Friday, 19 September 2014

Scotland decides

And it’s a no.

As the campaign entered its final weeks, particularly after YouGov gave the yes campaign their single percentage point lead, it all got a bit unpleasant at times. I removed my “yes” Twibbon from my Twitter profile after a while as I was so shocked by some of what I saw. On the eve of the poll I almost wrote a Ewen Morrison-style “why I’m now a no voter” post. There were three things that I found particularly problematic.

Firstly, was the endless accusations of BBC bias and the demonstrations outside Pacific Quay. These got to me for a number of reasons. Most importantly was the basic issue of the BBC is biased. It doesn’t take a genius to work this out. Just try watching any of their coverage of industrial disputes as a trade union member; or consider their coverage of the Middle-East from any perspective beyond that of Israel or the US. I also could not understand why it was an issue for Yes – if their campaign was so powerful, so grassroots and honest, if the BBC were not fully reporting how overwhelming it was, why did it matter? Surely Yes was beyond the BBC? I was also fairly impressed with the BBC coverage overall. It was atrocious before the start of 2014, but it is the British Broadcasting Corporation – the vast majority of its viewers were not interested in IndyRef before then. This is also why the endless questions that had already been debated in Scotland, kept being re-aired; the rest of the UK had not heard them. The rest of the UK only woke up when that YouGov poll was published. And in those final two weeks there was some very impressive coverage – Robert Peston in particular was very good; the Big Big Debate got massive plaudits across the political spectrum. Even Nick Robinson moved away from being his usual right-wing ignoramus to doing some good reporting. On the eve of the vote, he could have, quite rightly, reported how he was booed out of Perth Concert Hall, but he didn’t. That wasn’t the news story.

The second thing that made me absolutely livid and frankly ashamed to be associated with the whole process was that video of someone on a rickshaw following some Labour MPs, including Ed Milliband through the streets of Glasgow playing the Imperial War March from Star Wars and saying things like “welcome imperial masters”. This was followed by people in Darth Vader and stormtrooper outfits waving Yes flags. This disgusted me. It was utterly ignorant of Scotland’s major role in the making of the British Empire. Scots were disproportionately active in the slavery and cold-blooded ruthlessness that made the British Empire for two centuries. The empire made the wealth of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee. To pretend Scotland is somehow an oppressed country overpowered by imperial overlords is an insult to this history of suffering. We have had this debate; we have had this vote; we are not oppressed.

The final thing that got to me was something I mentioned briefly in my post about being a swithering Yes voter – the naïve, blind optimism of those on the political left who supported Yes, with their unflinching idea that somehow an independent Scotland would become a socialist utopia. This became only more ludicrous once the English left started to chip-in. It utterly ignored the facts of the social attitudes of the Scottish population – a point made all the more apparent to me when I was preparing some slides for later today. In the 2013 results of the Scottish Social AttitudesSurvey, 75% of compassionate, left-leaning Scots who believe in social justice agree or strongly agree that the majority of people who claim benefits claim them fraudulently (a staggering 48% strongly agree); 52% of the same Scots either think taxes and spending should be lowered (4%) or stay the same as they are at the moment (48%). Oh, and those free university places that Scotland is so proud of boasting about because they demonstrate how socially just we are? 72% of Scots disagree with them.  

Now, there are two responses to this I can expect. One is quite ridiculous, but I actually have some time for – all these people are Daily Mail readers who have had their views polluted by a right-wing press. To be fair, if you compare the news agenda in countries with more tolerant views on such things, like our Scandinavian chums, their press reports them less negatively. But we’ve never been voting whether we’d get a radically different press ownership with different editorial views. We’ve been voting for constitutional change.

The other response is, ahh, but Scotland successively elects left-of-centre representatives in elections. Firstly, you have to agree that the Labour party is currently left-of-centre, which I doubt many on the Yes left would do. Secondly, and a much further stretch, you have to count to SNP as avowedly left-of-centre. They are not. They are a nationalist umbrella of the right-of-centre and the left-of-centre that find their locus around the hollow signifier of “Scotland”. Promises to reduce corporation tax and policies currently that aim to do nothing but deliver “sustainable economic growth” reflect a party as pro-business and wedded to the neoliberal conventional wisdom as the Tories. Free university places, free personal care to the elderly, the council tax freeze etc. have all been at the cost of services to marginalised people throughout Scotland (just ask all those whose projects closed down from 2008 onwards). These are regressive policies that win votes that you can easily dust with some social democratic icing.

