Dissonant Notes

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Life After No - Removing Negativity And Staying Self-Critical In Post-Referendum Scotland

As the referendum results from Scotland’s thirty two council areas began to trickle out in the early hours of Friday the 19th of September it soon became clear that a Yes vote was not on the cards. Other than the large victory for Yes in Dundee, it was a rather depressing night for Yes supporters and, by the time Glasgow announced its support for Yes, it was apparent that even this victory would not be enough. Scotland had voted No to independence. Among many Yes supporters the first reaction was anger and/or despair which was understandable given the soaring optimism and idealism that the Yes movement fostered. As the days pass, though, the anger must subside and be replaced by a sense of political purpose as many wonder what the next wave of Scottish politics will look like. In light of some of the reactions that have been witnessed, it will be be necessary to remove a few things from the table. Let’s start with the most obvious: respect the democratic wishes of the people of Scotland and accept the result.

Scotland voted No to independence. This fact is perhaps a difficult one for many to accept but it is a fact nonetheless. The next stage is perhaps more important and one that many will have even more difficulty doing. That next stage is giving up on the idea of another referendum any time soon. There will not be another referendum in a year, or two years, or five years. There will not. Will there be one at some distant point in the future? Perhaps, but at this stage we need to show that we respect the democratic process when we lose, otherwise any future victories will lack validity. The point of democracy is that those who win should have a chance to see what their choices look like. Those who voted No did so for a multitude of reasons and it is important that we honour their choices. Many people in Scotland felt exhausted as the referendum approached due to arguing with friends and family for months. To ask them to do so again in two years would be a betrayal. If Labour and/or the Conservatives fail to keep the promises they made, then by all means engage with other Scottish voters but avoid any “I told you so” utterances. A democratic decision is one made by all of us.

A (disputed) poll came out after the referendum which suggested that the largest and most important grouping of No voters were aged 65 and over. Putting aside any arguments regarding the validity of the poll, the reactions to this information was at times a little disturbing. Everybody who supported independence knew that there were risks involved. To turn around angrily and denounce those who feared what the last years of their lives would look like in Scotland was irresponsible and downright shameful. While many Scots probably voted to stay in the Union simply because that is what they preferred, it is not unreasonable to think that many people were scared. The moment any movement points an accusing finger at the elderly simply for making a democratic choice to stay with the status quo is the moment when anger and confusion have drastically clouded judgement. Leave the elderly of Scotland alone.

Now comes the most difficult issue: the notion of the 45. This number was chosen because 45% of the people who cast a vote in the referendum voted for independence, and because of the historical connotations of the forty-five, the name for the Jacobite uprising of 1745. First off, the Jacobites and the Stuarts supported everything the independence movement is against . It was a Stuart monarch who initiated the Union of the Crowns, a Stuart monarch who began the suppression of Gaelic, and a Stuart monarch who oversaw the Act of Union. The Jacobites fought to reinstate the Stuart line and put on the throne a despotic monarch who merely had a historical connection with Scotland (Jacobitism was also popular in Catholic Ireland, even though it was a Stuart monarch who began the plantation of Ulster). The Stuarts, from James VI onwards, had no great love of Scotland and moved their power base to London at the first opportunity. Had the forty-five been successful, the Stuarts would have undoubtedly broken their promises to Scotland, and London would have been their power base once again. When the Act of Union occurred, there were riots on the streets of Scotland but, when it came to the Jacobite uprisings, many Scots supported the Union and the imported Hanoverian line merely due to their dislike of the Stuart line, while the British government used the uprisings as an excuse to brutalise and anglicise large parts of Scotland. The Jacobites managed to utilise a lot of anti-Unionist sentiment, despite the actions of the Stuarts being essential to the Union’s existence and, in doing so, tarnished and destroyed any hopes of a popular anti-Unionist political movement. The Jacobite uprisings were a monarchical power struggle disguised (and still at times portrayed) as a last bid for national autonomy and as such any connections with them should be avoided.

The other problem with the 45 is its exclusivity. In the immediate aftermath of the result, proclaiming yourself to be a Yes supporter felt like a point of pride in the face of defeat. Yet for this proclamation to coalesce into a solid political movement is to invite future defeats. If a future referendum happens, then more people need to vote Yes. Nobody wants to join an old club where the members have war wounds and medals on display. It surely does not need pointing out that a political movement with independence as one of its main goals must have an open door policy where past actions will not be seen as wrong. Yes supporters should feel proud of their actions, but finger-pointing and demonising will accomplish nothing other than running the risk of making the next referendum result look like the ‘15 instead of the ‘45.

One of the most self-defeating trends which has emerged in post-referendum Scotland is the paranoid attitude towards the BBC and the media in general. A free press means that the press are free to print whatever they want, even if it favours the status quo. Once we get into the mindset that a pro-independence article or report is fair-minded and a critical one is biased we lose perspective. A lot of people became Yes supporters during the referendum campaign, so Yes supporters were involved in an uphill struggle from day one. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine that the majority who voted against independence were in fact merely being represented by well-established media outlets who had a vested interest in remaining in the Union. Is that biased? Perhaps. Is it legal? Absolutely. Yes supporters need to avoid sinking into a conspiracy mindset that demands a progressive version of Fox News for Scotland. The problem with Fox News isn’t that it is Republican. The problem is that it tells its viewers over and over again that their network is the only fair and balanced one and, in doing so, allows their viewers to dismiss all other viewpoints that challenge their own. Yes supporters must remain open-minded and self-critical if they hope to increase their numbers.

