It seems everyone has their own ideas about “what went wrong” in the first referendum campaign. That’s good: it shows a movement with many different points of view and interpretations of the campaign. It’s also extremely necessary, as I’ve become more and more aware that the vast majority of the independence movement – that is, the voters themselves – may not have actually campaigned for a single day throughout the first referendum. This is not a criticism: it is the current political reality in the UK, where only a small proportion of party voters will be members, and a smaller proportion still will be active members who go out and leaflet, canvass, and campaign. We’re still recovering from decades of disenfranchisement and disillusionment, to the point where Scotland’s turnout in the EU referendum can be criticised for being “low” despite it being the second highest of any referendum Scotland has participated in.
I cannot place blame or fault in those people. In another reality, I could easily have spent the most important months of our nation’s history at home, occasional comments on internet forums and online articles being the extent of my contributions towards the cause. I know I spent most of my adolescence on the periphery of Scottish politics: I kept out because I felt a lack of knowledge, a dearth of confidence, and a general antipathy towards politics in general. Given the quality of the brave new era of the reconvened Scottish Parliament was the myopic mediocrity of the Scottish Executive, can you blame me?
So, I decided to do something about it, and got involved following the official launch of Yes Scotland. After the referendum, I joined the SNP, and got involved in the last two elections, as well as the European Union Referendum. Having campaigned for the last four years practically non-stop, sometimes I forget that this is something I’ve come to fairly recently in life – sometimes I forget that not everyone who voted Yes, or SNP, or Remain, was as madly political as I was.
So, since we’re all talking about how to win the surely-inevitable indyref2, I thought I’d share some of my observations from the last four years of campaigning.
I chapped a lot of doors through the past few election & referendum campaigns, during which I encountered my share of No voters. Quite a few of them became Yes voters, and I truly wish there was a magic feather that held the secret to convincing people to your political cause – but people are varied and different, and will have different reasons for their choices.
Nonetheless, I’ve found there are broad commonalities. Obviously, there will be diehards who would not vote for independence under any circumstances – the “Never” Voters – and even though I believe everyone has the capacity to change their mind, engaging with these individuals can often be the most stressful for all involved. Yet the vast majority of people I meet are perfectly rational, reasonable human beings. Often a simple conversation will reveal I and other independence supporters are not violent brutes out to bully them, or charlatans trying to swindle them out of their pensions, but just regular folk who feel compelled to engage in politics. The average independence supporter likely hates being reduced to “cybernats” or “cultists” or “Nats,” and I don’t think the average No voter would like being compared to the No Campaign’s worst elements.
There are, literally, millions of voters in Scotland, each with their own journey and their own experiences in life.
The British Nationalists
Probably the strongest No Voters are those who are quite happy being British, consider Britain to be their nation, and think Scottish independence is an existential attack on their country. They may be quite happy with the current constitutional arrangement, or they could be aching for wide-reaching change – but they will always think of Britain as their polity.
I do not believe there is anything inherently wrong or evil about nationalism, and this extends to British Nationalism as much as my own Scottish Nationalism. It is in the expression of nationalism, and the actions taken to achieve its goals, where it gets ugly. British Nationalism has been contorted and twisted into a method of cultural oppression – to the Scottish, Welsh, Irish, and even the English. This was not a natural, organic evolution: it is a calculated measure formerly used to pacify and “Anglicise” (more properly “Briticise”) colonies and dominions. It is now a sad relic from the days of Empire which concentrates its shrunken power in the only place it still has influence – Britain itself.
You might think it impossible to move a British Nationalist into supporting Scottish independence – but I’ve seen it happen. All it takes is questioning what it means to be British, and what would be lost in the event of independence. We Scottish Nationalists are simply wanting to assert the independence of a country which the very Act of Union claims already exists – without Scotland being a nation, there could be no United Kingdom, right? Britain is not just a political entity, after all: it is a cultural and geographical one. Britain pre-dated the Treaty of Union – as Albion, Prettanike, Britannia, even the prehistoric landmass whose name is lost to time – and it will outlive the Union, too.
