I came across this piece by Gerry Hassan. The fact that unionists like Douglas Alexander, Claire Lally and Chris Deerin have been promoting it should give you a suggestion as to why I’m going to discuss some of the points in it.
Nearly three months since the momentous indyref Scotland is still gripped by a sense of movement, possibilities and new openings – up to and beyond the 2015 and 2016 elections.
Yet at the same time in parts of the independence movement there are unrealistic expectations of political change, of belief that the union is finished, and that Scotland can embark on its destiny in the next couple of years.
Well let’s be fair, Gerry: if people didn’t have “unrealistic expectations of political change,” how would anything be changed at all? Yet I agree: people need to be realistic, depending on your definition of “realistic.” In fact, it might even be fortuitous to be cynical about everything, if only to make you work all the harder. All the same…
Any radical politics has to have a sense of what is possible, to push it as far as it can, to understand timescales and how these dovetail with strategy. And critically it has to understand the political culture beyond its own boundaries – in the Scotland which voted No.
I think this is the problem right here: Mr Hassan seems under the apprehension that Yes voters are stuck in an echo chamber, a bubble where they only talk to, or entertain the thoughts of, other Yes voters. Yet how is it possible to do so when the entirety of UK politics is so profoundly No-leaning? We are constantly bombarded by “the political culture beyond our boundaries.” It is impossible not to encounter the political culture of Westminster simply because they do not even entertain the reality of what is happening in Scotland right now. Nowhere is this more evident than in the BBC, where Alex Salmond’s announcement of his intention to stand for Gordon in Westminster is met with bafflement and complete misunderstanding of his motivations.
In truth, I think the Yes movement has far greater understanding of the political culture beyond its own boundaries than its counterparts in the No movement.
The independence referendum was a historic moment, an epic time in Scotland’s political evolution, and an awakening of the democratic impulse. Yet, it produced a comfortable victory for No and a defeat for Yes. For all the commentary that Yes won the campaign and that the idea of independence has been normalised, defeat has an upside: an opportunity and release which shouldn’t just be squandered.
The Yes campaign started out three years ago in the 20-30% range, and ended up with 45%. There were points in the final week where that gap was practically negligible. To call No’s victory “comfortable” thanks to the 10 point difference when it lost a significantly larger lead despite having every single major newspaper, every single news channel, almost every other UK-wide party, and countless businesses on their side is rather myopic. Alistair Darling reportedly called 60/40 a “close” outcome: what would that make 55/45?
Defeat allows for catharsis and political renewal. This is an evolution that successful political parties the world over understand: think Labour in 1983 and 1992, or the Tories in 2005, and the disaster that befalls a party that ignores this, such as Scottish Labour in 2007 and 2011.
These then are some of the myths of the indyref which are still held on to by some and which need dispelling:
.Labour post-1983 was “successful”? Not to mention there is no Scottish Labour party, etc etc etc.
1. There is no 45. The 45% reference is a chimera, a passing moment on the day of September 18th which isn’t a permanent political force. It provides no pathway to a Yes majority, and instead is a political wall, which has in it an element of soft sectarianism. Many prominent Yes supporters still embrace ‘the 45’ on twitter and social media – something understandable in the immediate aftermath of September 18th but which isn’t really excusable nearly three months after the vote.
Forgive me if I’m a bit dense, but I honestly don’t see what Mr Hassan’s getting at here. There is a 45, by very definition that it exists. If he said “the 45 is not a permanent political force,” that’d be one thing (albeit one I’d argue given the massive surge in pro-independence party membership) but to say “there is no 45” is pretty bizarre considering the sheer ubiquity of the movement on social media and at large.
I understand the opposition to the 45 moniker among the Yes movement: it does seem exclusive and unchangeable. I don’t use it myself (not least because as an Inverclyde resident, I’m one of the 49.9!) Yet one must consider the wider context of what it represents – that while on the face of it the majority of those who voted in the referendum voted No, that must not be allowed to marginalise the people who voted Yes. Independence supporters have been marginalised enough, and even when we’ve broken into the political mainstream, already we’re being pressurised into accepting the “sovereign will” of the 55%.
