Malachy Tallack: First Thoughts

It is hard, on these mornings after, to feel positive. It is hard not to imagine that all the energy, all the creativity and enthusiasm, has been wasted. Scotland has voted to remain part of the United Kingdom, and its future role within that kingdom will be decided by the very politicians from whom the Yes campaign was attempting to wrestle power.

I am not by nature an optimist, but I am trying my best. Hope, today, is no less important than it was last Thursday as we went to the polls.

The most striking thing about the debate over Scottish independence was the degree to which so many Yes voters were inspired not by any kind of nationalism – ‘identity’ barely came into it – but by a desire for social change and for greater democracy. Somehow, the No campaign, together with much of the mainstream media, failed to recognise this basic fact until it was almost too late. Their last-minute acknowledgement that the status quo could not continue may just have saved the union.

But while the UK remains intact for now, the issues that engaged people have not gone away. Poverty, social exclusion and inequality; the desire for land reform and for a more humane economic policy; the need to see Trident gone: these things are still with us. And, crucially, they would still be with us had the country voted Yes.

Independence was never meant to be the end, only the means; it was just a point from which to move forward. All of the energy of the Yes campaign, all of its momentum, was towards a single day. But had that energy dissolved after the 18th of September, it would have been disastrous. A Yes vote followed by disengagement would have been far worse than a No vote followed by a strengthening of resolve.

The real triumph of this referendum was the turnout. The result itself was too close to be celebrated as a great victory, or mourned as a crushing defeat. But 84.5 per cent of the Scottish electorate cast a vote. That is the highest degree of political participation in Britain since the introduction of universal suffrage. And the fact that nearly half of those voters were prepared to mark their cross beside the word ‘Yes’ – a word they had been told, over and over, to fear – is remarkable.

For me, there were many highlights in this campaign, but certainly the most exciting and revealing moment occurred less than two weeks ago, on the 7th of September. When a YouGov poll showed, for the first time, that a majority in Scotland intended to vote Yes, something snapped within the British establishment. Politicians who previously had looked complacent were suddenly terrified. Cameron, Miliband, Carmichael, Darling: a huddle of rabbits caught in a beam they had not seen coming. Their fear was palpable, and the sense of power truly shifting into the hands of voters was extraordinary and intoxicating.

It is important to remember that the vast majority of those on both sides of this campaign have wanted the very same thing in the end. They have wanted to choose what is best, not just for themselves but for others too. Some who voted Yes could do only so because they believed that Scottish independence would prove, ultimately, to benefit those south of the border as well. Yet there were many others who could not be convinced that this was true. For me, this division was one of the most troubling aspects of the debate. And yet now it brings comfort. People whose thoughts and values I respect greatly chose not to vote Yes; but today that difference no longer divides us.

The result of Thursday’s referendum was not what I had hoped for, but nor has it emptied me of hope. There will be changes in Scotland, and across the UK, too. And while some of those changes will be decided by those at the top, the independence campaign has stirred a democratic revolution that will reshape this country. Whatever is proposed next week, next month, next year, will not be the end of the story.

What is needed first of all, though, is a coming together. Some will find it hard to swallow the bitterness left over from this campaign. Yes supporters have been consistently and unfairly portrayed, by both politicians and the media, as fanatical bullies. But equally, there is no doubt that some unionists have felt intimidated, online and on the streets, by the vociferousness of pro-independence campaigners. It would be easy to dwell on a sense of unfairness or anger, but it would not be helpful. And to cling to ‘the 45’, as a label or a hashtag, is self-defeating. It is a reminder that, on this question, we were the minority. But there are other questions.

Just as a Yes vote would have been nothing more than a point from which to move forward, so too is a No vote. There is tremendous energy in this country right now – a desire for change, and the strength to make it happen. That energy must be harnessed and encouraged.

Those words are easy to write, of course, and much harder to turn into reality. In the run-up to this referendum, a diverse, creative and inspiring movement gathered behind the word ‘Yes’. But now that it has passed, what must that movement do? Beyond the simple and largely illusory opposition of Yes and No, things are so much more complicated.

What is necessary is to remember the why: the reasons that change is needed. Around those reasons, both Yes and No voters can find common cause, and the energy of the campaign, perhaps, can find its focus and its momentum again. Groups such as National Collective, such as the Common Weal and Radical Independence Campaign, should not disappear. Their work is as essential now as it ever was. The fight for social justice, and for greater self-determination, need their strength and their commitment.

But equally, since we are to remain a part of the United Kingdom, at least for the time being, it is surely necessary to reach out further still, to other parts of the union. There was much talk from No voters about solidarity, so now is the time to show it. Across England, Wales and Northern Ireland there will be many who long to feel the sense of engagement and power that we have felt these past weeks and months. I hope we may find ways to share those feelings.

