I was disappointed by the Scottish independence defeat on Thursday, particularly by such a wide margin, but nor was I entirely surprised by it. The NO campaign was initially inept, detached and condescending about a result that its organizers took for granted, until the British political class and the media suddenly woke up to the fact that the Scotland was in danger of waltzing away from the Union.
It then lurched into an utterly negative and cynical campaign, in which a package of bribes and incentives stitched up at the last minute was accompanied with a strident and hysterical barrage of threats and warnings that presented independence as an irrational and reckless leap into the unknown.
Apart from the hastily-cobbled together devolutionary carrots, the politicians did little to prove that the Scots really would be ‘better together’, and set out instead to prove that they would be worse if they were apart, by stoking enough fear and anxiety about the risks of independence to terrify doubting voters to stay on board the Good Ship Union.
These warnings came from politicians who have gambled – and continue to gamble – the future of the United Kingdom on an inherently fragile and unstable financial and economic system that can collapse at any time. Those risks are rarely talked about or even acknowledged. Nevertheless the visions of chaos, bankruptcy and vanishing pensions presented to the Scottish electorate achieved their objective, particularly amongst elderly Scots, the majority of whom voted against independence.
This outcome was certainly not helped by a fuzziness and lack of clarity from the SNP on certain key issues, such as the future of the pound and the Scottish currency. But even if Salmond and his colleagues had been more explicit and less ambiguous on these questions, their answers would not have changed the general tenor of the NO campaign, in which doomsday scenarios of economic meltdown alternated with pious condemnations of nationalism and tribalism – this from a political class that would never dare suggest ‘Great Britain’ might also be nationalistic and tribal.
The government recognized that these or any other pro-Union arguments were likely to be counter-productive coming from Tories. Apart from Cameron’s fake humility and his ‘ I love my country more than my party’ speech, the Coalition allowed Labour to make the case for the Union, with the assault on the ‘tribal’ SNP spearheaded by Gordon ‘British jobs for British workers’ Brown.
The politicians’ campaign received the universal support of the British media, south of the border at least. Rightwing and liberal newspapers shook their heads in sanctimonious dismay at the ‘ugly side’ of the YES campaign. The Independent‘s John Rentaghoul – a man who has barely written a word that does not echo the official consensus on any given issue – smiled smugly at the ‘anti-politics’ of the YES campaign. Guardian columnists and editorials decried Scots ‘nationalism’ as a retrograde and atavistic expression of political despair, or suggested that only large nations could stand up to ‘globalisation’ and restore the lost world of social democracy.
Which of the big three parties were committed in this grand project? The Guardian‘s pundits didn’t say, perhaps because none of them are and it knows it perfectly well.
All this was accompanied by a constant stream of celebrities telling the Scots how much they loved them, and insisting that we were ‘better together’. The advantages of this togetherness were rarely explained, beyond cliches about our three hundred history and two world wars etc, etc. One school of thought argued that Scottish Labour votes were essential to save us from indefinite Tory rule – as though it were the responsibility of the Scots to fertilise England’s barren reactionary political desert, rather than the responsibility of the English themselves.
No sooner was the referendum over than the cuddly Unionist lion stopped purring and once again began to roar. The next day pro-Union fascists were beating up YES campaigners in Glasgow, waving Union Jacks and swastika Nazi salutes as if they had conquered Scotland a second time, and a twitter sharkfest was suggesting that Andy Murray should have died at Dunblane. Not much pontificating was heard in the British press about nationalism and tribalism and the ‘ugly side’ of Great Britain then, but these beer-swilling skinheads were a microcosm of the arrogance and John Bull-ish chauvinism that has pushed an essentially contemptible party like Ukip to the forefront of British politics.
It was partly in order to placate Ukip and its potential supporters in his own party that Cameron immediately declared post-referendum that the devolution he had promised to the Scots would be accompanied by a similar transfer of powers to England – a cunning ploy which is also intended to undermine Labour, and which demonstrates once again why so many Scots hold Westminster in contempt.
Labour deserves no better, after its performance in Scotland. But the Scots do. And the YES campaigners may have lost, but it is difficult to believe that the extraordinary civic mobilisation that they achieved will easily be forgotten. They fought a brilliant campaign, driven by a desire for a more egalitarian society which has more or less vanished from mainstream political discourse south of the border.
All this was light years from the spiteful, vindictive Little England nationalism espoused by Ukip, and that is why it shook Britain’s rulers to the core, in a way that Farage & co will never do.
So Scotland’s independentistas should be proud of that achievement, and celebrate it, and hopefully transfer the energy and experience they have acquired into new campaigns and a new effort to create the kind of country that they want.
And Scots may not like Margaret Thatcher, but she did once say ‘You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it,’ and on that, at least, she was absolutely right.