Anti-Nationalists are those who either don’t believe in nationalism, or view independence in the same light as the most horrible atrocities in recent history. They may insist they are Citizens Of The World who don’t support any nation, or they may call themselves Internationalists: either way, Nationalism is silly, foolish, or downright dangerous. Some of them make no bones about it. I regularly talked to individuals who compared Alex Salmond to Franco, Mussolini, and other war criminals; they equated the Scottish Independence movement to the German or Spanish movements of the early 20th century; they called me, my friends, and my family all sorts of names based on their idea of what we believed in.
Thankfully, most of the particularly outspoken Anti-Nationalists are content to leave it at words. But the majority of Anti-Nationalists are simply frightened. They’re genuinely afraid and intimidated by the independence movement and its supporters. It’s hard not to see why, when the media, politicians, talking heads, and commentators talk about the sinister Cybernats and publish articles comparing the independence movement with horrible things. Sometimes I think independence supporters forget about this. Yet I’ve found, for most people, simply meeting and talking with one of these “nasty nats” can dispel those fears. They see we aren’t out to kick out anyone not born in Scotland, or build a wall from Gretna to Berwick, or round up all the English into camps: we’re just people with a different point of view from the majority of newspapers, television personalities, and UK politicians.
It’s very easy to make bogeymen out of people when they don’t have a voice. That’s why it’s getting more and more difficult to do this with independence supporters: easily half the population of Scotland support independence, despite only one daily and one Sunday newspaper providing a platform in the mainstream media. Back in the indyref campaign, we didn’t even have The National, and look how far we came. In the absence of strong media support, it’s up to each individual within the campaign & the cause to bring our case to the people of Scotland.
Perfectionists want to know every last detail, every variable, every possibility that could affect anything in an independent Scotland. They must know everything from the price of a postage stamp, to every step of the process from being part of the UK to being independent, with as many statistics and analyses and findings as can be mustered. Anything remotely ambiguous – even things that simply cannot be predicted with any certainty at the best of times – is scrutinised greatly.
It’s understandable: when a big decision is asked, people want to know as much as they can about the implications of their choice. Some would say that it is up to the person proposing change to make their case: I agree. For most of the referendum campaign, the Yes Campaign were proposing the biggest change in centuries for the people of Scotland. Yet as the gap narrowed, the No Campaign started proposing their own changes – of Devo Max, Home Rule, Near Federalism, culminating in the notorious Vow, itself a symbol of all the promise made to the people of Scotland that change would come no matter which way you voted. Yet for all the scrutiny placed on the Yes Campaign’s proposals, how much analysis was done for the No Campaign’s? That last week, the television was wall-to-wall promotion of Gordon Brown’s brave, proud, ambitious New Deal, much talk of sweeping new powers, the strongest devolved Parliament in the world, of leading rather than leaving the UK.
A perfectionist would surely want to know the exact terms of what Devomax or Home Rule or Near Federalism actually meant; what guarantees were in place to ensure they were delivered; what their Plan B was if things didn’t go their way. Constant questioning of all sides, all options, all possibilities, including one’s own, is vital in coming to an informed and reasoned decision. Sometimes the most important thing to question is your own self. It’s how I got where I am today.
These are the people who say they would vote Yes, except that there is a clear and present threat to their livelihoods if they do so – real or imagined. This took on multiple forms in Inverclyde, but the most common were jobs. The workers and families of workers at Faslane, Coulport, Ferguson, and other naval stations were concerned that they would lose their jobs in the event of independence. It wasn’t just “British” institutions, either: many people who worked at multinational corporations claimed that their bosses or managers informed them that their jobs were under direct threat unless they voted no. I’ll never forget one friend coming to our door late one night after receiving a letter from their employer that wasn’t unlike the infamous Bill Munro document.
