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Politics before and after the referendum

scottish and UK flagsSome sense impressions about the Scottish referendum and its consequences…

If no wins on the 18th, it will be of the slimmest of margins and in spite of the politics of Better Together. The two debates between Salmond and Darling illustrated Better Together‘s problem perfectly. The first round went to Darling. He does technical detail very well, and took a scalpel to Salmond’s bombast. Uncertainty was the First Minister’s undoing, and he was duly skewered.

Yet in the second round it was Darling who got crushed. He was like a broken record  mumbling about currency and pensions as Salmond gave believable answers on the nuts and bolts, and championed a vision of what an independent Scotland could look like. This isn’t a fault of Darling’s per se, he is the product of a Westminster culture in thrall to managerial politics. When the battle is about ideas, sticking to the so-called wisdom of ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ without bothering about the politics is a recipe for defeat. These people are supposed to be professionals, would you believe.

Still on the referendum, why have the three main parties been shy about their commitment to devo-max? It’s curious. According to The Scotsman poll back in February this year some 61% of Scots would prefer it to independence. Small wonder the SNP wanted it being kept off the referendum paper, as that’s what is already on offer. Voting no isn’t for the status quo, it is for the extension of significant powers to the Scottish parliament. Finally, the Westminster parties have woken up to their commitments – but to begin talking about it 11 days before the referendum typifies their lackadaisical approach to independence. Just like a student who leaves their 12,000 word dissertation unwritten until the night before, it’s panic stations. Truly we are governed by fools.

What will happen to the yes campaign, win or lose? Anecdotal evidence is that it has mobilised “ordinary” people and drawn them into activity. It may well be a mile wide, and such coalitions of convenience tend to be but an inch deep. Nevertheless a real social movement it is. Does this make for an immediate radical democratic for Scotland? If I thought that was the case, I’d be supporting the yes camp. Yet I’d broadly concur with this piece, also from The Scotsman. The SNP showed how deep their commitment to social justice ran by failing to turn its MPs out to join Labour and the LibDems for Friday’s bedroom tax vote. But more significantly, Yes is firmly under the SNP’s leadership. There has been no challenge to it. Differences have been papered over. Even Trotskyists, hardly a significant constituency, are deferring their criticisms to the never-never with their ‘yes, but fight for socialism!’ sloganising.

There are real grass roots organisations involved, but they have allowed themselves to be adjuncts to the SNP. In the event of victory, when the celebrations have settled they will demobilise and go home with few, if any, feeding in to wider activism. I say this not because I’m a misery, but by looking at the mobilisation of analogous movements in liberal democracies. Remember the mass movement against Le Pen in 2002? That worked out well. Or what about the no less real mobilisation of the grassroots for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign? What happened to that movement? As the election committees disbanded the movement dissipated, and the overwhelming bulk of people involved returned to private life. Such is the fate awaiting Yes as their raison d’etre expires.

What about Yes in the event of no? I’d like to think that the experience of frustrated ambitions might, perversely, drive more engagement as disappointment spurs radicalism and more activism. On the other hand, defeat might impoverish civic culture as people become deeply affected by it. The continuing fall-out from the miners’ strike 30 years on is testament to that. But, again, America can teach us a thing or two. The sort of mass mobilisation seen for Obama was there for John Kerry in 2004. Okay, not as extensive or enthusiastic but the Democrats had the troops and the organisation. No doubt the loss to Dubya was keenly felt, but they bounced back, precisely because the movement was a shallow adjunct of an elite project. Scottish civic culture isn’t going to implode in the event of a no. From an activists point of view, it is likely to return to ‘as you were’.

Ah, England. Politics can never be the same thanks to the devolution commitment. All the main parties will have to offer more to address the absurd anomalies of the unwritten constitution, and the relationship between the UK’s constituent nations. Perhaps, just perhaps, it will be a shock enough to have the kind of popular discussion all the people of the UK state needs. That conversation would have to be had in the event of a Yes too, but I fear that in the present context the forces of reaction will be strengthened. A carnival of the right in which every ugly facet of English nationalism is dredged up and celebrated as a positive, one where the values of collectivism and solidarity which, in a way, the union has come to represent will be eroded even further. The price of “freedom” for five million people is another likely round of misery and social regression for 58 million. Worth it?

This blog first appeared at All that is Solid


  1. David Ellis says:

    `The price of “freedom” for five million people is another likely round of misery and social regression for 58 million. Worth it?’

    Absolutely. Your argument is vile imperialism. You want the Scottish to remain the kicking boys of England so that you can continue to live the good life at their expense. That is not working class unity that is exploitation. The English working class would do well to take a leaf out of Scotland’s book and start building alternative power centres to the rotten cess pit that is Westminster.

  2. Rod says:

    “These people are supposed to be professionals, would you believe.”

    Not looking too promising for Labour’s 2015 election campaign.

    Just think of the Bristol Mayoral election – where the Labour’s machine-politics, pro-business favourite, in what has often been described as a Labour city, lost to a ‘visionary’ outsider.

    Not that there’s any evidence indicating Labour voters changed sides, they just didn’t bother to vote.

  3. Lamia says:

    It is clear that support for Yes is so widespread that a close No vote would leave the two parties stuck awkwardly together in a situation where Scotland’s heart is clearly not in it and the English increasingly feel not affection or indifference but growing dislike for their petulant partners.

    Whilst I would at the outset have preferred Scotland to remain, I’m resigned to wishing it were over, Scotland was gone, and both states can get on following their own separate courses, free at last from the other.

    I fear that with the best will in the world (and there isn’t much of that around, but hey…) it will be quite costly for each state in the short term. But we will have to get through that. Or rather, the UK will have to get through that. I’m past caring how Scotland gets on. I’ll just be hoping we don’t have to suffer too much more of Salmond’s anglophobic card-trickery during the actual break-up.

    I think you are mistaken in thinking that separation will mean social justice is a greater probability in Scotland than the rUK, but that is largely academic now.

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