2014 Referendum, Better Together, Democracy, Militarism, Named Person, Nuclear Weapons, Opinion, Opinion Polls, Politics, Scottish Independence, Scottish Nationalism, Sovereignty, Undecided Voters, Welfare, Yes Scotland
We are currently in a late, somewhat redundant stage of #indyref and one which is likely to depress any ardent democrat. Both missions are battling to covert roughly 484000 undecided voters (11% of the total electorate). Henceforth the fate of a 300 year old Union, and the political system under which 64 million people will have to live, is now being dictated by a population slightly smaller than that of Edinburgh. Alas, this undecided 484000 will not sparkle like the population of Edinburgh does. It will consist of people who are never sure what they think and who always postpone hard decisions. It will also consist of those who tend to opt out of following politics. And so, through an accident of democracy, the future of our society falls into the shaky hands of an anti-social minority.
I suppose that you need to tolerate electoral phenomena such as this if you want to have a democratic system. Of course, this might also put you in mind of that famous story about the farmer who grew a brand new Scottish state in his vegetable plot. The poor man, he couldn’t pull it out of the ground! So he called over the farmer’s wife to help and they both tugged away, but they couldn’t dislodge it. Next, he called over the brown cow, but she was no help either. Soon the horse, the sheep, the goat, the duck, mother hen, Frisky the dog and Whiskers the cat had all been recruited, and they all formed a chain and tugged away, but to no avail. Finally, a tiny little flea on the dog’s back piped up that he would like to help and everybody had a good laugh at this. But when they reconvened the chain for a final heave, the flea pulled hardest of all and the Scottish state emerged into the daylight.
So perhaps undecided voters still matter. Perhaps Yes and No should continue to drum their messages into the densest of heads. But questions about losing are waiting to be confronted. Losing will be distressing and undignified for either side, and yet there will be opportunities as well.
A Yes victory at first appears to have very different implications for the No-voting Left and Right. Those on the Left can console themselves with the fact that the Scottish electorate will have voted to prioritise welfare over British militarism. This crock of gold simply couldn’t be taken away from the nationalists. The SNP’s noisy rejection of Trident has all the hallmarks of Barack Obama’s determination to close Guantanamo Bay. Both represent populist attempts to isolate and end particular military policies, whilst they do little to deal with the broader political context in which these policies are sustained. Nonetheless, the anti-militarist vote will be a significant moment in the history of the British state. The spotlight will have been pulled from the “world stage” and on to issues which actually have some bearing upon people’s lives.
It might be hard for those on the Right to accept Britannia disappearing under its glorious waves. Yet a No victory was never going to herald a rejuvenation of the British state. The wine had already spilled out of the bottle and No were merely trying to prevent it from drying up. Gutsy British democracy, with its parliamentary sovereignty unrestricted by any constitution, had been already profoundly compromised by the 1990 Factortame ruling and the 1998 Scotland Act. For this reason, any No vote would have been a plaintive cry rather than a creative force.
The new nation-state would still have to be designed and built. Prominent figures on the No side – politicians, lawyers, scientists and artists – will have a responsibility to serve the new system. It is hardly morally feasible that they pack themselves off on a self-imposed exile from their unwanted nation. For a start, Scotland will need around 190 new ambassadors (hey, over here! – I know a bit about Jamaica!).
Yet at the same time, the SNP remains an authoritarian centrist party and the lack of political opposition within Scotland could mean that it will enjoy a dangerously easy, or even a sleepy ride. In political terms, Scotland is still woefully unprepared for independence. The Left cannot just gormlessly accept that welfarism will be prioritised and that Trident will get the boot. With the “named person” surveillance system being presently rolled out across Scotland, liberals on both the Left and Right should not assume that the SNP’s carnival of authoritarianism will end any time soon. When negotiating the extent of Scotland’s powers, players such as the EU, NATO, and the UK will soon get the better of the Scottish government if it does not come to a greater political maturity.
The Yes side are like a regiment of soldiers who have been transported up to the front line. They can hear the shells pounding and they can smell the battle smoke. They float in the air like ghosts, all nerves and exhilaration. But what will happen if the General (ie the electorate) orders a retreat? Do they all just wrap up their flags, pile back in the train and go home again? Will the blood-lust roaring in their ears simply fade away?
Such is the makeup of Yes that it will never be satisfied until it has achieved its goal: an independent Scottish state. For Yes to give up on this raison d’être would be like the Labour party abandoning working people. Fortunately the British state regards the independence movement as a sort of populist tantrum or as a lot of fuss which can still be pacified. If Yes miss out on winning the big glamorous holiday prize – their state – they will nonetheless get further devolution as a runners-up prize. What the half of the population who voted for the Union will win is altogether less clear. A No will not be interpreted as a lack of faith in devolution, even though barely fifty per cent of the electorate voted in the last Scottish parliamentary election.
The masses are essentially being told that they want localism: either a local independent state or more pronounced local powers than exist at present. That they might want a more democratic Unionist state is apparently too far-fetched to be countenanced.
This is therefore a question of how emphatic a victory the Yes side will be granted. It is not a case of power being challenged by the demos; rather, it is one of generosity flowing in a great mess from the centre. But the British state will retain the constitutional right to end devolution with an act of Parliament. A No will leave it similarly free to select which powers to devolve. The people are not triumphantly overthrowing the system and instead the system is only experiencing the loss of morale which ensues from a decline in democratic sovereignty.
A boon for Yes is that Scottish nationalism will be culturally validated by the referendum campaign. Tychy had previously fretted that cultural nationalism would be exposed to pressures which it would not prove strong enough to bear; that there might be a period of cultural humiliation following a No, possibly unique to history, deriving from a rich national culture being politically rejected by its own people. For those of us who are cultural Unionists, however, the prospect of second-rate poets being emboldened in their unending, state-subsidised struggle against the “Scottish cringe” means that we will have only more desert to navigate in our quest for literature.
Since the referendum debate has rarely alighted upon sovereignty or democracy as principles, neither side is going to secure a revolutionary victory. Indeed most of the status quo is sailing intact through the storm. But as the debate simultaneously “heats up” and winds down prior to polling day, we should concede that losing might not involve a knockout defeat but the renewal of familiar battles.