For the millions who voted yes, the significance of involvement in the referendum campaign has yet to fade. Of this, there can be little doubt. That unprecedented display of public emotion: a plethora of perfectly rational acts of civic love, provided a moment of clarity that will leave an indelible mark on the nation’s character. This will not, indeed cannot, be forgotten, erased, re-written or subsumed into some less potent future project. That much we know.
Today it is politically impossible for any politician to claim (as many did prior to its inception) that the referendum was a distraction, that this buzzing site of mass participation in democracy was somehow ‘on pause’ until the votes were counted. In the space of weeks it is the losers, not the victors of that campaign, who are in the ascendent.
But there is a clear and present danger that the Scottish independence movement faces. To remain trapped in what is now a historic moment, to seek to replay the good times over and over again, is not a fitting tribute to all that was achieved. We must now chart a way forward that does not take a yes vote as its starting point.
As the inheritors of a broad movement so happily defined by a three letter word, we can’t simply gallop onwards towards independence. Instead we have to realise that the referendum allowed us, a full 1.6 million of us, to understand what we want. With power given back to London the question now is to work out what we can get.
If independence is to be delivered, as I believe it can be, we have to take a step back. Let’s take the unity, the passion and the energy and apply it to what happens next. In doing so, we need to become comfortable with the fact that there is no longer a single route by which the people of Scotland finally get to govern Scotland: there are several.
In truth, any time served activist could tell you there was always more to do than vote yes. But the question on that ballot paper was so devastatingly simple, it gave the answer a kind of quiet, positive quality too. Yes was all that was required.
That time is now over. We need to start asking relentless, tough questions anew. Is there an alternative to austerity? Yes. Are there more productive things to do in the world than bomb terrorists? Yes. Can we start using the powers that Scotland has now to reshape society? Yes. Can we make changes to local democracy that would radically improve services and break Labour’s braindead stranglehold? Yes. Can we do one better than abolishing the Bedroom Tax and the scrap the thinly disguised flat tax that is the Council Tax? Yes. Can we achieve Home Rule for Scotland? Yes.
All of these questions must now take precedence over the one that voters answered in the negative last month. Because the task of reaching out to the 55% need not be as difficult as it seems. The only thing that will impede the effective formation of a majority who want Home Rule, will be a fixation with the referendum: or the desire to distort the true import of that joyous time into a litmus test of loyalty through the emergence of a ‘hard yes’ group.
I think I’ll see independence in my lifetime. It’s a policy that I’ve supported throughout my whole political life: I’ve never voted for a unionist party and I never will. If I thought an endless re-run of September, calls for another referendum, or chatter about UDI would hasten independence, I’d join in. Yet now would be the worst possible time to break from the remarkable patience that the independence movement has shown. To abandon that discipline, unity and openness now would be disastrous. It also paves the way for an anti-independence platform to gain traction that might yet save the crisis ridden unionists parties in 2015.
The SNP has, quite rightly, swung itself behind what it believes to be the constitutional position that Scotland currently favours: Devo Max. This is a vitally important step for the wider movement to support. No political party can ignore the polls that back it up. They will eat away at the confidence and credibility of the unionist parties unless they are seen to embrace what these numbers represent.
There is a bigger point to remember here: there is an overwhelming lack of rhetoric about the union prevailing. Since Scotland voted No, ever louder proclamations about the historic destiny of the UK have fallen silent. Now that the voters have gone home, the ‘redistributive union’ to use Alastair Darling’s notorious phrase, is nowhere to be seen. The sordid business of austerity politics means that broken Britain is back with a vengeance now that the jocks have been silenced. Ruth Davidson’s words explaining the No victory, from the BBC’s documentary How the Campaign Was Won, are revealing:
I think people across Scotland are canny. I think that, they looked at the prospectus that was on offer for change and there were too many holes in it and they recognised that.
It’s not exactly the rhetoric about the unity of this sceptred isle you’d expect from the leader of the Conservative and Unionist party. In fact, it makes a massive concession: that the prospectus for change, not the principle of Scottish independence itself, was the reason that the No vote triumphed.
Let’s consider briefly what that prospectus for independence consisted of. The No campaign attacked it with an overwhelming emphasis on economics and to be blunt, crucified Yes on currency. The contest became, at points, an endless chain of two competing offers to Scotland: do you want the pound? Do you want the government you vote for? A politically silent (perhaps orphaned) older, wealthier, Scotland turned out to assert that the prospect of financial deficit was worse than the reality of a democratic one.
Throughout the campaign the Scottish Government’s platform was painfully close to Home Rule, perhaps fatally so. The inevitable political exposure this brought was ruthlessly exploited: arguing for change, but also for continuity, is an almost impossible task. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the monetary minutiae that underpinned it, few would claim that fighting swathes of the campaign about the merits of Sterling and the Bank of England helped compel Scots to vote for independence. Solid offerings on social justice were so lean that Beranrd Ponsonby was able to pinion Salmond late in the day on an issue that should have easily been carried by yes. In short, this most detailed proposition often felt like an offer for ‘independence in the UK’ so great was its desire to assuage risk. Home Rule, which the SNP is now intent on turning into political reality, was heavily gestured to by both sides in the referendum campaign and for good reason.
With canny Scots, not proud Britons, saving the union and Home Rule at least a rhetorical commitment from unionists, a political space has opened up in Scotland. To exploit this strategically we must de-couple the idea of independence from the idea of an elusive referendum triumph. The 18th and 19th of September contained so much for so many, that it can be easy to assume that this is the manner in which independence must be gained. A referendum is fought and won. The old order concedes and something new takes its place. The reality, certainly when it comes to Britain, is very different.
If there is one thing that Britain demands, it is to save face, to snatch continuity from the jaws of decline. Throughout the referendum campaign, the frailties of the British establishment were exposed: that’s why they had to win.
There is ample precedent here. The Statute of Westminster offers a blueprint. It acknowledged British law making to be obsolete in the autonomous Dominions, effectively ending London rule with a whisper not a bang. It also shored up the prestige of an austerity gripped coalition government and a rapidly declining world power, sound familiar?
The lesson is simple: the best way to get independence from Britain is to do so when the British establishment are looking elsewhere and simply lose interest. With North Sea Oil (as much burden as boon to the independence cause) this is more challenging. But politically the idea that what British politics has vested in Scotland could rapidly diminish seems more tangible than ever. If the Scottish Labour Party is severely weakened in 2015 the lack of a Westminster party with mass support throughout all the nations of the UK must be a precursor to actual break up.
No country that gained its independence has ever wanted to give it back. This became an oft repeated remark during the referendum campaign. However we must also remember that no country that gained ever greater autonomy from Westminster did not go on to achieve independence. It also offers us the chance to steadily demonstrate what is distinct about our politics and to begin the work of radically transforming Scotland’s economy.
So let’s have a ‘Yes alliance’, but let’s not call it that. Let’s keep the momentum and work out how to build on all that we achieved. But we must not remain trapped by the contours of a debate about full statehood which is, for the time being, over.
For several weeks during the referendum campaign the British establishment were terrified of us. They were terrified of our unity, the breadth of our movement, the communities that we had mobilised and of a new found thirst for political self-education amongst working people. This was the true meaning of yes: that the remarkable happens when people are given a vote that matters. In that spirit let’s begin by acknowledging that one three letter word will no longer suffice as a banner: we must find another to rally behind.
Three words will do for me instead: Home Rule Now.