“The 45” is a way of reminding people that even in the face of overwhelming opposition, 9 out of every 20 Scots who voted that day, voted for independence. The establishment will stop at nothing to present the No vote as if it was a massive, crushing, irrefutable victory for the Union, but the simple number 45 is a symbol showing that the minority is nowhere near small enough for that to be the case. For those who felt utterly powerless and destroyed by the result, the 45 offers a sense of unity and strength, of relevance, that for all their disagreements with other parties, they pulled together for this one issue that truly mattered to them.
In any case, it seems presumptuous of Mr Hassan to say “there is no 45” three months after the result. Who is he to dictate political and social movements? It’s clear, for good or ill, that the 45 is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.
2. There is a propensity to believe that Yes speaks for Scotland, missing that No won. It is a common trait of bad politics to pose the world as you want to see it, rather than it is, and then build your perspective from this.
Making the mistake that Yes speaks for Scotland misunderstands politics on numerous levels: the nature of democratic legitimacy, the contours of the No victory, and any notion of future political and constitutional change. Pro-independence opinion has to grasp that it does speak for majority Scotland, reach out, listen and empathise, and not engage in a politics which has an element of smugness and self-righteousness.
Here’s the thing though, Mr Hassan: Yes does speak for Scotland. No speaks for the Union. That’s the key difference: in any discussion on politics within the UK, Yes speaks for Scotland first and above all else, whereas No must always defer to UK interests first and above all else. We saw this as pro-UK parties deliberately and cynically vetoed decisions which would benefit Scottish interests, or at least not outright damage them. We saw this as the MP for Govan advocated the economic ruin of thousands in his own constituency in order to maintain the Union. We saw this as a prospective leader of New Labour in Scotland fought to deny the people of Scotland their democratic right to a referendum in the first place. Are you seriously arguing that the majority of Scots, who have consistently shown a preference for anything from welfare to broadcasting to be devolved, are represented by people who fought against those very things?
That’s what people mean when they say “Yes speaks for Scotland,” not some delusion that 45% is a bigger number than 55%. If you want me to entertain the idea that the No parties do “speak for Scotland,” then they’re doing a damn poor job showing it. Case in point: since the No vote, it’s been extremely clear that the vast majority of the people of Scotland are in favour of more powers. The pro-independence parties are fighting for them. The anti-independence parties are fighting against them. Who, here, is “speaking for Scotland”?
3. The pro-union majority did not vote out of selfishness, false consciousness or other reasons which can be dismissed. Instead, like independence voters they were motivated by a huge variety of reasons – all of which are valid.
Name them. Seriously, name them. If they’re valid, then you should have no problem: goodness knows the Better Together campaign could’ve done with those “valid” reasons. If you’re going to say “because they feared for their pensions/health/jobs based on lies Project Fear told them,” how can you possibly call their fears “valid”?
4. The union case did not win just because of middle class Scotland. They provided major support in places, but there are many different middle class sectors and cultures. For example, public sector professional middle class provided significant support to Yes. And sizeable sections of working class Scotland did not vote Yes which brings us to the next point.
This I would agree with (aside from the wording “the union case did not win just because of middle class Scotland” – the union case did not win at all, Mr Hassan, any more than a pigeon “wins” a game of chess by knocking over all the opponent’s pieces and defecating all over the board – it was the UK establishment and media which “won,” not Better Together). People from all walks of life voted No for a variety of reasons – albeit reasons which I refuse to call valid.
5. The notion that Yes won working class Scotland is far too simple to be true and as problematic as placing middle class opinion completely in the No camp. The independence case won parts of the working class, but not comprehensively or uniformly. Yes won majority support in the C2 skilled working class, but lost the DE semi and unskilled working class. This shows that the working class overall was fairly evenly divided between Yes and No – a picture which was one of the anchors of a No victory.
Then what does one make of the fact that the four constituencies which voted Yes (Glasgow, West Dunbartonshire, North Lanarkshire and Dundee) – along with Inverclyde, where every ward except Kilmacolm voted Yes, leading to the extremely tight result – are also areas with some of the highest poverty in all of Scotland? It is true that it is nowhere near as simple as “working class voted Yes, middle/upper class voted No” – but at the same time, it is undeniable that four out of the six poorest constituencies in Scotland voted Yes, and another came within a statistical dead heat.
Again, I agree that the result was not exclusive along class lines – there were plenty of other considerations like age, gender, politics, religion, all the other things which affect one’s vote. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t clear trends.
