Scotland: There's no going back

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The No camp may have won the referendum, but the working class anger that drove the Yes campaign is here to stay. Iain Ferguson reflects on the movement and its fall-out.

As the Scottish independence referendum result was announced on the morning of 19 September, a sigh of relief could be heard from every section of the British and global political elite.

David Cameron professed himself “delighted” that a majority had voted No to independence and immediately began to renege on the solemn “vow” he had made only one week before to give more powers to the Scottish Parliament. The Royal Bank of Scotland optimistically announced that it was now “business as usual”. And from the US Barack Obama celebrated the continuation of the “strong and special relationship” that has made possible so many illegal and immoral wars.

Such ruling class relief, however, is likely to be short-lived. For while in the immediate aftermath of the vote the mood in the Yes camp was one of disappointment and sadness (as well as anger at the scaremongering tactics and bribes of the Better Together campaign), as the days have gone by that mood has hardened into something very different.

On the one hand, contrary to Cameron’s insistence that the question of independence has now been settled “for a generation”, there is a growing feeling among Yes supporters that the referendum was simply one stage, albeit a very important one, on the road to an independent Scotland and the break-up of Britain.

On the other hand, for tens of thousands of people who have had their first taste of real political involvement, there is no desire to quietly return to their homes and give politics back to the politicians. That mood is reflected in the huge numbers of people now joining political parties, including the 26,000 who joined the SNP in the week following the vote.

Three factors are contributing to that mood. First, there was the size of the Yes vote. Almost half of the voters in Scotland — 45 percent — have stated that they no longer wish to remain part of the United Kingdom. While the Yes vote obtained an outright majority in only four local authority areas, it constituted a sizeable minority (never less than 30 percent) in many other areas.

And had it not been for the bribe of more powers offered in the last week of the campaign by a panicked Westminster elite, it is likely that figure would have been even higher. Hardly a vote of confidence, then, in the current British constitutional set-up and more what sociologists used to refer to as “a crisis of legitimacy”.

Second, despite the leaders of the No campaign repeatedly referring to their opponents as “the nationalists” (as if their own adherence to British nationalism somehow did not count), in fact, as most serious commentators acknowledged, the Yes campaign could not be characterised as primarily a nationalist, let alone an anti-English, campaign. Rather, as Tory peer Lord Ashcroft’s post-referendum poll showed, class was a major factor in this vote, with support for Yes strongest in areas of high unemployment. Conversely, the No vote (and the turnout) was highest in wealthier parts of Scotland.

Of course, Scottish nationalism was one element of the campaign, but as Ashcroft’s poll also showed, the two main factors driving the Yes vote were first, “disaffection with Westminster politics” and second, concern over the future of the NHS. And while dissatisfaction with Westminster may be particularly acute in a Scotland which at the last election returned only one Tory MP, neither that mood nor concern about the future of the NHS is felt only by Scottish voters.

Finally, this was much more than just a vote (though let no one ever say again that voting doesn’t matter). The period since early 2014 has seen the emergence in Scotland of an extraordinary social movement from below. It is a movement in which tens of thousands of working class people have become actively involved in political debate and discussion, often for the first time in their lives.

In homes, pubs, church halls, mosques, workplaces and in the streets, people have debated the pros and cons of independence, showing a level of political awareness and understanding few mainstream politicians would credit them with. And a major casualty of that movement has been the myth of apathy, the condescending view that “ordinary” people are not interested in politics. People in Scotland were offered a chance to vote on something which actually mattered — and seized the opportunity with both hands.

The high point of the campaign was undoubtedly the coming together of thousands of people in George Square in Glasgow in the final week before the vote. The numbers may have been far smaller than those which congregated in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring, but the mood of sheer joy, the sense of solidarity among total strangers and the belief that anything was possible was reminiscent of those days.

The campaign echoed all those glorious moments in working class history when people get a glimpse of how their lives, and the world we live in, could be different. As former MSP and Anti Bedroom Tax Federation chair Tommy Sheridan commented at a packed meeting in Glasgow two days before the vote, the last time we saw anything like this in Scotland was during the great Anti Poll Tax campaign of the late 1980s. However, as he noted, this movement dwarfed even that campaign.

Where did the movement come from?

First, there was the ideological appeal of independence. Against a background of brutal austerity policies on the one hand and a very low level of industrial struggle on the other, for many people independence seemed to offer the possibility both of addressing a wide range of discontents and of giving voice to people’s hopes, such as a nuclear-free Scotland. Not a revolution perhaps but at least the possibility of doing things differently.

That said, in the first year of the campaign that appeal was limited by a timid and uninspiring SNP prospectus which seemed more concerned with keeping things the same (the monarchy, Nato, the pound, reduction in corporation tax) than with bringing about radical change. Not surprisingly, by the end of 2013, the polls showed only a small increase in those supporting a Yes vote.

Keir McKechnie argued in a Socialist Worker pamphlet, Yes to independence, No to Nationalism published in late 2012, “What is desperately lacking in the SNP and the official Yes campaign is any inspiring vision of an independent Scotland leading the fight for serious wealth redistribution to tackle the deep-seated economic and social problems that ordinary people endure.

“The left and the trade unions can turn things around if we have a vision that can build momentum and attract wider support.”

That task of engaging with “the missing millions” — working class people in poor areas who were alienated from the political system and so unlikely to vote — was taken on by the left within the campaign. The Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), for example, was involved in organising voter registration and mass canvassing. Sheridan conducted an extraordinary series of meetings which saw him speaking to around 25,000 people in packed meetings from the Highlands to the Borders and all points between.

