It’s the scatter-gun approach of psychics the world over. Name all the possibilities, and let the mark’s reaction guide you to the correct answer.
Thus, at the beginning of the referendum campaign, I asserted with all the unwarranted confidence of an English Tory, in a long-prepared lecture, to anyone careless enough to ask, that support for independence would not rise much above the 30% it had consistently polled in the previous thirty years. By the end, I was suffering from a serious bout of electionitis and beginning to think that we (the Yessers – gissa joab) might actually win.
Somewhere in between, I said to our editor Mr Alastair in a moment of sobriety: there will be a No victory, but not a huge one. The electoral effect of the Yes voters’ enthusiasm is at least counter-balanced by No voters who don’t want to admit their allegiances, and the vote will be swung by undecideds who will jump for what they perceive as being the safe option when they actually get into the booths.
According to the sage Vidal, the most beautiful words in the English language after ‘I love you’ are ‘I told you so.’ See, I did get it right, I did, idididid…
Whether it actually panned out like this, I don’t know. But all through the last couple of months it did feel an awful lot like the ’92 General Election. For those coming late to the party: in early 1992 Labour was on a roll, and looked on course to win. The Tories responded with what was regarded as a highly effective propaganda campaign on the financial effect of a Labour victory (‘Labour’s Tax Bombshell’, ‘Labour’s Double Whammy’). Labour had a leader in Neil Kinnock who was effective but a turn-off to Middle English voters, and the tone of their campaign faced charges of triumphalism. Any of this sound familiar?
My politics tutor interpreted the final act like this: people went into the booths having said they would vote Labour, intending to vote Labour, and then they flashed on the image of Neil Kinnock as PM, went ‘Nahhh’, and voted for what they thought of as the safe option.
It was always going to be tough. All we were asking was for people to show courage, imagination and self-belief. People may often show these qualities in unconscious daily acts of resilience, but they do not, on the whole, show them in active rebellion. I maintain that the default setting of human beings is to conform and obey, particularly when they feel they have a stake in whatever organisation they have signed up to. Even when it is against their own interests, they will defend that organisation, or at least demur to the organisation’s reaction whenever its tenets and power are challenged.
So it came to pass. The gritty were outnumbered by the oleaginous. Hope was trumped by fear, risk by security. After all, Westminster government has given us structural unemployment, deindustrialisation, neutered trade unions, squandered oil revenues, privatised utilities, deregulated financial industries, socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor (Vidal again). It’s all worked out so well. Why wouldn’t we want more? Why try something new?
And yet. For independence to poll around 30% after 300 years of being politically neutered is to have grounds for hope. It says that there is still something distinctly Scottish at work in the polity. To poll 45% is to be given more than hope: it’s to smell opportunity.
After ’92, the protests began. I took part in many of them, including the ‘Scotland Demands Democracy’ march on the 12th of December, in which 25,000 people walked down Princes Street and gathered on the Meadows in Edinburgh to listen to Willie McIlvanney and Hamish Henderson among others. Non-party organisations sprang up: Scotland United, Common Cause, Democracy for Scotland. This last maintained a vigil at Calton Hill for over five years, until the ’97 referendum delivered a Scottish Parliament.
So this current popular groundswell of support for independence, for change, for an unshackled Parliament, does not come out of nowhere. It’s simply been dormant, and many including myself had forgotten it existed. Of course, the post ’92 democracy movement benefitted from the support of all the opposition parties, which bar the SNP had already been meeting in the Scottish Constitutional Convention to lay out plans for devolution. The absence of such figures from the Yes demonstration outside the Scottish Parliament on Saturday 28th September was notable, and made it look pretty amateurish. But there will be other protests, and the amateurs will get professional with time and experience.
I remember Democracy for Scotland being denigrated as the hippies on the hill by some within the SNP. Yet the hippies had the right of it, and they refused to go away, and they won in the end. Not long back, the SNP itself was a fringe party with a distinct smell of sandals and cabbage about it. Now it has an overall majority, governs Scotland, has just challenged Westminster and nearly won – and it has just gained an awful lot of new members full of piss and vinegar.
Didn’t someone mention pyrrhic victories?
For a debate which was about national self-determination, nationalism itself was weirdly missing. I’m afraid I could never get worked up about whether we were going to be £500 better or worse off, or wrangling about currency which was clearly a game of bluff and counter-bluff. My own expectation has always been that life in Scotland post-independence would be tougher, at least in the short term, but I have never minded the prospect so long as it’s accompanied by a reasonable chance that it will be fairer as well. ‘Fairer’ was of course the acceptable f-word for the Yes campaign, the other one being compromised by cinema brave of heart.
Even setting Australia’s gift to one side, there are those who will say you cannot talk about nationalism without giving ground to silliness of the kind peddled by George Robertson, with his ‘darker side of nationalism’ (’95) and ‘dark forces’ (’14), and Alistair Darling’s ‘blood and soil nationalism’. This simply doesn’t wash. The SNP has been pursuing a course of civic nationalism since at least the early 1990s, and you don’t need to be a politics geek to recognise it.
But civic nationalism is inevitably founded on what, for want of a better term, what we will call ethnic nationalism. The issue is not race, but rather the beliefs held by a people indigenous to a particular territory. What makes Scotland Scotland? How do you define a nation? (Answer: you don’t. National identity cannot be defined, not in any way which will prove satisfactory to everyone reading that definition; it can only be expressed).
Yet something is still there, or the whole notion of ‘Scotland’ becomes meaningless. What beliefs inform the policies of civic nationalism? That sovereignty rests with the people, and not with Crown in Parliament? That land is an inheritance to be guarded and passed on, not a resource to be bought and sold? That the common weal is more important than what any individual can gather to himself? That pride, glory, achievement, belong to God and not to man?
In short, if one accepts that Scotland is a nation with its own identity, its own genius, its own geist, then surely that genius should be given the fullest possible opportunity to manifest and express itself. To be hobbled to England is to have one eye sealed shut, and to be effectively mute.
This is a fundamental argument, and one I’d like to have heard Eck make in the debates. Jim Sillars would have. But then Sillars is a heart-and-guts orator prone to making horrendous gaffes as much as inspired rhetoric, while Salmond is a percentage-player to his toenails, and the first law of politics is never to give the game away. (Yes, Vidal again.)
A passionate Yes-voting acquaintance has suggested we should give over ‘Flower of Scotland’ for ‘Jerusalem’ at future rallies. An excellent suggestion. The Czechs have had the monopoly on irony for far too long. It will show solidarity with our comrades in the English Votes for English Laws movement, and nicely cut out those Labour No-voters still clinging to the shreds of international socialism. As I’ve said, nationalism is not a force which divides, but unites.