Within communities, within the media, and within the traditional political sphere, the effects of this referendum are going to be felt for a very long time. Those who hold power are nervous. They recognise their vulnerability, perhaps for the first time. Never again should they be allowed to forget it.

Malachy Tallack
@malachytallack
National Collective

Image from Robb Mcrae

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There are 8 comments

  1. Philip Richmond

    The referendum was the high water mark for the independence cause. The Financial Times commented that the Yes side ran the better campaign but that Better Together had better arguments. Over the next few years those arguments will be repeated and reinforced and support for independence will decline.

    Firstly, British identity and pride is lightly, even indifferently worn. It is an inclusive multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, cross-cultural potpourri with vague albeit positive associations of fair play and the rule of law. Britain is not a front rank power but remains a leading wealthy nation and it’s citizenship is both valued by those who possess it and sought after by those who don’t.

    British patriotism is rarely felt or invoked. There’s no flag in the corner of the classroom or assembly hall oath of allegiance. But a perverse consequence of the referendum, through threatening the possibility of this identity, has been to stir the silent majority in Scotland in its defence. The high turnout may reflect a grassroots movement towards democratic expression as the Yes side would have it. But it also reflects the dogged determination of No voters to make it to the polls in defence of what they always and unthinkingly took for granted and yet which they value deeply. In this silent majority, the nationalists have stirred a force which they’ll now have to reckon with – a genie that won’t simply get back in the bottle.

    Secondly, those who voted No found the Yes campaign overbearing, intimidating and intolerant. The ubiquity of Yes placards and the speed with which No signs were torn down or defaced; the denounciations of traitor and quisling which greeted fair and honest people like Jim Murphy; the fear of vandalism which prevented people from putting No stickers in their cars and windows – these were not so much signs of a healthy democratic debate as ominous portents of what the new “fairer, more equal” Scottish utopia might look like. The No vote has been hardened and will not change sides anytime soon.

    Thirdly, support for independence is weaker than the headline numbers suggest. The nationalist’s post-referendum rallying cry of the “45” belies a base of support with limited geographical reach. Yes won in only 4 out of 32 council areas and across most of Scotland they aren’t so much the 45% as the 43% or 40%. And that is before taking account of those who didn’t register or didn’t vote who must at best be counted as indifferent. Given 97% registration and the 85% turnout, the 45% looks more like 33% to 35%. And that’s pretty much as it’s always been and it’s not quite such a compelling slogan. In fact the Yes side’s greatest successes, in Glasgow and Dundee, were in the areas with the lowest turnouts at 75% and 79%. East Dunbartonshire with the highest turnout of 91% voted 61% No and 39% Yes. Where people were really motivated to vote it seems they were more likely to vote No.

    Forth, the Yes campaign rested on a deceit which will come back to haunt it. Realising that better off and better educated voters were the least likely to support independence the Yes campaign appealed to the poorest, least educated and most politically disengaged sections of the electorate. They went on registration drives in the poorest parts of Glasgow even filling in and sending off forms for the barely literate. They made a fundamentally unrealistic offer of fairness and equality which rested on higher taxes and more generous welfare. An independent Scotland stripped of its financial services industry and in tax competition with the rest of the UK to retain talent and entrepreneurship and without independent monetary or fiscal policy would hardly be in a position to make good on these promises. Over the next few years the truth of this may become clearer to this constituency.

    Fifth, there are 800,000 people born in Scotland but currently live elsewhere in the UK who were disenfranchised. People with roots and family in Scotland and possibly plans to return were denied a say in its future. Such an injustice would not be allowed again if there were ever another referendum. Cameron handled negotiations over the vote badly but that particular lesson has been learnt. And these Scots are likely to reject separation by a large margin. It might be argued that only those born in Scotland should vote but such a position would smack of racism and be untenable. Even if it were imposed the number of residents born outside Scotland is only half the number of Scots by birth living elsewhere. It is likely that any future referendum would see the majority against independence swelled by another 500,000 votes or so.

    Sixth, the gathering debate on further devolution will undermine the case for independence because it will highlight the drawbacks. Devo-max as being demanded by the SNP would undermine UK-wide benefits like the state pension which, according to polls, are valued precisely because they are set at the UK level. The debate will highlight the extent to which the UK sterling union depends on UK-wide fiscal transfers and UK-wide control of government borrowing. Without these the UK could suffer the same pitfalls as the eurozone. Mark Carney said in January 2014 that a successful currency union requires central government expenditure of at least 25% of GDP. That means that devolution can only extend to about half of government spending without undermining the sterling currency union. As that message gets more widely appreciated the optimal level of devolution will be better understood. Furthermore, in a country as small as the UK there will be real opposition to any divergence in Corporation Tax and National Insurance rates because the only result would be greater complexity for business, unwanted competition and fewer jobs. Decisions about Scotland made in Scotland is a good slogan but the reality comes with some drawbacks and trade-offs which will be increasingly debated.

