Obligatory Scottish Referendum One


The nice old social democratic Lib Dem who lives opposite Fort Bemalot was flying both a saltire and the union flag in his front garden this morning. In Scotland, the Nos had won. For left-wingers, hardly in a position to pick and choose opportunities to try and escape neoliberalism, that’s probably a bad thing.

We’ve purposely avoided sticking our oar in on the Scottish issue. England, particularly the sector-straddling Westminster elite, predictably managed to make it all about itself – what would an independent Scotland mean for England? What would be the economic repercussions for England? What would the military impact be on England? What would the constitutional implications be for England? Suffice to say, there were more than enough English navel-gazers pontificating all over Scotland’s referendum, which was probably very annoying.

Now it’s over. Scotland isn’t independent. Based on an eye-popping voter turnout of 3.6 million, 84.6% of those eligible, 55% voted to stay part of the UK, 45% voted to leave. For the past seven days, headlines and straplines have been consistently shrieking that the result was looking ‘too close to call’ – the media always presents elections as being closer than they actually are in the last week or so, presumably to try and kindle a population-engaging buzz . In fact, just like the last American general election, if you avoided the hype and kept to the sober statistics, it was clear which way the vote was going to go months in advance. The fact that some pollsters were putting the Yes camp ahead in the final week just confirmed our staunch poll-scepticism.

Even if the Yes camp clearly wasn’t going to win, the Westminster set’s bullying conduct throughout the campaign left every Scottish nationalist in no doubt as to why they wanted to leave – big business, finance, the media, the military as well as the usual suspects in the House of Commons appeared determined to present independence as akin to snapping Scotland off at the River Tweed, paddling it out into the North Atlantic and scuttling it to the ocean bed.

Westminster politicians were needlessly bloody-minded, particularly in insisting that an independent Scotland would be denied the use of the pound, but that was to be expected. Business and finance leaders competed to see who could paint independence as apocalyptically as possible – fairly shamelessly reaching for the worst-sounding thing most people have at least heard of, Deutsche Bank ludicrously claimed that the economic fallout would be comparable to the Great Depression of the ‘20s and ‘30s. News bulletin after news bulletin seemed to start with ‘In another blow for the Yes campaign …’ before citing facts, figures or groundless speculation that often stemmed from sources with an obvious anti-independence bias.

Given the laughably overblown Hollywood movie music they played over their final overview of the events of the last 24 hours, it’s clear the BBC saw the referendum and attendant campaign as a grand, noble exercise in democracy, which it was, in some ways. But modern newsreaders excel at Mystic Megging some unified, coherent ‘popular’ will out of faceless statistics. All we know for sure is that 55% of those that voted plumped for No, 45% for Yes. This morning on the BBC, though, we were being told that ‘the majority of voters have decided to embrace the union’, which is an altogether too enthusiastic-sounding way to describe what actually happened, especially given the relentlessly negative, hysterical, scaremongering campaign waged by the No camp.

Like it did with the Alternative Vote referendum of 2011, the establishment will twist the rejection of Scottish independence into an endorsement of the way things are. Actually, it seems far more likely than many Noers were simply weary pragmatists, far from happy about the existing relationship with England, but preferring the safety of staying to the uncertainty of leaving.

Why was the Westminster establishment so desperate for Scotland to stay? You can pick out a few, individual motivating factors – the North Sea oil just off the Scottish coast, and the big tax revenues it brings in, was certainly one. But the overarching reason seems to have been ideological – of all the commentators we saw hold forth on the subject, we thought kiddies’ author, education activist and inadvertent YouTube deity Michael Rosen said it best when he wrote that the elite was ‘looking for any old argument against independence … the Union suits them because they rule over it, and anything that suggests their rule is not infinite, natural or inevitable must be squashed … all these haphazard, straw-clutching warnings that they wave at us, mixed in with throat-clutching, voice-quivering bollocks about nation is really just poorly boiled hooey’.

Rosen is a strident left-winger – ex of the SWP – who’d come out as pro-Independence. But what was especially interesting about the referendum campaign was the way it divided left-wing opinion. The Communist Party came out against. In general, the Trotskyist left was pro. Billy Bragg was for, Owen Jones against. The Labour left largely threw its weight behind the No campaign with the party mainstream. The Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party were solidly yes.

Largely, these divisions were over strategy, with left-wingers subscribing to one of two basic interpretations – one that saw an independent Scotland and the breakup of the union as ultimately making it harder to achieve a more egalitarian, democratic society, and one that thought it would make it easier.

If we were Scottish, we’d have probably voted Yes, despite being in absolutely no doubt the Nos would win. Because we’re not, we selfishly fretted that Scottish Independence would’ve left the remainder of the UK more susceptible to Tory governments – although the 40-odd Labour MPs Scotland reliably supplies aren’t as vital to Labour’s election prospects as some have suggested. We didn’t have a choice, so it doesn’t matter.

But it at least got us thinking about pragmatic radicalism. Given a choice, an independent Scotland is fairly low down the list of political overhauls we’d like to see enacted – more than that, it’s a petty, insular issue to become absorbed by given the extent of the terrifying challenges looming over humanity as it obliviously barrels deeper into the twenty-first centuries. But let’s think back over what we might as well call the neoliberal era, from the mid-1970s to now. In that (nearly) forty year period, how many chances have ordinary people had to meaningfully change the UK’s political trajectory, dragging it in a less callous, elite-serving, majority-disdaining direction?

About two, by our count. One in 1983, when the Labour Party fought a general election on a unambiguously radical, democratic socialist manifesto – if they’d somehow won despite the Party right snapping off and running against them as the SDP, the wave of Thatcher-benefitting jingoism that came out of the Falklands War, and a scandalously impartial right-wing press pouring bile over them every day of the week, and Michael Foot broke with the Labour tradition of ignoring manifesto pledges in power, Thatcherism might’ve been nipped in the bud.

And this one. Scottish independence. Perhaps, if our friends north of the border struck out on their own, it might have triggered the kind of reaction that the Billy Braggs of the world have predicted – igniting a desire for more devolution among English people, eventually bringing about the abolition of Westminster and the establishment of regional assemblies. On the whole, we think it’s markedly less likely, simply because we don’t trust the Westminster politicos’ devolution promises one bit – but maybe, even now the Nos have won, the strong showing by the Yes campaign might force the beginnings of something similar.

Who knows. Crudely summed up, the moral is that when it comes to opportunities for radical change, you get what you’re given. The Neoliberal Dystopia vs Lovely Socialist Paradise referendum is unlikely to be called any decade soon. Until that time, we probably have to seize every chance we get, no matter how imperfect, to break away from a stifling consensus that’s morally, socially and ecologically disastrous.