wounds, and the unionists would be happy to carry on with “business as usual”.

It hasn’t quite worked out like that.

As everybody knows, the seeming “winners” from the Better Together Campaign – Labour, Lib Dem and Tory – suffered an apocalyptic defeat at the polls in the May UK Election, whilst the perceived “losers”, the SNP, garnered a level of popular support that was, in the most accurate sense of the word, historical. Political pandemonium indeed!

It is reasonable, after twelve months, to take a stab at understanding what has happened on the political scene as a result of the Referendum, though a detailed and nuanced deconstruction may have to wait much longer.

Initially, I suppose, we need to take a brief look at the headline attitudes of each campaign. As you would expect, the “Yes” campaign focussed on the democratic deficit of Scotland not getting the governments for which it voted, and a demand to play our part in the world without our views and wishes being filtered through the needs of a UK state. Equally predictably, the “No” campaign suggested that Scotland had done well out of the Union and should stay.

Probably a majority of those who thought through the political ramifications were inclined to a “Yes” vote. They eschewed flags and Braveheart and Scotland the Brave and understood that a government responsive to the attitudes and needs of its voters was a better model than the current arrangement. It was a view which was not anti-English, but which recognised whatever the merits of the Union in the past, it was not now working to the advantage of the majority of people in Scotland.

The majority of those who voted “No”, not surprisingly, tended to have had life experiences which suggested the status quo was just fine. Good jobs and income and a high quality of life were personal gains from the Union which they did not fancy putting “at risk”. The appeararance of union flags and “Better Together” posters in the lush countryside of Perthshire and the elegant flats of Edinburgh’s New Town tended to reflect this point of view.

Both these points of view are reasonable, and resistance to change is a formidable human attitude.

Around this bedrock of opinion was liberally scattered any amount of emotional and self interested argument. At times, the “Yes” campaign seemed to suggest that an Independent Scotland would be some kind of Nirvana, that the socio-economic problems of decades could be solved by a change of flag. That is not a difficult argument to counter.

On the other hand, the unionist camp seemed strangely reluctant to detail the much lauded “benefits of Union” and resorted instead to fear mongering: pensions would be at risk, there would be no EU membership, Russia would invade, you would need a passport to see your granny in England. In the cold light of day, these are seen to be ludicrous, but, as we continue to see in the London media reaction to the election of Jeremy Corbyn, scary headlines, no matter how improbable, have an impact.

One leading pro-Labour journalist wrote of how we had all grown up with “British” culture, citing the Beatles as a shared enthusiasm across the Border, and to vote for independence would see us losing all of that, as if art and culture stopped at international borders, and independence would erase history. As someone born in Scotland, brought up in England, with an Irish passport and a love of the Beatles’ American inspired R&B roots, I found it insulting that an experienced journalist would expect his readers to believe such nonsense.

There were other attitudes in both camps. The Yessers had their fair share of Braveheart, Wha’s Like us, bonnie fechters, who treated the campaign as a sports event, while there were No voters from both the Home Counties elite, and the rump of Empire Loyalists’ antiquated view that Britain was “great” and was always right. There were also a decreasing number of “loyal Labour voters” for whom it was “party right or wrong” and who could only see a vote for independence as a vote for the hated SNP.

The expectation at the start of the campaign was that the Yes campaign would do well to accumulate 32% of the vote – which was a kind of average mean of support for independence over the years. Many commentators thought that, when it actually came to a vote, even some of that hard core of support would dematerialise.

My own thought, having been active in nationalist politics for a lifetime, was that we would do well to get more than that 35%. Independence is a huge change, and experience suggests that people approach such change incrementally – rather than in one giant step.

In the end, the Yes vote managed a creditable 45%, having nudged towards a majority in the late campaign, if the polls are to be believed.

So how was support for independence increased? And how has the momentum of the Yes campaign been maintained after what was, on the surface, a defeat?

To a large extent, I think many folk who were interested in politics, but not pro-independence, watched the campaign and began to think clearly about the ramifications, and to realise that an independent Scotland in the 21st century would not be an isolationist state, but a country able to play its part in a north European alliance, in which it shared more needs and attitudes with its Nordic neighbours than it did with England, or, more particularly, with the international ambitions of the UK state. Their conversion to “yes” was based, in other words, on sound political thought, rather than emotion or nationalism. Those with an understanding of geo-politics knew that, as two countries, Scotland and England could be positive and beneficial neighbours, and that Scotland would benefit from being able to play its own self defined role in the world rather than being a region of the UK state. Many also came to accept that an independent Scotland, rather than abandoning English Labour voters to permanent Tory government, could provide a beacon for progressive thought in our southern neighbour. Current events seem to bear that out.

Other “don’t know” voters were swayed to “Yes” by a number of factors: the energy and youth of the “Yes” campaign; the hope of its message over the fear and doom perpetrated by Better Together; and a dislike of the threats and sneers that emanated from the Establishment at the very thought of Scotland being able to pursue a democratic mandate – irrespective of the result.

Some people merely looked at the line up of supporters on the Better Together side and did not recognise themselves as being like that, whilst they felt comfortable with the care workers, trades unionists, teachers and health workers who were increasingly declaring for Yes.