    Finally, over the next five years or so the nationalist’s exaggerated oil forecasts will be exposed by the hard numbers of actual revenue and as oil makes up a diminishing share of the economy so it will cease to bolster the case for separation. Not only will the cash-cow of oil get smaller but as the imperative of dealing with climate change gets more urgent, so the narrative will shift to the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. Meanwhile, the shift to renewables will see a growing realisation of the importance of an integrated UK energy market and system of subsidies.

  2. Frank Park

    Jury is out!!! Some nice sentiments in the article, but the Unionist parties still have to deliver the Vow. If they fail then I believe the fight for Independence is rekindled and we need to get behind the SNP with a landslide win in 2016 and the right to call for another referendum caused by the failed Vow that got 55% of the voters to be conned into a No Vote!!!

    1. rollo_tommasi

      What you mean the vow that was made in the last week despite the No campaign consistantly being in the lead in 70+ polls. Even that one Youguv poll was within the margin of error.
      Keep on dreaming.

  3. Allan Weallans

    My thoughts exactly. A lot of the ire from No voters directed at the 45% seems to be that the outcome of the vote should cease all discussion. “Why can’t you accept the democratic will of the people of Scotland?” they ask.

    Trouble is, most Yes voters I know (including the very prominent ones I follow), do accept the result. There have been some who have been following conspiracy theories about the referendum being fixed (which I don’t agree with), but they’re a minority. The vast majority of Yes sentiment has not been “How can we overturn this decision?” but “Where do we go from here?”

    Like you say, the issues that inspired us to vote Yes still exist, and the No outcome does not make them any less important. They still need to be addressed. I definitely saw (and still see) independence as the best way of achieving that, but I have to believe it’s not the only way. There is still some talk of independence, but by and large it’s less about pushing for independence in the face of a No vote and more about simply being ready for it if the question of independence comes up again.

    A lot of what we hear from No voters seems to align with the tweet from Andrew Pierce of the Daily Mail: “Now that Scotland has spoken, can it please now Shut Up.” I, obviously, object to that. The No vote means that Scotland will remain part of the United Kingdom and that’s all. No-voters pretend they have the democratic right to silence discussion – which they never had, because that’s not democracy; it’s tyranny of the majority – and pretend that Yes voters should be, effectively, disenfranchised by the outcome, which is even less democracy.

    I said yesterday that those who believe political participation begins and ends with a single vote are only paying lip-service to democracy. The referendum on indpendence was not a football match, and the outcome is not the only thing that matters.

  4. Amanda Eleftheriades

    We all had positive visions and ideas of what a Yes vote would mean for ourselves, our families, our communities and our country and although we did not win the political contest Yes voters are now perfectly placed to frame the debate both locally and nationally.

    Many thousands of people across the country have been mobilised, energised and educated by the referendum in a way no political debate has ever managed to do before. We must all work together now to not only keep that community alive but to grow it.

    There will be some who are well placed to move this debate forward at a national level but most of us should look to our communities and see what we can do there. If we keep in mind our reasons for voting yes – many of these changes can be realised. We need to start making small changes, joining local groups, talking to each other and, more importantly, listening to each other.

    Social media is a fantastic tool for change but now we really do need to get active because it will be the most vulnerable members of our society who will be hit hardest by the No vote when the next set of austerity cuts are rolled out and the Scottish Government is forced to make unpopular decisions by whoever is in power in Westminster.

    In West Dunbartonshire, which was one of four communities to return a resounding Yes, we are making plans to continue the struggle and there are hundreds of groups up and down the country having the same discussion.

    While the arguements for and against independence were made nationally by politicians, academics, economists and the like, the campaigns that were most successful at a local level were those which were given over to the community, where party politics were left at the door and where people of all ages and backgrounds came to offer their time, energy and skills to something they believed in. Here we all learned from each other and we need to continue this learning because having lost the national vote positive social change needs to happen at a local level in much the same way.

    This is particularly true in the communities that voted Yes, because they are the ones that are already hurting badly and the ones with very little left to lose. We all need to be bigger than the labels we wore last week, we need to put Yes or No behind us and instead use our imagination to envisage the community we want to live in and then get out there and make it happen. We can still do this.

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