6. Related to the above is the oft-repeated point that Yes won the Labour heartlands. This is wrong on both counts – first in terms of areas that voted Yes and in what counts as a ‘Labour heartland’.
Only four out of Scotland’s 32 local authorities voted Yes; of which three – Glasgow, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire – can be described as Labour heartlands. Dundee which also voted Yes (and did so by the biggest margin in the country) has frequently and inaccurately described a Labour heartland. This is a bit of a time warp, as the last time this was really true was 1973-74, considering the SNP’s Gordon Wilson won Dundee East in February 1974, and the SNP has held the seat in the Scottish Parliament from 2003. And significantly, several traditional Labour areas such as Fife, Renfrewshire and South Lanarkshire voted No.
A more subtle analysis of ‘Labour heartlands’ would concede that this was a political constituency markedly divided and fragmented. The political argument that 37% of Labour voters turned out for Yes and presenting this as a great success has a similar mistake: for one, the 37% refers to 2010 Westminster voters and contains a huge section of Labour Nats – people who vote Labour at Westminster and SNP at Holyrood, while it also disguises that Yes Scotland consistently failed to develop a serious strategy towards Labour voters.
Again, Mr Hassan seems bereft of a lot of explanation. In what way does Dundee East having voted in Gordon Wilson negate that Dundee West has consistently voted in Labour? By that same logic, you could easily say Fife, Renfrewshire and South Lanarkshire aren’t “really” Labour heartlands because they voted in several other parties in recent times. No, Yes didn’t win every single constituency that voted Labour – but given the significance of Dundee and Glasgow in the history of the Labour movement in Scotland, I think it’s absolutely accurate to say that Yes “won” the “Labour Heartlands” – in so far as you could make a definitive definition of what a Labour heartland is.
7. Another powerful myth has been that the Yes vote was more mobilised than No. This is often connected to the myth of a working class Scotland in previously solid Labour areas turning out in record numbers.
This articulates a story of working class council estates throwing off their apathy and disconnection to politics, and turning out for the first time to vote in generations. There were uplifting activities and moments – from RIC’s Mass Canvas to the scenes in some estates such as Craigmillar and Niddrie in Edinburgh where people organised processions and marches to the polling station. However, all of this, while of value, was often symbolic, and was more than offset by middle class and No mobilisation. The highest turnouts were in the most affluent and pronounced No areas: East Dunbartonshire 91%, East Renfrewshire 90.4% and Stirling 90.1%.
I’m starting to wonder if Mr Hassan is being wilfully obtuse, or whether he’s just dense. It’s entirely possible that I’m being dense, of course: after all, he’s the seasoned political commentator. But, again, it’s predicated entirely on your definition of what “mobilized” means – it only works if you define it by “turned out to vote.” In which case, well, isn’t it blindingly bleeding obvious that 2 million votes are a bigger “mobilization” than 1.6 million? If you mean “mobilize” by getting involved in campaigning, canvassing, and spreading awareness, however, then you cannot possibly say Yes was not more “mobilized” than no.
It should be pointed out that the areas with the lowest “turnout” also had high numbers of people turned away from the polling stations. Glasgow in particular had a high incidence. I know many in Inverclyde alone, people who I personally assured would have their registration forms delivered and processed at Paisley, who were turned away. Do not mistake the higher voting turnout for higher participation in the democratic process, Mr Hassan. I don’t go into conspiracy theories about mass vote fraud, but neither will I deny that a lot of people who wanted to vote were refused based on bureaucratic obstruction.
8. The mobilisation of No was about much more than Project Fear, the Vow and Gordon Brown’s late interventions. The independence cause and referendum brought up for a whole swathe of Scotland feelings of being threatened, anxious and under fire in terms of finances, security, status and positional place.
Independence meant for many voters that they would lose something valuable and precious, almost existential, and this made them deeply uncomfortable. These feelings should not be caricatured or dismissed as wrong, but understood as they put up a set of impenetrable barriers which prevented the independence argument reaching out to large parts of Scotland. In this the 2014 referendum was very different from that of the 1979 and 1997 votes.
… OK, I must be dense, because doesn’t this mean exactly that the mobilisation of No was, in fact, about “feelings of being threatened, anxious and under fire” – i.e. exactly what Project Fear was about? This is literally what Project Fear was doing, attacking an independent Scotland’s “finances, security, status and positional place.”