More heartbreaking are the recent migrants to Inverclyde who worried themselves sick over being deported. A number of migrants who came into the Yes Inverclyde shop expressed deep concern over being told that they would be forced to move back home after a Yes Vote. It’s particularly galling now for the people from European nations: the impression seems to be that they have no say in their own destiny whether Scotland voted Yes or No. Then there are the pensioners: putting aside the demographic indications which have now created a chasm between the under and over-50s, they were the subjects of a particularly despicable campaign of misinformation. Even after the Scottish Affairs Committee found that there would be no threat to the state pension of Scots as a result of independence, many pensioners somehow got the impression that their pensions were under threat.
If there’s a silver lining to the official result of 19th September 2014, it’s that we can directly compare what the No Campaign said would happen, and what actually happened. Had the official result been for Yes, then we’d have no point of reference: the No Campaign could attribute everything bad that happened to independence, from the global oil price falls to the terrible weather, and say “we told you this would be a disaster!” If nothing else, we can at least ensure that some scrutiny is given to the other side, with the knowledge of direct evidence for our case.
Next-Timers are fine with an independent Scotland in theory, and may support it in principle, but think that the time isn’t right – though they assure you they will consider voting Yes “next time.” They don’t know when the next referendum will be – though they all seem certain there will be one at some point – but they are confident circumstances will be much more amenable, and they could “see themselves” voting Yes at that point.
I’ve met more than a few of them. One of them thought it would be better to wait until the economy’s recovered before we do anything that might upset the apple-cart. Another was concerned by the SNP’s hegemony (this was before May 2015, mind), and wanted to wait until we had a more “multi-party Parliament.” Yet another wanted to wait until England “sorted itself out” before we “abandoned” them. And then there are those who couldn’t pin down exactly what was preventing them from voting Yes this time, other than they didn’t “feel” like it was the right time.
I could only think of the sentiment of Hillel the Elder, famously paraphrased by politicians through the ages as “if not you, who; if not now, when?”:
If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am “I”? And if not now, when?
I’ve no idea whether these were excuses made for people who didn’t want the responsibility of their vote on their shoulders if it turned out to be a mistake, or whether they truly felt that way. Whatever the case, perhaps all they need is encouragement.
In general, I’ve found that the best way to talk to people is to, well, treat them like people: thinking, reasoning, intelligent human beings. Go in like a salesman, and people will question your motives: go in like an evangelist, and people may clam up defensively. I don’t want to “sell” independence as if it’s some sort of flashy product, nor to proclaim the Word like it’s a magic feather that’ll make you fly. Independence is, to me, scientific: it makes sense. It makes sense to me, because of the arguments – even when the arguments change.
Commentators frequently feel the need to remind everyone who won the independence referendum. It’s just as easy to forget that Yes won the independence campaign. When you have a starting point of 30% and end with an official result of 45%, then it’s clear something we were doing was working – and remember not a single poll since the referendum has shown a broadening of the gap beyond the official referendum result. The recent YouGov poll which had so much coverage still only shows a 5% gap – half the 10.6% gap recorded on 18th September 2014 – and it is distinctly divergent from the three other polls since the European Union Referendum that showed independence support in the lead. To announce “there is no appetite for independence” following a Leave vote doesn’t take into account the idea that nobody – least of all the UK Government – seems able to tell us what a Leave vote actually means.
Nonetheless, the arguments have changed, because the UK has changed. Case in point: currency. Already people are citing the rumours of a return to the Pound Scots – our currency for centuries before the Treaty of Union, after all – as “proof” that the SNP were “lying” about a currency union. A currency union was almost certainly going to happen, regardless of the No Campaign’s bluffs – a UK Government Minister, a top economist, the lead Financial Times political correspondent, a prominent member of the Institute of Economic Affairs, and the former governor of the Bank of England said as such, and even the leader of the No Campaign said we could use the pound. However, this was the plan when the rest of the UK was also part of the European Union: using Sterling then was desirable for all concerned. Now, in 2016, with the sharpest fall of any major currency in recent memory with an even grimmer future predicted, and two neighbours which want out of the European Union, Sterling just isn’t as attractive to Scotland as it might have been before. Times change. This time, the Pound cannot be used against us.
