Irvine Welsh: this glorious failure could yet be Scotland’s finest hour
Forget Bannockburn or the Scottish Enlightenment, the Scots have reinvented and re-established the idea of true democracy
Gordon Brown tells Scots: let us be a nation, united again – live
They came out in their droves, in a last-ditch, stoic defence of the union, to staunch the seemingly irresistible tide towards independence. The no voters should take a bow: they delivered the UK establishment a reprieve the enervated, confused and weak campaign of their masters certainly didn’t deserve. They have bought time for the union, and many of them, people who will habitually support the status quo at almost any cost, will simply be relieved. Others in this disparate group, who want change, but decided to give the establishment one more chance, will be keenly looking south to see what is on offer. The Westminster parties now have to look closely at who the no voters are, especially the devo max ones they made the late pitch for. Many of them must now be at the limits of their patience, and they won’t be remaining silently in that camp after any more fudges and broken promises.
At the start of the campaign, a narrow win for the political-class-led no would have been a nightmare result for the establishment. They originally expected a rout – the rationale behind Cameron leaving devo max off the ballot paper, before he had a humiliating rush north, in realisation that his abiding political legacy might be the end of the union.
The vibrant and euphoric yes movement, which, during the debate, evolved from a small base to come within a whisker of a sensational victory, will be massively disappointed that they didn’t manage to get it done.
They will have to cool their ardour a while longer, although anybody believing they’ll stop now is indulging in wishful thinking. Why would they? The process and the subsequent debate, which they won handsomely, took support for independence from around 30% to 45% and heading north. It’s now established as the compelling narrative of the post-devolution generation, while no dominates only in a declining constituency of elderly voters. Yes may have lost this battle, but the war is being won.
There was much talk of how ineffective the no campaign was. In some ways this is unfair: you can only go with what you’ve got and they simply weren’t packing much heat. The union they strove to protect was based on industry and empire and the esprit de corps from both world wars, and you can’t maintain a political relationship on declining historical sentiment alone. With the big, inclusive postwar building blocks of the welfare state and the NHS being ripped apart by both major parties there’s zero currency in campaigning on that, especially as they’re only being preserved in Scotland by the devolved parliament. The boast of using oil revenues to fund privatisation projects and bail out bankers for their avarice and incompetence is never going to be a vote winner. Going negative was the only option.
The referendum was a disaster for Cameron personally, who almost lost the union. The Tories, with enough self-awareness to realise how detested they are in Scotland, stood aside to let Labour run the show on the basis they could deliver a convincing no vote. But for Labour, the outcome was at least as bad; when the dust settles they will be seen, probably on both sides of the border, to have used their power and influence against the aspiration towards democracy. Labour voters caught this ugly whiff, the number of them supporting independence doubling in a month from 17% to 35%. In the mid-term, the leadership may have simply acted as recruiting sergeants for the SNP.
As Cameron was at first absent and uninterested, then finally fearful, so Miliband looked just as ineffective and totally lost during this campaign. He became a figure of contempt in Scotland: Labour leaders have generally needed a period in office in order to achieve that distinction.
As social media came of age in a political campaign in these islands, the rest of the establishment will be for ever tarnished in the eyes of a generation of Scots. The senior officials of banks and supermarkets dancing to Whitehall’s tune, their nonsense disseminated by the London press, was not unexpected, but the BBC extensively answered any questions about their role in a post-independent Scotland.
No sleep will be lost by the elites over that; the reason that this is such a bad result for the establishment is that it compels action; the narrow no decision, in tandem with the massive surge of momentum towards yes, leaves the issue unresolved. Though defeated in the poll, the independence movement emerged far stronger – from the narrow concern of a bourgeois civic nationalist party, to a righteous, vibrant, big-tent, pro-democracy movement. The referendum galvanised and excited Scots in a way that no UK-wide election has done. Like it or not, unless they come up with a winning devo max settlement, every general election in Scotland will now be dominated by the independence issue.
Scotland’s post-devolution generation is a different breed to their predecessors; they’ve been building a new state in their imagination, from the basis of a limited but tangible parliament in Edinburgh. They see the possibilities in full statehood, and came from nowhere to deal a body blow to Britain’s tired and out-of-touch elites. The smartest of them have always seen independence as a process, not an event, and having come so unexpectedly close, they won’t be going into a depressive hungover funk. They’ll be keen for a rematch, and they’ll get it soon.
This vote ensures that Scotland will remain central on the UK agenda. The union was on death row and the no vote earned it a stay of execution; the establishment parties are now in the process of organising their appeal. That has to involve real decentralisation of power and an end to regional inequities. Do the political classes have the stomach and the spine for this? A devo max that gives Scotland the power to raise taxes to pay for welfare programmes, but not reduce them by opting out of Trident and other defence spending, while maintaining the oil flow south of the border, without even an investment or poverty alleviation fund, is a sham, especially as it was denied at the ballot box. It may be perceived as setting up the Scottish parliament to fail, and undermining devolution.
