By Peter Arnott
Is Scotland a real place? Is democracy the best form of government? Answer “Yes” to both of these questions?
Then you have to vote Yes on September 18th.
In case that wording is problematic, let us ask you the same questions again less emotively. Is Scotland a distinct political unit? Is the best way to run a political unit to have the people within that unit agree between them how it should be run?
See? The game’s a bogie. There is no logical way to vote No unless you answer No to at least one of those questions. There is no coherent argument for a No vote that does not question either our political reality or our fitness for democracy or both.
So who is still saying No? Why is “NoThanks” or whatever they are calling themselves this week still ahead in the polls? When even Gordon Brown is saying publicly that their campaign is patronising? When even No voters of all of our acquaintances wince at the crass promises of the Armageddon that we will bring on our own heads if we decide that meaningful self- government might be worth a shot?
If the argument in principle for Yes turns out to be logically unanswerable, the appeal of No, if you can call it that, must be entirely to the lower organs of intelligence. ? How do you ensure that having won the argument, and won the campaign, the Yes side doesn’t lose the vote? So how do you engage with a mind-set that depends on not engaging with argument?
I’m personally not persuaded of the utility of the appeal to individual economic self-interest that political wisdom dictates is decisive in all votes. I don’t think that’s ever been true of any election, and especially don’t think it’s true of this referendum. Just because the consumer based electoral model is based on a market place of spurious certainties, I don’t think that’s what will work for us now. It certainly doesn’t seem to have done the trick yet. This is because no one believes in guarantees about the future, which in turn is for the very good reason that experience tells us that all guarantees are always bogus. Things going to shit always seems intrinsically more likely. Change leading to negative consequences is what we have come to expect. For instance, a taxi driver today said to me today: “ A Yes vote will send us back to the stone age. There won’t be any money.” I didn’t want to alarm him by reminding him that we will also be a haven for Al Qaida and prevent a cure for cancer, apparently.
But if it is true to say that the crystal ball gazing indulged in by the Yes side is questionable, then so surely is prognostication of economic and political warfare promised us from the EU, the US and the rUK should we have the temerity to get above ourselves. The crystal ball arguments should cancel each other out. If both arguments in practice come down to the truism that the future is an uncertain place, which is, of course, uncontroversial, that scarcely constitutes an argument against democratic control of our own affairs. Rather the reverse, I should have thought.
So why does the intrinsic uncertainty of the future play so well for the No side, and so badly for the Yes? Why is it that the No side are clearly right to persist with their negative campaign, other than that there is apparently no positive case they can make? The dwindling but significant lead that the Nay-sayers maintain in the polls makes it easy to see that the relentless torrent of threats doesn’t need actual evidence to be effective. The climate of fear is far more important than any realistic prospect of individual outcomes coming about. And while the daily storm of lies and half-truths still needs to be resisted, to actually change the weather we need to achieve a change in climate. We need to look harder, I think, not just at the head, (which turns out to favour independence – who knew?), but also at the lower organs, perhaps the heart included. One has to examine the roots of doubt. And plant them firmly in the No campaign’s garden. While it is all very well simply to point out that a Union whose continuation is based entirely on fear is scarcely likely to be stable, let alone liveable, let alone happy, do we need to go harder if we hope to actually win the vote rather than just be smug about it afterwards when everything goes to shit? In short, how does the Yes side turn the intrinsic uncertainty of the future to face the other way.
Might part of an answer be for the Yes side to go strongly negative on the possible consequences of a No vote? Maybe go in for a blizzard of scare stories of our own? To ask the nay-sayers questions about the future as aggressively as they ask us? They are in a better position to answer those questions, after all. While democracy is an experiment Scotland hasn’t tried yet, the evidence for the efficacy of putting our trust in democracy in the unitary UK is all around us. We know what that future looks like. We’re already in it.
Might we ask of No campaigners, Do you really think the status quo so wonderful that you think some more of the same (but getting incrementally worse) is a good idea? Also, if you think they might punish us for voting Yes, what do you think is going to happen if we give them permission? If we say, ‘Do whatever you like…it’s fine by us!’ do you really think they’ll give us a reward? Do you really think it is better to trust in governments we don’t elect and cannot remove no matter what they do to us? Do you really expect to get better off by throwing away thje only negotiating card we’ve got? Can’t you see that this referendum was only agreed to by David Cameron because he thought it was a trap he could set for the turkeys to vote for Christmas? Can’t you see that any negotiations we enter into over revisions to the Barnett formula or our representation in Westminster will be fatally undermined by a No vote? Are you really sure you want to tell the world that you are happy to store somebody else’s nuclear weapons thirty miles from our biggest city?