Same with EU membership. Last time around, the No Campaign was bending over backwards trying to say Scotland’s place in the EU was deeply uncertain, and that any discontinuity would be terrible for Scotland. Very little time or attention was given to the possibility of a UK referendum on EU membership – much less the possibility of a Leave vote. Now, it seems that even if the No Campaign was right, and Scotland would have left the EU when it left the UK, then it starts to look like Scotland has no say in its membership of the EU whatsoever. Either it leaves the UK, and in doing so, leaves the EU; or it stays in the UK, but the UK takes it out of the EU. It starts to look like it didn’t matter how Scots voted either way, doesn’t it? But now, we do have a clear choice: to remain part of the UK, or remain part of the EU. This time, the EU cannot be used against us.
Even the oil, long an unchallenged and unquestioned “liability” for the independence movement, has scuppered itself. The Nightmare Scenario happened: the price of oil plummeted past anyone’s expectations. And what happened next? Did Scotland’s economy collapse? Did crisis talks happen where huge subsidies were pumped into the Scottish economy to stem the losses? Did our GDP hit rock bottom? On the contrary, Scotland’s economy was barely effected; there were no crisis talks a la the infamous bailouts, even as tens of thousands of oil industry jobs were lost; our GDP actually increased. This was supposed to be the ultimate, devastating, finishing blow to Scottish Nationhood, and scupper support for independence for good – hopefully reduce it to pre-indyref levels, maybe even the pre-Edinburgh Agreement doldrums. It did not. This time, oil cannot be used against us.
But all this is for naught if independence campaigners aren’t aware of the facts, data, statistics, and other essentials.
Transform & Roll Out
You could not step twice into the same river.
– Heraclitus of Ephesus, as quoted in Plato’s Cratylus, 402a
As the arguments for independence have changed, so too must the campaign. While the principle of independence may remain constant, the circumstances are subject to change: just as we may perceive a river to be the same, even when the water itself is constantly flowing. We independence supporters may be stepping into the same spot on the riverbank, but the water running over our feet is ever fresh, ever new, ever replenished. It may look the same, flowing through the same rough-hewn rock down the same chanels, but we know things are different under the surface.
It can be tough. Of course it can. To see formerly staunch No voters now coming over following the Leave vote is challenging. I’m not too proud to admit I felt it in the beginning. I recall not too long after the indyref that one prominent Better Together campaigner had not only switched sides, but joined the SNP. It took a while for me to accept this: after all, not only did this individual disagree, they actively campaigned against a cause I hold most dear. They delivered leaflets full of misinformation; they canvassed people hoping to get them to vote against their own independence; they championed the UK. And then to see them celebrating in the early morning of the 19th of September…
Like I said, it was tough. I cannot play the political game: I can’t help but take it personally. Yet if the first step on the road to recovery is recognising you have a problem, then the first step to making peace is accepting you’re in a state of unrest. How could I help, trust, even accept this person – the first, it turned out, of many – when we were on opposite sides in the most important decision our nation has made in centuries?
The short answer is you just have to. What kind of world would it be – what kind of cause do we have – if we let suspicion and resentment jeopardise what is just within our grasp? New Yes voters, be they former No supporters, activists, campaigners, even politicians, are independence supporters all the same, whatever their reasons or justifications. We keep going: if you want to help, you’re more than welcome to come along. And so, where once I might’ve been unwelcoming to newcomers following the Leave vote, I’m now more than happy for them to come along on the grand adventure – isn’t that what we’ve been trying to do all along?
So. Let’s get splashing.