However, it’s probably the case that anything more than that would be unlikely to be palatable to the major parties or the broader UK electorate. The biggest problem for the Westminster elites now is not just to decide what to do about Scotland but, crucially, to do it without antagonising English people – who might justly feel that the tail of 10% is now starting to wag the dog of the rest of the UK.
The fact is that the majority of the 25 million who live in London and the south-east are perfectly fine with the bulk of tax pounds (to say nothing of the oil revenues) being spent on government, infrastructure and showcase projects in the capital – why wouldn’t they be? The problem is that in a unitary, centralised state, the decision-making and civic wealth of the nation – and therefore practically all the large-scale private investment – lies in that region.
So how can you square the two? Scots are showing they won’t go on committing their taxes or oil monies to building a London super-state on the global highway for the transnational rich, particularly when it’s becoming unaffordable to their Cockney comrades, driving them out of their own city to the M25 satellites.
English nationalism has always been the elephant in the room and it seems likely that demands made from north of the border will precipitate a reaction from the south, and encourage further political polarisation. Be careful of what you wish for was a taunt by Better Together, warning Scots of the potential hassles – real and fantasised – of extrication from the union. Now they have that headache, as they seek to work out how they can hold this mess together.
The major parties, particularly Labour, a poll- and press-conscious, focus group-driven concern, obsessed with the centrist support of middle England, may find that trying to reconcile the Scots aspiration to autonomy with the maintenance of a unitary, centralised UK state, is an impossible task. If Labour can’t decentralise and provide autonomy to their own party in Scotland, it’s hard to see how they can even start to do it for the UK. Scottish independence, with the party campaigning cheek by jowl alongside the Conservatives, provided more (and probably decisive) evidence for Labour voters just how much their party has been co-opted by the establishment. Even more of them will be disinclined to pass on the now traditional ‘put up and shut up’ to ‘keep the Tories out’ offer. In the English Labour marginal constituencies, low turnouts could hurt them. The benefactors south of the border may be the latest xenophobic pack of establishment mules, Ukip, a BNP-with-standard-grades affair.
With the clear aim of removing the UK from Europe, Labour voters might reason that at least they know what they are voting for with this particular devil.
The Liberal Democrats and some on the left have been flirting with a federal solution to maintain the UK. But this back-of-a-cigarette-packet desperation only betrays the same top-down establishment thinking. There has to be some kind of demand from the people; imposing an unwanted parliament in Norwich on East Anglian folks would be as undemocratic as taking away the Scots one in Edinburgh. It seems more sensible and more painless just to accept that the UK is not politically homogenous and let its constituent parts find their own paths up the mountain. This is the quandary for the establishment to sort out and it’s one that would tax bigger and more tolerant minds than their own.
Back in Scotland, many (including quite a few in the no camp) have become disenchanted by the negative, desperate campaign orchestrated from Westminster, and the establishment in general, particularly the way business and media interests have been nakedly shown to collude against democracy. If the yes campaign excited Scots to the possibilities of people power, the opposition one showed the political classes, their establishment masters and metropolitan groupies in the most cynical, opportunistic light. From the empty, manipulative celebrity “love-bombing” to the crass threats and smears issued by the press, around half of Scotland might now feel as if it has been classified as the “enemy within”, that stock designation for all those who resist the dictates of the elites’ centralised power.
The yes movement hit such heights because the UK state was seen as failed; antiquated, hierarchical, centralist, discriminatory, out of touch and acting against the people. This election will have done nothing to diminish that impression. Against this shabbiness the Scots struck a blow for democracy, with an unprecedented 97% voter registration for an election the establishment wearily declared nobody wanted. It turns out that it was the only one people wanted. Whether this Scottish assertiveness kickstarts an unlikely UK-wide reform (unwanted in most of the English regions); or wearies southerners and precipitates a reaction to get rid of them; or the Scots, through the ballot box at general elections, decide to go the whole hog of their own accord; the old imperialist-based union is bust.
The Scots, so often a regarded as a thrawn tribe with their best years behind them, have shown the western world that the corporate-led, neo-liberal model for the development of this planet, through G7 ‘sphere of influence’ states on bloated military budgets, has a limited appeal.
This country, when it was ever known on the global stage under the union, was associated with tragedy, in terrible events like Lockerbie and Dunblane; it’s now synonymous with real people power. Forget Bannockburn or the Scottish Enlightenment, the Scots have just reinvented and re-established the idea of true democracy. This – one more – glorious failure might also, paradoxically, be their finest hour.