But this campaigning activity was not starting from scratch. It was building on the fantastic success of the Scotland-wide Anti Bedroom Tax campaign of the previous year in which both Sheridan and the SWP in Scotland had played a central role and which had mobilised activists in many communities.

A second and final factor contributing to the growth of the movement was the sheer ineptitude and scaremongering of the No campaign, typified by Marie-Antoinette like interventions by members of the Westminster elite. Of particular importance was the announcement by Tory chancellor George Osborne in February (supported by Labour’s Ed Balls and LibDem Danny Alexander) that an independent Scotland would not be allowed to share the pound sterling.

That announcement caused fury among many people who had assumed wrongly that the currency was based on a partnership arrangement. To those of us selling Socialist Worker on the streets of Glasgow that weekend, popular anger at the arrogance and high-handedness of these Westminster politicians was tangible.

Significantly, this grassroots movement was completely ignored by the mainstream media until the final weeks of the campaign when it could be ignored no longer. Its activities were, however, crucial both in increasing support for Yes and in persuading Alex Salmond to shift his focus to material issues such as austerity and the NHS in his second televised debate with Alistair Darling.

While Salmond’s clear victory in that debate probably also helped swell the Yes vote, the shift in emphasis to class issues came too late to secure victory in the face of ruling class bribes and bullying.

That scaremongering and bullying reached a crescendo in the last days of the campaign. As an example, Deutsche Bank (which had, incidentally, closed its Scottish office in 2006) issued a stern warning that post-independence Scotland would experience an economic meltdown comparable to that experienced by Weimar Germany in the 1920s — in other words, vote Yes and you could end up with Hitler and the Nazis.

Employers from BAE Systems to travel agents Thomas Cook and Barrhead Travel wrote to their employees telling them that a Yes vote would mean they would certainly lose their jobs. And given that only one mainstream national newspaper, the Sunday Herald, actively supported independence and was prepared to challenge the lies of the British establishment, it is hardly surprising that some sections of the population would have been scared into voting no, particularly older people with less access to social media.

The political fall-out

As the dust settles on the Scottish referendum what is indisputable is that, paradoxically, the main political beneficiary of the campaign has been the Scottish National Party. With a claimed 100 percent increase in membership, bringing it up to 52, 000 members, it is now Britain’s third largest political party.

Conversely, the formal “winner” of the campaign, the Labour Party, which played the key role within the Better Together campaign in saving the Union, is facing meltdown. It lost the argument in every single one of the Glasgow constituencies as well as in Lanarkshire, Dunbartonshire and Dundee, all for many decades solid bastions of Labour support. It now faces the prospect of being severely punished by working class voters at the general election in 2015.

A second development in recent weeks has been the refusal by many of those involved in the Yes campaign to return to “business as usual”. Impromptu meetings and campaigns are continuing to take place across Scotland and people are still turning out in large numbers for political events. It may not be easy to sustain that mood and that level of activity as the memory of the referendum campaign recedes.

What is clear, however, is that tens of thousands of people have had their first taste of real political involvement in what was an astonishing grassroots movement — and they have loved it.

For large numbers, sustaining that involvement has led them to join a political party. While the SNP has been the main beneficiary of this, other left parties and the Greens have also experienced a huge increase in the numbers of people enquiring about membership. For socialists in Scotland this creates a hugely exciting political terrain.

The grassroots movement that delivered the 45 percent vote on 18 September was driven by disaffection with Westminster, concerns over the future of the NHS and opposition to austerity. Nonetheless, the pull of the SNP and of Scottish nationalism is likely to be very strong in the run-up to the 2015 general election. Many people will vote SNP in order to punish Labour, a thoroughly understandable response given that their leading figures such as Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown were prepared to get into bed with the Tories to save the British state.

That said, for socialists it is important not to sow illusions in the SNP. A Facebook statement by Tommy Sheridan in the wake of the vote, for example, which called on everyone to vote SNP in 2015, is likely to lead to confusion and disorientation, especially given the superb role that he played in building working class support for a Yes vote through his Hope over Fear campaign.

There may well be constituencies where a vote for a left wing SNP candidate may be appropriate in the absence of any credible left alternative. That is not the same, however, as recommending a blanket vote for a neoliberal nationalist party which is likely to be making cuts of up to £2 billion in public services in Scotland over the next few months.

One of the main arguments bolstering the Yes vote was that there was a “democratic deficit” in Scotland. Despite very few people voting for Tory politicians, we have always ended up under the cosh of a Tory government in Westminster.

The superb grassroots campaign of recent months has demonstrated that there is another democratic deficit in Scotland. More than 1.6 million people have shown they need a political voice that will challenge austerity, protect the NHS from privatisation and give them much more control over their lives. None of the mainstream parties, including the SNP, will do this. One challenge for the Scottish left is to put aside its historical differences and offer a united socialist alternative to voters both at the general election in 2015 and in the Holyrood election in 2016.

That said, it would be a huge mistake if the left was now to pour all of its energies into electoral activity. If the experience of the past few months in Scotland has shown us anything, it is that real change in society begins to happen when working class people get a sense of their own power, when we see what Leon Trotsky called “the forcible entry of the masses onto the stage of history”.

If the wonderful grassroots movement that has emerged in recent months can continue to raise the democratic questions but also shift to building the STUC demonstration on 18 October, mobilising against Trident at Faslane, and challenging every imposition of austerity, whether it comes from Westminster or Holyrood, we may see even greater social upheavals in the months ahead.