On the No side, many were entrenched in their view by the impossibility of predicting what an independent Scotland would be like. These were mostly folk who had voted for Labour and Tory Governments in the past whose leaders had proved singularly unable to predict what would happen in a 5 year term, but, no matter, they bought the “fear of the unknown” line.

Others were swayed by Gordon Brown’s “Vow” – that a No vote would lead to virtual “Home Rule” and be a win/win for Scots. This ignored the fact that any kind of “Home Rule” would fail to address Scotland’s most important needs fully, but it was a comforting “get out clause” to those who were wavering.

Many of pension age, forbye the scaremongering about pensions, looked back on a lifetime of being “British” and did not want to risk what they were threatened would be “a new identity” at that stage of their lives.

Perhaps the Yes campaign did not do enough on the question of national identity, the retention of British citizenship, or the choices which would still be available to all who lived in an independent Scotland. Irish journalist, Fintan O’Toole.spoke very well in Edinburgh this year about the time it takes to assume a “new” national identity, based on Ireland’s experience.

Perhaps understandably, but regrettably, the Yes campaign felt unable to call on Ireland’s experiences in terms of re-establishing itself as a nation, while the No lobby were rudely dismissive of all “small countries” it seemed. The Irish Republic’s disentanglement from the UK, politically, was incremental, despite the apocalyptic start in the Rising and the Civil War. A Republic was only declared more than two decades after the signing of the Treaty, the UK had ports in the Free State until 1938 and probably only with Ireland’s entry into the Euro in 1999 was economic independence achieved. Despite this slow withdrawal of “partnership’, economically and socially, in trade and cultural relations, Ireland and the UK remained closely tied together, despite the former’s independence – and that would undoubtedly be the case with Scotland and England.

The role of Ireland’s Naval Service in the current refugee crisis, and its army’s service with distinction on UN Peacekeeping duties, also provide a very positive alternative to the UK state’s approach to military might, and promote the effectiveness of “small armies”.

In terms of “British” identity and other transformations, Ireland’s experience suggests it would take at least a generation, in an independent Scotland, for any change to be noticeable, and many, of course, would continue to regard themselves as British rather than Scots.

So what has happened in the past year?

From my viewpoint, it seems that more people have understood that a change of government organisation is just that – and that it doesn’t change who you are, or remove the identity with which your are most comfortable. Labour’s message that the Scots Government should “concentrate on policy rather than constitutional change” has led to their downfall, as more and more folk have come to realise that only with constitutional change will the necessary changes in government policy be possible.

The word” incremental” rises again. It seems to me that the Scots people have carefully judged the SNP in stages: as a minority government, as a majority government, and as promoters of independence. Each time they’ve tested them they have liked what they have found and given them more trust.

I think a lot of people woke up on September 19th last year regretting having not trusted their fellow countrymen enough to vote Yes – and now they are willing to go a stage further. The move from the pragmatism of Alex Salmond to the committed social democracy of Nicola Sturgeon has caught the mood of the people – who now are starting to believe they can make a difference and can be heard – whether it’s on independence, fracking, austerity, or Trident. Folk are no longer willing to be taken for granted by the Westminster elite – and this mood in Scotland – forged in hundreds of meetings and local events and thousands of conversations with friends and workmates – is now finding an echo in England – where thousands are preferring the honesty of Corbyn to the marketing of Cameron and the spin of a media largely owned by corporate tax avoiders.

By chance, I visited one of Scotland’s country houses a few days after I had been in MacDiarmid’s humble but and ben. It was a Victorian Gothic pile, with all the wealth and decoration which that implies. There were lots of family pictures around – often involving kilts – but, in nearly all of them were pictures of young children “catching their first salmon” “bagging their first deer” “waving on Her Majesty’s visit.”

It was a way of life entirely foreign to most Scots and as anachronistic as the Union and its supposed benefits. The two houses seemed like useful bookends to my week of reflection.

You could suggest that thirty years ago the cause of Scots independence could have been cartooned as an old guy in a kilt and tweed jacket; today it would be a mid thirty something with a computer bag. Both sides are far wider than that of course, but it is a useful way of measuring how far the drive for independence has travelled – from romantic roaming in the gloaming to a more European view of social democracy and voter participation. The people are leading and fewer and fewer are inclined to “let the politicians get on with it”. They have noticed that change is needed, and they think they have found a means of achieving that change. Independence – once a niche oddity – has become a perfectly feasible ambition, much feared by the Establishment.

The progress made in the last year has been inescapable – but really it’s the climax of a far longer and more deep rooted movement – largely fuelled by the ignorance and disinterest of established politicians in both Tory and Labour parties.

One year on I am more optimistic than ever. There is light at the end of the unionist tunnel, the light of taking responsibility for our own affairs. Scots are not rushing towards it in an emotional pell mell of Braveheartery or anti_Englishness, but rather approaching in a measured way, considering the benefits of change, and noting the disadvantages of the current set up.

When they are ready, they will become independent, on their own terms .

It’s coming yet for a’ tha’.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 19, 2015 4:13 pm

    A quite excellent article on where we are & how we got here.
    Thanks for that Sean.

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