This is where I end up agreeing with the Guardian and CarolCraig, who both argued beautifully for a no vote. To claim Scotland is more left wing is nationalist. You are saying these people who live in this nation are different to those people who live in that nation. This is a nationalist argument; you cannot deny that. The only way out of that logical trap is to point out Scotland is more like the rest of northern Europe (and thus, actually, quite right-wing) and it’s England that’s odd because its politics are more aligned with those of north America. However, this begs the question, why independence? Couldn’t we become another bit of the Netherlands instead? No. because Scotland is different. It's nationalism is different, it's not nationalist. And this morning I’m witnessing an ugly side of this – tweets appearing on my timeline from Yes campaigners blaming proud No voters for damning Scotland and the Scottish to more years of Trident; more years of poverty. Because this was a nationalist campaign, somehow no voters are not “Scotland” or “Scottish”. May I remind you again, the majority of Scots would not wish to see taxes rise to pay for more generous welfare benefits.

As the debate raged and got more heated in the final days this was a view I came to agree with more and more. I expressed it on Facebook as I know a lot of my followers were proud No voters. There was absolutely no way I was going to openly express these views on Twitter. The vilification of the Guardian piece – a very well-reasoned, social-democratic, liberal argument for No – on Twitter was a sight to behold. Being “nationalist” was too difficult a brush to be tarred with. I tentatively mooted some points of criticism of some of these arguments on Twitter and did elicit some of the wall of positivity of the Yes campaign, but I basically censored myself.

For this reason I did agree with Ewen Morrison when he “cameout” as a Yes voter who had switched to “No” because of this relentless positivity, because there was no argument behind the Yes other than incessant optimism and a suggestion that you were wrong to even suggest that life in an independent Scotland might be tough; or it might even be quite right wing? This wasn’t across the board, and there were a lot of very good discussions, but there was a palpable sense that debate had been closed down by many in Yes.

And this brings me to my final worry – that Yes was essentially just an empty signifier. With its relentless optimism – the big white Yes on a blue background was a design masterstroke – anyone could write their hopes for the future onto it. I thought of this whenever I stood on a “Keep the Tories out forever” Yes leaflets on the pavement in Leith, or when I heard the fallacious “save the NHS vote Yes” argument. In many respects this was the great strength of the Yes campaign – like Obama’s message of “Hope” (in what?) it got the grassroots out, and very impressive they were too. I walk across the Foot-of-the-Walk in Leith every Saturday morning and at the start of the campaign back in 2012 Yes and Better Together took it in turns each weekend. Then Better Together stopped around the end of 2013. Then it was Yes every weekend. The most recent time I saw No Thanks was with ten days to go, the weekend after that poll. As one No campaigner suggested to me, they felt like they’d been given up on. Whereas the hollow signifier of Yes could bring everyone to its cause – an independent Scotland will be a truly wonderful place because I say so. The wounds of dented pride are going to be difficult to heal over the next few years and I hope the UK’s politicians have the skill to do so.

And yet, oddly, the one argument that was never made much was the one I made in my blog postthe constitutional point. Yes, some on the left suggested that independence would revive democracy, but with very few concrete plans of what that new democracy would look like. The draft constitution impressed me, but there were no firm plans of how a continuing constitutional convention would operate. There was a real opportunity to invest resources in a radical participatory democratic programme and cement this in the ongoing running of the country.

We now have the much bigger, more challenging and arguably more exciting job of reforming the UK. I found myself agreeing with that despicable man Nigel Farage this morning as he argued that the whole constitution of the UK needs looking at again. However, in this process I am scared of two things. Firstly, that the timetable set out is just too fast. It will not allow the issues to be properly debated across the UK and it will leave more tensions within the UK settlement than we have at the moment. Secondly, I fear the path dependency of the UK. I don’t have much time for path dependency – as someone with a background in history, I often read it as social scientists playing bad history. But two areas in this constitutional debate have all the hallmarks of path dependency – the Barnett Formula and reform of the Palace of Westminster.

