Seven notes on the #IndyRef and its aftermath
American sports commentators have a saying, that “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings.” It’s a Wagnerian opera reference, apparently, but the meaning is obvious: this game is going right to the end. On the day after the Referendum in Scotland it was easy to think it was over – especially for disconsolate ‘Yes’ voters, and flag-waving (and Nazi-saluting) Scottish ‘loyalists.’ But there are good reasons to think that the Referendum itself is only half-time in this particular game. I know that it’s probably not a good idea to mix metaphors about sport and politics, but this particular game has a long way to go. Here’s seven quick notes on why, below the fold.
#1. David Cameron learns nothing from experience.
Having insisted on a Yes/No ballot paper, without the Federalist “devo max” option, for partisan, opportunist reasons because he thought (wrongly) that it would stuff the Scots Nats, he stood in front of the cameras at 7 a.m. on the morning after the referendum looking like he’d just heard a bullet with his name on it embed itself in a tree just behind him. And then he announced a set of partisan opportunist measures on constitutional “reform”.
It’s worth recalling that in 2007 Mervyn King, while Governor of the Bank of England, told the US Ambassador that Cameron and Osborne “had a tendency to think about issues only in terms of politics, and how they might affect Tory electorability” (we know this from Wikileaks), and I suspect this may be their political epitaph.
But it’s also striking how easily political commentators are seduced by tactical ploys. The gap in the quality and perceptiveness of the different discussions on Newsnight on Friday evening (first, the political correspondents, and later a group of academics) was a wide one. While I’m sure a political correspondent might protest that it’s their job to look at tactics, they would be doing their job better if (a) they climbed out of the bubble for a bit, and (b) they sometimes thought about how things might look in even a month’s time. Or a year.
#2. “The issue of Scottish independence is dead for a generation.”
That’s probably about right, but it depends on what you mean by a generation. Scottish nationalism has progressed in a series of 15-to-20-ish something year jumps, from its by-election success in 1967, to the unsuccessful devolution referendum in 1979, to the successful one in 1997, to the unsuccessful independence referendum in 2014. You do the maths. And demographics is on the indy side – ‘Yes’ voters were much more likely to be young than old.
#3. Independence votes fail when they’re not ahead at the beginning.
At least according to this tweet by the RSA’s Adam Lent.
At NESTA’s blog, Geoff Mulgan went further. Maybe they never succeed.
Twenty years ago, I bet that there would never be a secession from a mature democracy … [M]y logic for judging secessions unlikely was that in a mature democracy, as soon as any region or nation looked close to seceding, the larger nation would make just enough concessions to keep it in, partly because the elites would judge it worth doing so to retain their prestige and power in the world, and partly because democratic negotiation and compromise would play their part. Quebec and Catalonia have repeatedly confirmed the point. Scotland in the last two weeks has been an even clearer example.
#4. The ‘Yes’ campaign lost the vote but won the campaign.
This has become a truism already, but it’s worth pointing out one more time that only one national political party (The Greens) supported the ‘Yes’ campaign along with only one mainstream Scottish newspaper. The ‘Yes’ campaign had to bypass this with a political campaign which combined old-fashioned village meetings with up-to-the-minute digital activism (well described by Paul Mason).
At the Sunday Herald Ian Macwhirter wrote about how this campaigning structure insulated the ‘Yes’ campaign from some of the ‘Project Fear‘ run by Better Together and the Westminster parties in the final fortnight:
Why have so many Scots refused to heed the warnings of press, politicians and banks? This has been a truly bottom-up movement, that rose from obscurity in drafty halls and internet chatrooms; ignored by the establishment and ridiculed by the press; dismissed by polling gurus like Nate Silver who said a Yes was “almost inconceivable”.
It has been mediated through new-fangled social media and old-fashioned word of mouth. The internet has given anyone with a computer the ability to correlate, often in real time, what they are being told is going on with what is really going on. This may be the first election in which the mainstream media ceased to be the mainstream.
One of the consequences is that there’s now a lot of well-connected activists out there who may or may not have somewhere to go. In a different post, Mason suggests we’ll see more issue-based activism and possibly even a new radical group in Scotland similar to Syriza or Podemos.
[Update 1st November 2014: It seems that the campaign radicalised the Scots. 52% now say they’d vote for independence, while people have been joining the SNP at a hectic rate; it now has 83,000 members. The Conservatives have around 125,000 members across the whole of the UK.]
#5. People vote when they care about the outcome.
The turnout, at 84.5%, was the highest in any vote since universal suffrage was introduced in the UK in 1928. So it’s not politics they’re disenchanted with – it’s political parties.
#6. The ‘Yes’ campaign became a test of Westminster and our ‘political class‘.
Charlie Stross put it this way at his ‘Antipope’ blog:
One thing is sure: even a “no” victory won’t kill the core issue of the delegitimization of the political elite. (It has become not simply a referendum on independence, but a vote of confidence on the way the UK is governed; anything short of a huge “no” victory amounts to a stinging rebuke to the ruling parties of the beige dictatorship.
And support for ‘Yes’ accelerated once it became a vote on whether one wanted more years of Osborne’s austerity economics (or Ed Balls’ ‘austerity-lite’.)
On referendum day, there was a tweet from stand-up Janey Godley that I thought caught this well:
And this resonated well in England as well. I could easily write a whole post on this, but here’s Oliver Huitson at Open Democracy’s Our Kingdom:
Britain is a dying imperial project, steeped in hundreds of years of anti-democratic expertise … if it is one part bulldog it is nine parts snake, unseen and untouchable. Its governing institutions are instinctively hostile to democracy and transparency. I hope it’s a Yes because I would like Scotland to be free not of the English or Welsh, but of Westminster and its unelected policy board: the City and multinational business. I would like England to be free of them too.
And at the Financial Times, which has become increasingly radical since the financial crisis, Philip Stephens picked up on the same theme:
There are people who will mark their papers with a Yes not because they hate the English, but because they want to shape a society more modelled on Scandinavia than winner-takes-all Anglo-American capitalism. …Anyone sensible who has been watching events in Scotland will draw unnerving conclusions. If today’s elites do not provide more closely accountable government they will be swept aside by the politics of exclusion. A globalisation that enriches the richest and impoverishes the rest is not sustainable.
#7. This all has quite a long way to go yet.
The SNP leader Alex Salmond did the honourable thing by resigning after losing the Referendum (he could have said, “I promised a referendum and I delivered it”) but he’s also been the only politician in Britain for the last quarter of a century with a strategic approach to politics. I suspect his resignation was also a strategic move – to stop opponents personalising issues around the aftermath of the referendum.
As Peter Lynch wrote at The Conversation:
[H]e’s chosen the timing of his departure. … It’s actually a clever bit of media management in my opinion. He’s moved on the agenda from people being depressed about the No vote and from the media endlessly repeating it over the weekend to focusing on him and the SNP instead.
And it’s not clear that David Cameron, or even the Conservative Party, will survive the demands for change provoked in the rest of the UK by the IndyRef. Perhaps Alex Salmond will have the last laugh after all.
The image at the top, of the Independence Referendum ballot paper, is from Shauna Reid’s blog, and is used with thanks