As well as hostility to the press, Yes supporters need to stop all talk of boycotting businesses who supported the No campaign. Nobody should be punished for supporting a legal democratic option. A small but loud minority of Yes supporters are using words like traitor and talking of boycotts and revenge, and it is rather frightening. Other Yes supporters need to challenge and shut-down this kind of talk. The best aspect of the Yes campaign was its idealistic zeal and progressive attitude. The voices which exude paranoia and anger must not in any way come to represent the Yes campaign (even if they are Jim Sillars) or the whole movement will descend into the ugly nationalism that Yes was never about in the first place.

Yes supporters also need to stop referring to No voters as mugs who were duped. It creates an unrealistic perspective of absolute clarity when it comes to the referendum. Nobody knows what a Yes Scotland would truly have looked like and you can bet there would have been many setbacks and bumps in the road. Ultimately there was an element of risk involved, and many people simply did not want to take that risk. That was a democratic option. Let’s weed out the paranoia, the exclusivity, the anger at the result, the media conspiracy theories (and let’s not even get started on the ridiculous voter fraud claims), the finger-pointing, and the name-calling. For a comfortable victory in the future, Yes would need a 10% swing. None of the behaviours described above will help bring about that swing. In fact they will alienate many people. Oh and, for God’s sake, leave J.K. Rowling alone. So, what exactly can Yes supporters do?

To start with, instead of wondering what the other side did to win, we should ask ourselves what Yes did to lose. How exactly could Yes have convinced that extra 10% of voters to claim a unanimous victory? The one issue which I think left Yes supporters most open to attack and which produced the most anxiety in undecided voters was the issue of the Scottish currency. To put it bluntly, Alex Salmond made a huge blunder by refusing point-blank to discuss a plan B for Scotland’s currency. Many Yes supporters, myself included, went to great lengths to emphasise that the referendum was not about Alex Salmond and the SNP. This remains true to this day, yet it was Alex Salmond and the SNP who were seen as the voice of the Yes movement and, as such, Salmond’s steadfast refusal to engage with voters in regards to Scottish currency proved disastrous. When every party leader of every major British political party tells you that there will not be a currency union, turning around and saying “Yes there will” does not look like a vote winner. With currency uncertain, Scottish voters were being asked to take a gamble. It is no longer "our" pound if we leave the UK and it is a mistake to make demands of the very entity you wish to break away from, especially if those demands lessen the very notion of independence. Never mind a Plan B, there should have been a Plan C and a Plan D. Yes supporters were left giving impromptu answers to interested parties when asked about Scottish currency, knowing full well that these were answers not given by the main proponent of independence. Even if there had been a currency union, surely it would not have been permanent. An independent country needs a sovereign currency. Yet Salmond and the SNP continually stated that there would be a currency union. End of story. The hammering that Salmond took over this was entirely appropriate. For a man who seems to have spent his entire life preparing for a referendum, Salmond looked woefully unprepared. The idea that a team of economists could have engaged fully with Scottish voters telling them exactly what their options were does not seem to have occurred to Salmond. To say that the currency issue lost the referendum for Yes might be an overstatement, but a clearer economic policy instead of one which was deemed null and void by British political parties (and which compromised Scotland’s independence) would have at least made the numbers closer to 50-50.

The issue of unpreparedness also loomed large during the campaign. It felt like the SNP thought that their majority in Holyrood might not come again so the referendum took on a ‘now or never’ feel. Looked at from this perspective, the referendum felt like it came too early. Granted, it was perhaps the referendum itself that forced people to solidify their positions in regards to an independent Scotland, yet there is no escaping the feeling that not enough work was done by the SNP to prepare Scottish voters for the consequences of the referendum. It was only in the final few weeks of the campaign that things took a more serious turn, as Yes supporters felt for the first time that the vote might go their way. The most positive aspect of the referendum was that it politicised thousands of Scottish voters who had hitherto felt disempowered by the British political system. The tragedy is it took the referendum to do it, and when the No vote happened many were left wondering what to do next. It was the referendum, not the SNP, which empowered people.

The thousands of people now joining the SNP need to demand more currency options from their leadership, as well as making sure that the SNP challenges the most destructive independence supporters who seem to want independence for its own sake without thinking through the consequences. The idea that independence would get rid of the Tories for good is a dangerous one, considering that the Conservatives are not unique to England and that an independent Scotland could easily see a resurgence of Conservatism. I fear that the multitude of voices which emerged during the referendum campaign will be tamed and muted by any political parties they choose to join in the name of the greater good, that greater good being independence. Questions need to be asked not only about currency, but about whether independent Scotland would try to create a corporate tax haven, thereby undermining the idea of a progressive, caring Scotland which cares for its citizens first.

The explosion of voices which occurred as a result of the referendum was truly inspiring. The fact that many of us backed Yes without knowing exactly what an independent Scotland would look like was more an act of trust in the Scottish people than Alex Salmond. For those of us who were troubled by some unanswered questions, now is the time to have them answered properly. If a referendum happens at some future date, then Yes supporters can hopefully be ready with more definitive answers. The people of Scotland voted No to independence and as much as many of us would like to point to media bias or declare the Scottish populace mugs, the honest thing to do would be to look to see how the Yes campaign could have won in identical circumstances. There were a lot of uncertainties about independent Scotland and as such we must admit that many people voted No for legitimate reasons. Our job now is to be self-critical and in doing so we can find the weakest aspects of the Yes campaign, thereby making sure that they will be eradicated. Pointing the finger elsewhere is the worst way to improve. It will be a long time till there’s another referendum. Let’s all make sure we are truly ready.

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