The Barnett formula because it’s about money and any change to it effects those bits of the UK who have done worst from the current constitutional settlement. But it needs to go. It enables the centralisation of power in the hands of the UK treasury. We need a new financial settlement across the UK where local government in England cannot have its budget cut by 30% at the whim of a Whitehall minister; and where the nations and regions can shape their futures. The Yes campaigners have to accept this as well. If we had gone independent the Barnett formula would have been gone once and for all – we would no longer have benefited from the ways in which it allows money to flow across the nation counteracting spatial economic differences.

On reform of the broader institutions of Westminster – we need, and I hope we will get – a coalition of all those enthusiastic Yes and No voters with those disenchanted in the rest of the UK; with those in the north of England who feel even more left behind by political events; with those in the South East who feel aggrieved about the way transfer payments across the nation operate; with the Welsh and Northern Irish who would have been left high-and-dry by Scottish independence.

We also have so much to do in Scotland itself. The process of government has rumbled on here while this debate has been happening and it demonstrates we need change. The Yes votes in Dundee, Glasgow, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire show how we need to reengage with the poorest in Scottish society and make their lives better. We need to remove all local authorities from the straitjacket of the council tax freeze and give them the power to deliver what their people clearly want. We need to implement the recommendations of the Commission of Local Democracy. We need to stop living in a Scotland where Edinburgh Council can no longer afford routine maintenance of its school estate; where Police Scotland seem immune to democratic scrutiny. These are big, and small, policy issues we need to get on with debating.

The hope of the empty signifier of Yes was a reaction to trends we’re seeing across the industrialised democracies of the world: the rise of global capitalism, where Apple is bigger than some countries' GDP and nation-states cannot pin down companies to pay their taxes; growing income and wealth inequality across the globe; the very terrifying threat of climate change about which we seem unwilling to act; and poverty and social exclusion. This is manifesting itself in our political institutions: in the growing power of small elites of career politicians and media moguls in countries (Scotland very much included); in the declining voter turnout and membership of political parties; and in the growth of protest parties, from the Tea Party, UKIP, the far-rightin Sweden and the Yes campaign. All of these are empty signifiers, offering to disenchanted voters “down with this sort of thing” (what?) and “we can change things” (how?). Constitutional change in Scotland would have given a very small kick against these global challenges – we might have seen a boost in political participation that would have lasted beyond the first election. Now we have to deliver a much bigger kick across the UK and across the international left-wing movement.

This morning, another sad theme in tweets from Yes campaigners is, that after all those weeks of saying how great this process of democratic debate was, they’re now dismissing it out-of-hand since they have lost the argument, for now. The view is now that is was a victory of “fear” and “global capitalism”. This saddens me greatly. Democracy has happened; it has been witnessed in greater numbers in Scotland than for 50 years. People who have never voted before headed off to the polls. Can we not be vindictive about the result and just get on and deliver a new UK for everyone?

And if you are a Yes supporter and you’re reading this spitting tacks, thinking “I’m not a nationalist”, “how dare he tar me with this brush” don’t bother commenting. I won’t respond as you’re just proving my argument. Firstly, go to bed, then step back, and then set to work making the UK better. 


  1. Do you get paid for this type of stuff?

  2. A very level-headed piece. I voted yes as I was completely turned off by the climate of fear around the no campaign but I agree that the issues have always been bigger than Scotland could ever deliver on its own. I did fell (naively?) that if Scotland walked away, it might give a short in the arm to centrist and left-wing England and demonstrate just how damaging some of the new UKIP-voter placating politics have become.

    So I was a yes but no nationalist. I do believe, however, that there is still a fight. We had the biggest turnout in UK history and if those voters keep voting, the country will change. It will change, that is, if the centre and centre-left ever manage to find their voice again. One can only hope.

    1. Thank you. I've started today with a letter to my MP asking for a constitutional convention for the whole UK. I'd ask you to do the same.