Can you imagine what the world will think of us if we Vote No?
That we got the chance to peacefully and democratically take control of our own affairs and that we said, No thanks, we’d rather not think for ourselves? We’d rather not be adults? We’d rather not make our own decisions in our own country? That we decided we weren’t normal? That we decided we weren’t like other people? That we were less than a real country? That we agree we are too weak too poor and too stupid to face the future in our own name? That we think democracy is too good for the likes of us? Surely anyone can see, we can say, that “guarantees” being offered by the No campaign are only being offered under the threat of a Yes vote, and they will vanish like morn’s mist, just as they did in 1979 if we voluntarily vote that threat away?
Do you really agree that Scotland should be a dependent country? Do you really want to be that much of a weirdo?
In 1979, as now, there was an exciting and close campaign for a Yes vote that came from behind and actually won…just not by enough…in 1979. What is instructive is that our rejection of home rule was not just a product of the notorious 40% rule. It was a product of obedience, of our not “feeling” autonomous. If we had really wanted it, we could have had constitutional change then…by the extra parliamentary means of making Scotland ungovernable. What we did, in slow motion, was take a parliamentary route to making Scotland ungovernable by Tories we’d elected…which is not quite the same thing. The difference between 1979 and 1997 was that what seemed like a dangerous novelty, a devolved Scottish Parliament in 1979, was a stone no brainer in 1997. The referendum of 1997 was an enormously dull foregone conclusion…which is the way referenda should be, probably.
Today feels more like 1979 than 1997 in terms of excitement and uncertainty. What also feels the same, at least to those of us on the Yes side (and probably to a lot of potential No voters), is just how bad, how dispiriting, how awful it will be to wake up on the morning of September 19th knowing that we blew it. That, right now, this close to the decision, the living heart of the nightmare scenario we can credibly start to paint is just how shitty that will feel. Everybody knows it. It will feel like in fear of life we had voted for death. That’s how it felt in 1979. God forbid it takes eighteen years (ten of them at least with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister) for us to recover enough to have another referendum which we will be boringly certain to win… in 2032!
One might ask a No voter if they’re happy to keep having these arguments for that long? They might change their voting intentions out of anticipatory ennui.
What feels decidedly different now, I think to voters on both sides of the referendum argument, is that the autonomy we never really believed in in 1979 feels much less controversial now. It feels very close to a done deal. Even a No vote will be, in a sense, a sovereign decision. Even a No vote, in a way, will be an exercise undertaken by an already independent electorate. It’s really not such a big jump, culturally and psychologically, as was the change between 1979 and 1997. After all, we’re now used to the practical fact of there being distinctively Scottish elections to a distinctively Scottish parliament. We are already a functioning demi-democracy, with all the trimmings and ten percent of the powers. It’s not so much of a shift. To use old fashioned language, it feels like the people are already sovereign, whether they vote for sovereignty or not..
Autonomy, self-rule, for reasons both democratic and cultural, is beginning to feel normal, I think. The question is whether that sense of normality can be translated into political self-expression in time to deliver the Yes vote which is its logical concomitant. Can we make the link in time between how people feel and how they will vote?
Maybe it’s as simple as a thought experiment.
So, in 2014, imagine we were having a vote now to abolish the Scottish parliament and revert to the status quo pre 1999? It seems like a lunatic suggestion. I confidently predict that if we were to find ourselves voting for an Independent Scottish Government in 2016, it is equally pretty much unthinkable that this democratic parliament would make its first order of business to vote to abolish itself, as, under a very strange set of threats and promises, did the pre-democratic Scottish parliament of 1706. Independence will seem like normality almost as soon as we have it, just as quickly as the democratisation and extension of already existing devolution did only 15 years ago. Anything other than a Yes vote should, logically, seem as bizarre as Norway voting to put itself back under the control of Sweden. A Yes vote after independence would be obvious to the point being dull.
That’s the mindset we need to inhabit, and invite our brothers and sister to join, only we need to do it before the vote. I don’t know if there is a magical form of words that can normalise change and make the status quo seem like a leap in the dark, but that is surely the form of words we should be looking for with a hundred days to go.
Can we make that leap in advance? Can we make the idea of independence “normal” by September, and ask, as we should be able to, of the No campaign: ”You’re voting AGAINST national autonomy? Against elected self-government? Against democratic control of taxation and expenditure? Why on earth would you think of doing anything so ludicrous?”
Voting No will need to look unthinkable, if we are to be confident of voting Yes.