“Independence meant for many voters that they would lose something valuable and precious, almost existential, and this made them deeply uncomfortable” – we know. That doesn’t make that discomfort any less misplaced. I have absolutely no time with people saying that people’s fears about an independent Scotland are valid when they are based almost entirely on lies. It is not doing anyone any favours to mollycoddle people and tell them the beliefs they hold are valid when they are not.
In several countries, including the US and the UK, there is currently an epidemic of measles going on, because a significant majority of people in certain areas are convinced that vaccines cause autism. This is happening, even after Wakefield’s study was thrown out, even though he was disbarred, even though study after study after study has proven there to be no link between vaccines and autism. Yet in 2014, children are becoming sick and even dying because apparently, those parents’ feelings “should not be caricatured or dismissed as wrong.”
No, the feelings should not be caricatured, or dismissed. But when they make decisions based upon those feelings, they must be defensible. If they cannot be defended, then they have to be challenged. It will make people uncomfortable, but how can we expect to change anything without being challenged?
9. There are many different political communities in Scotland with numerous faultlines and divides. A critical dimension is that of insider versus outsider Scotland – which taken at the levels of geographical location or social place – turned out for No.
The further removed people were from the Central Belt the more likely they were to vote No. Thus, Shetland (64%), Orkney (67%), Dumfries and Galloway (66%) and Scottish Borders (67%) were all emphatic No areas. The reasons for some of this are illuminating: dislike of Edinburgh authority and centralisation, a feeling that the SNP did not understand the needs of ‘far-flung’ parts of Scotland, worries about losing EU funding, and even that London rule was for some less insensitive than the prospect of an omnipotent Edinburgh.
You’ll also notice that these areas’ communities are significantly more isolated from each other: it is much more difficult to canvass in Peebleshire or Banff than Maryhill. It’s much easier, then, for Yes to have a greater presence and normalisation in the Central Belt where everyone can gather, than it is to have enough Yes voters in small villages and farming communities spread across vast spaces. And, again, it doesn’t take away that those feelings are not automatically “valid” just because they’re deeply held, especially when they’re demonstrably unfounded. (Seriously, they think London less insensitive than Edinburgh? They think London’s going to protect EU funding when they give it away to English farmers right now?)
10. Large parts of Yes did not really understand No. Some did not want to understand it, taking pleasure in articulating a set of stereotypes, while others went further and cast doubt on the reasons and motivations of a large part of the No coalition.
No ran an extremely poor campaign – in terms of messaging, politics, positioning and grass roots organisation. And yet they still won by a sizeable margin. One reason is that, while it is correct to celebrate the positive hopes and mobilisation of many Yes supporters, there is a need to reflect on the panoply of emotions and motivations of the No majority. Their version and vision of Scotland – which contained like Yes many different and contradictory ideas and futures – is as valid and counts as much as any on the independence side.
On the contrary, Mr Hassan, I think large parts of Yes understood all too well. They understood that the No majority had a panoply of emotions, versions and visions of Scotland, with many different and contradictory ideas and futures. We know this, because for the majority of the referendum campaign, the No side had exclusive dominion in the media. Every daily national newspaper that was not neutral backed No. Every news channel that was not neutral backed No. The BBC consistently presented panels and commentary that was either heavily skewed towards, or totally comprised of, unionists.
Secondly, you’re applying a false legitimacy to the No campaign’s opinions (not to mention, again, saying that the No campaign “won” – to use another metaphor, they “won” in the same way that a flea on the back of an elephant shook a bridge, the elephant in this case being the UK establishment and media). When their opinions are based on misinformation, selective evidence, and outright fallacies, then what good are they?
A great man once said:
Everybody has opinions: I have them, you have them. And we are all told from the moment we open our eyes, that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. Well, that’s horsepuckey, of course. We are not entitled to our opinions; we are entitled to our informed opinions. Without research, without background, without understanding, it’s nothing. It’s just bibble-babble.
Nobody denies that No voters voted No based on very real, genuine emotions. So are the fears of the child when they see a monster’s shadow creeping on the wall. The fact that the shadow was in fact a tree branch blowing in the wind does not negate the child’s fear – but it does negate the reason for that fear. It makes it an irrational fear. Likewise, all those elderly people who feared their pensions would be taken away on the 19th of September, as they were told en masse, is genuine – but the danger was not. Their pensions were not being taken away from them in the event of a Yes vote. That was never going to happen. It was an irrational fear. So how can you possible call any decision based on an irrational fear valid?