  3. 'because there was no argument behind the Yes other than incessant optimism and a suggestion that you were wrong to even suggest that life in an independent Scotland might be tough' equally you could say ' there was no argument behind the No other than incessant pessimism, and you were wrong to suggest that life in an independent Scotland could be better'. Don't denigrade the whole campaign with such a facile comment.

  4. Thank you for this. I found this very thought provoking and I need to reflect on what you have written. I may then come back and comment in more detail. Thanks.

  5. Thankyou for this. I was searching for this. I could not agree more with everything you have said. I found what you went through, echos my journey.
    I too have background in history (Scots) and degree in social policy. I started as an instinctive No, left it on the shelf for a while. I then knew I owed it to my fellow Scots and our UK, to research, to think, to keep my heid, to see through the jingoism and pundits of both camps, and then I gave myself a deadline of 1 week prior to the day. As I set myself the deadline, I found myself drifting to the YES. I then drifted, hard, to the YES, even going to a campaign rally in Glasgow to see Sturgeon. I wanted to see it and smell it. I felt lost. Because that is where the BT were. Anyway, I shook Sturgeon's hand. She leant over and kissed my cheek. I went home and felt good I had seen it. But. As I moved from a passive bystander on Twitter, (I deliberately stayed off FB - not wanting to bother my 'friends' with my ramblings) to a Yes, I wanted it out there, I then got the bashing. The bashing that I could be YES and still extoil the wonders of what makes us Scottish and British. Of the many thousands that fought and died as Scots part of the Union. I could not believe it. I was hurt. I was so hurt. I then realised something very important about myself: that I should have stuck with my instincts. They were right all along. You see, I learned that I had already gave so much thought to who, we, Scotland are as a nation: where we had come from is as important as knowing where we are going. I switched before GB made that 'finest hour' speech. After watching it, I realised I was, and had been, a NO all along. I flirted with Yes, but I didn't want a relationship with them. I had the choice of a one night stand and I enjoyed it - but only for a few hours. I realised if Scotland is so great (which she is - and so is the UK), then we ought to go bigger. Be more ambitious. More progressive. I cried when I switched. I cried because I know I had to deal with the Yes taunts - if - I was going to come out as a No on my FB.

  6. Armed with the knowledge of the ill informed Yes camp and their claim to represent all Scots, I decided to do my little research study. This is when a Scots history degree comes in well handy ;). I got ready. I looked out my Saltire flag, stringed a bootlace in the holes, and tied it around my neck like a Caledonian Fairy ready to cast her spell to the wind. I thought, hey, if there are millions voting today, I'd like to be noticed! So, I drove down, my flag getting caught in the shuffles of my steps as I warily entered the Govan polling station (a beautiful new school campus built under a Labour government).

    As I entered the civic space outside, a group of YES canvassers approached my steps and exclaimed, with delight and victory in their eyes, 'Oh, well, we don't need to worry about who you're voting, well done'. I just looked, walked past them, but as I did, I saw the young policeman who was guarding the entrance, look at me, as if expecting me to respond. He and I just gave a nod to each other.

    It took me a while to actually put my cross down. The staff were there. We had a mini national conversation! They were only to keen to hear snippets of my journey, as I wanted to give them it, they had no choice! but I didn't declare. I got emotional when I held the paper and they saw it. They said so many did the same. I exclaimed, 'it is an honour and a privelege to vote'. They agreed. I took a deep breath and went into the booth. I looked at the paper in almost awe. A sense of overwhelm came over me. I had made my decision. Quick. Mark your cross I remember thinking. Don't waste time or you'll do the wrong thing. I marked it in the No box.

    On leaving the hall, and going outside, I remember wanting to mingle, to loom at the paraphanelia of an Independence vote polling station. My nerdyness was curious. But what I was really doing, was really hoping to delay what I knew all along was going to be confirmed, that I hoped I would be wrong about: that the YES would congratulate me. But what were they congratulating on, hopefully, just for voting. But no.

