Who is writing the referendum story & why it matters. By Michael Gray
George Orwell said ‘History is written by the winners’. If he had somehow lived to see Scotland 2014 he would have met the exception to his rule.
Last weekend Nicola Sturgeon has grown effortlessly into her role as First Minister. In tandem the SNP party machine has defied political custom by becoming an even more dominant force following the referendum with over 85,000 members. This is symbolised by how they and the wider independence movement told the story of the referendum from the morning of the 19th.
Alex Salmond’s resignation was swift. He celebrated the referendum process, called on Scotland to hold Westminster’s “feet to the fire” on more powers, and appointed the wider movement of activists in Scotland as “the real guardians of progress…who I predict will refuse to go meekly back into the political shadows.”
He was telling a story and it was powerful.
Meanwhile, the unionists breathed a sigh of relief. While crowds cried in George Square, No Campaign politicians admitted that they didn’t feel like celebrating. They were glad of mere survival – as their unambitious campaign had always intended.
In contrast to Salmond, there was no clear story from Johann Lamont on victory. In fact Labour figures like Margaret Curran conceded that there had been a lack of vision from the No Campaign. She promised a tour of the Labour heartlands which voted Yes. The ‘victors’ were begging for forgiveness for the sins of Tory alliance.
Then Johann Lamont resigned with an almighty bang. Undermined by London Labour, she brandished her Westminster comrades as “dinosaurs” who treated Scotland like a “branch office”. “Scotland voted for home rule not London rule”, she added.
Cue bitter, Labour introspection.
Yesterday there was a late and rather lame attempt by Labour to re-write the independence story through a Unionist frame. In the Labour supporting Daily Record opinion poll results were weirdly skewed. 28% of Scots “NEVER” want another referendum. Meanwhile Anas Sarwar talked up social division like a late party pooper who just wants everyone to go home. The fact say 60% of Scots want another referendum including 38% of No voters, and the dust hasn’t even settled from the result.
I find this approach hilarious and ultimately self-defeating for what remains of Labour in Scotland. It’s clear Scotland has changed, and the challenge is for everyone to recognise that change. Ironically many of the referendum ‘winners’ are in a state of denial. Compare the stories.
The Independence Story
A) Democratic Renewal
Scotland was energised, thousands were organised, groups formed and have continued that will set the agenda in Scotland. Over 70,000 people have since joined pro-independence parties.
B) The Soon to be Broken Vow
After the result, the Yes Camp claimed the ‘vow’ won it for No. The claim was that the media stunt by Brown & Cameron on “substantial more powers” was enough to persuade 25% of voters to stay within a reformed union. Now the pressure is on for those parties to deliver to these high expectations or face the charge that they won on a false prospectus.s.
C) The Lies and Threats
The Yes Campaign maintains that voters in Scotland faced considerable economic and diplomatic pressure and a wide misinformation campaign to vote No. This included major companies with political links coordinating negative statements, the united Westminster establishment pouring in resources, and a hostile press and broadcast representation.
D) The Future and a Better Country
Many Yes Campaigners have immediately shifted their focus from the result to the future. This includes the general election, specific campaigns, new media projects and remaining politically active in the SNP, Green and SSP. Despite the No vote the vast majority of the Yes Campaign understand the importance of supporting social progress on the road to independence.
E) Till Next Time
The Yes Campaign highlight that the vote was close and there will be a future referendum. 45% or 1.6 million people was a huge achievement, they say. The surge in support for independence and the public enthusiasm – especially in certain urban towns – has made independence normal. As a result the SNP no longer talk about a future vote ‘once in a generation’ but ‘depending on the view of the people’.
The Unionist Story
A) The Will of the People
Unionist figures have stated the self-evident democratic truth that people in Scotland want to remain within the United Kingdom. They say that there was a clear and decisive result in favour of the UK through a democratic process and this result should be respected.
B) Diversion Completed Now Let’s Unite
Labour figures reverted to type after the vote by calling on Scotland to unite and kick the Tories out of office. Constitutional issues, in their view, are a distraction from social inequality, jobs, health, education and other issues.
C) A Divisive Process
Sections of the media loved Jim Murphy getting hit by an egg, demonising online communication, and talking up threats, anger and potential violence. The story of a divisive referendum is a perfect way to discredit the process and ensure that a future vote never takes places. Therefore unionists today are once again talking about ‘fall-outs’ and ‘broken friendships’ to depict a society scarred by political disagreement.
Who’s winning and why does this matter?
It’s clear that Yes Campaigners have a better story about the referendum. They’ve also been far more successful telling their story while unionists have been complacent or divided.
The language of the referendum has continued to a great extent. Yes figures remain ambitious, defining themselves by ‘change’ (although now with an added anger at Labour) and spurred by continued democratic energy.
Unionists have tried to move beyond the referendum while tapping into this new enthusiasm for politics. Johann Lamont tweeted this four days after the referendum:
Let us be the crusade the Labour Party was put on earth to be. We are the change makers. Let us change the world. #Lab14
— Johann Lamont (@JohannLamont) September 22, 2014
Having spent several years deriding the idealism of independence, it was and remains impossible for this to appear genuine. Nicola Sturgeon has taken this opportunity to claim that the SNP is now the de facto party of constitutional and social change.
The way the referendum story has been told will define how Scotland remembers the experience. It will influence whether there will be another vote (at the moment it seems likely) and shape the elections which take place along the way.
Many significant changes have occurred in a short time. This is one. Independence is simply a better story than the union.