11. Yes and No are over. They are not the future. There is no future in them. They belong to the past – and died on September 18th. The Yes/No binary has to be lost to allow the emergent new voices, spaces and movements which came forth in the referendum to grow, be set free, and find a place to flourish which is not dependent or related to the independence referendum.
So long as there is an independence movement – and a unionist movement – then Yes and No cannot ever be “over.” Regardless of whether there’s another referendum or not, the binary will always exist in some form. The only reason there is a binary at all is because the Unionist parties made it so, conflating every form of devolution into “No,” declining to offer a second question regardless of its popularity. Any emergent new voices are being stifled and crushed as they always have been, because that is the nature of First Past the Post politics – it always leads to a binary system. This is what we were trying to get away from.
Finally, what of the future? First, Scotland has to be understood as more than a series of competing tribes: Yes and No, pro-independence and anti-independence, nationalist and unionist, SNP and Labour. The undercurrent of this is an attempt by partisans on each of these sides and camps to reduce every opinion down to two perspectives and a politics of two tribes. Everything revolves around the question: whose side are you on?, and who do you most trust to look after Scotland? Other questions about democracy, the environment, sustainable economic growth, and how we run public services are lost in this divide, as is any real space for radical progressive politics.
Mr Hassan, the reason “whose side are you on?, and who do you most trust to look after Scotland?” overtake questions about democracy, the environment, sustainable economic growth, and how we run public services is because we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control – those forces being one of those “sides.” We cannot have any meaningful discussion about reserved decisions when we have no power to say or do anything that affects those decisions. It’s pie-in-the-sky. It’s ivory tower. It’s meaningless pondering. The only way we can actually get things done is when we can take the power to get those things done.
Sure, let’s have questions about democracy – it doesn’t mean we can do a thing to change the democratic process at Westminster. Let’s discuss the environment – it doesn’t mean we can stop the UK government from dumping nuclear waste wherever it likes. We can come up with ideas about sustainable economic growth – doesn’t matter a jot when we have no job creation powers. We can consider new ways to run public services – doesn’t matter when the power to nationalise or privatise is out of our hands.
A week or so ago, Lesley Riddoch came to speak at my local library. I wish I could say I enjoyed the night, but I didn’t. It made me angry. For all the talk about possibilities and the great things people have done, nearly every story she told was a story of failure. The story of a man who wanted to revitalise the ecosystem was squandered by beaurocratic obstruction. The story of a man who wanted to make a good life for himself halted by class privilege. The stories of so many people who worked so hard, only to be thwarted.
This, Mr Hassan, is why we’re focusing on “whose side are you on?, and who do you most trust to look after Scotland?” – because time and again, the forces against us have fought to keep us down, long before independence became a real possibility. When are we going to realise that all the good we try to do is purely under their good graces? How many wonderful ideas are going to be strangled by red tape at the whim of an uncaring government? I’ve seen too many brilliant motions and projects suffocate.
This is part of the reason I’m starting to come around to the idea that it had to be a No vote this time – so we could get rid of the forces conspiring to keep us all down. We can try to build a better Scotland within the UK, and I applaud all those who do. But always beware the forces that are looking for any excuse to shoot us down. Rather than attempting to build a country on quicksand, perhaps we should make sure we have a stronger foundation – one that we don’t have to constantly fight against, that threatens to destroy it all. These are the forces, after all, who work from the basis that there is no such thing as Scotland.
3 7. For the purpose of this advice, it is not necessary to decide between these two views of the union of 1707. Whether or not England was also extinguished by the union, Scotland certainly was extinguished as a matter of international law, by merger either into an enlarged and renamed England or into an entirely new state.
I’m sick of this cycle of build and destroy. We’re still trying to build Scotland: let us be the destroyers for once – the destroyers of those who would see us extinguished.
EDIT: Mr Hassan responds on twitter:
Interesting critique of my post-
#indyref piece. Who is it wants Scotland ‘extinguished’? Answer: no one not even WM.
Really not sure how to respond to that, given I just posted a link to UK parliament advice which states, in no uncertain terms, that Westminster already considers Scotland “extinguished” as a matter of international law. As for people who want Scotland “extinguished,” well…