  7. As I nodded to the young policeman, I set about walking past them fast, praying they would not say, what I knew they would say, and what I really hoped they wouldn't because I knew how I would respond:

    'Thanks, so many thanks, thank you, thank you'.

    I said as I walked past, 'Thanks, but the Saltire does not belong to you, it belongs to me and Scotland, No Thanks'.

    I left, heavy in heart, as I looked back at their faces, staring at me, in disbelief. I didn't want to say it. After all this was only a week after I sat outside drinking a coffee with my sister in a Shawlands cafe turned on by the Yes rally we had just been too: my 7 yr old son running up and down the street waving his Saltire flag.

    And so, I remained away from FB until the day dawned and the result was in. I knew the hearts were broken. I kept quiet. I conveyed a view of impartiality and of looking forward and being positive. Because what Scotland had achieved was bigger than independence.

    Your article Peter sums the Reluctant No voter up. I have found the whole process brilliant but like you, disappointed. It has been great. Scotland loves an audience. We thrive on being told, 'keep it civil folks', 'do us proud'. Both camps, to an extent, complied – just.

    Finally, today, as the Shipyards voted No, and as I drink another coffee from my flat that overlooks them, the Orange Walk has just banged their bass drums, some playing Rule Britannia. Others, with the Saltire and Union Jack in equal first place at the front carried by the banner boy. It made me realise my choice was right. Scotland must sort its own house first, before we portend to the world we are where we want to be, that Scandinavian model that so many of us aspire and indeed, recognise.

    But my heart knows we are not there. I also know that Scotland has what it takes to deliver something much bigger and which addresses all that is wrong with the UK.

    I am glad of my contribution. What I cannot come to terms with is the astounding accusations I have faced from people on FB. 'you abandoned us', 'you support our imperialist overlords' 'you traitor' 'you are not a patriot'. ‘thanks for leaving 1 in 4 children in poverty in Glasgow’. Twitter feeds from old colleagues who I know despise my views. What they conveniently forget, is that my whole life has been about helping the disadvantaged. But I know no known cure for poverty. Noone does and if I did, I would be a bulti-trillionaire the world over. Why do I stand accused of this? It is this ignorance that divides us, not the Nos in their selection. And they seem utterly oblivious to the Nos reasoning. Like they just want want want all the time and attack attack attack. They have been left wanting. And blame is the game.

    Funny. I learned about all this in my degree. What is amazing is that I now have first hand experience of living in the time to have actually been part of it.

    But I am steadfast. I feel more confident than ever that I know quite a lot about history, but only a little something about politics. But combined, I felt I made the right decision for Scotland, for now anyway. And it was the right decision as a woman, as a single parent who has just got on her feet after cancer, after divorce, after court battles. We all have our reasons.

    Scotland will become independent. Just not now. 10-15 years? Who knows. By then I hope more Scots will take the time to understand the No voters, who in fact are, almost half of them I'd say, reluctant no voters for the time being.

    1. Thank you very much for such a heartfelt reply. I almost cried reading it.

      As you'll see above, my first action has been to write to my MP asking for a constitutional convention for the UK. I'd ask you to do the same.

  8. This post is brilliant, in so many ways.

    I'll comment later as to why I think so as I want to have a second read and think about it. (It may be a rather extensive reply)

  9. Great reasoned post! Also saddened and shocked at the response to the democratic outcome of the vote. Talk around OAPs who apparently swung the vote and that they won't be around forever and then Independence will be achieved is in my opinion verging on discrimination and it's quite frankly disgusting and unaccepting of views of others in society. Like you say there are many out there who have turned on the blinkers to what the majority and other members of society have said. I don't think the SNP hold very democratic views from their response to the outcome and the fact they are pushing for Independence still and hammering on about it. They seriously need to move on, get over it and actually do something to help make Scotland better. The 'fear' talk is also rubbish, I think no voters also want a fairer society however not perhaps by going all out independent. Totally agree on Scotland's contribution to the empire, they profited from it heavily and Scotland would have most likely been bankrupt without the chance to piggyback off the whole enterprise which most people are either ignorant to or do not wish to acknowledge. Could say so much more but this will turn into a massive post :P Again very interesting to hear your views.