Buying Time: After the Scottish Referendum

by Ben Jackson

In the wake of the independence referendum it is Scottish Labour that has a major battle on its hands.

First published: 22 September, 2014 | Category: Labour movement, Politics, Scotland

The nerve-jangling end of the Scottish referendum campaign was an outstanding moment of political theatre and a fitting conclusion to a remarkable period of democratic mobilisation and deliberation across Scotland. The opportunity for citizens to exercise direct popular sovereignty over the very foundations of the state is, alas, a rare privilege, evocatively described in books of political theory, but rarely experienced in practice amid the quotidian humdrumness that constitutes the political fare of most democratic societies today.

The Scottish people, most observers agree, rose to the occasion and engaged in a wide-ranging and well-informed debate that got to the heart of many important constitutional and economic issues.  The supporters of Scottish independence should be singled out for their imaginative campaign, which formed a highly visible presence across Scottish cities and towns for many months before the referendum. Running beyond the Scottish National Party (SNP), the ‘Yes’ campaign in effect coalesced into an innovative social movement, of the sort that has sprung up across many different countries in recent years in the wake of the financial crisis. The shift of opinion towards ‘Yes’ among intellectuals and artists, and, crucially, among Labour-supporting working class voters, was palpable, and represented a qualitative leap forward for the independence cause from its previous status as a romantic minority preoccupation.

And after the votes were tallied, the Anglo-Scottish Union had been democratically legitimised for the first time in its history. This result – and the size of the ‘No’ vote – came as a surprise to some observers, and many participants in the independence movement, who were confident that they were going to win. Therein lies a cautionary lesson about the ‘Yes’ campaign.

Yes and No

It is extremely difficult, absent a deep economic or social crisis, to break up an existing democratic state. The fact that Scottish independence got so close to winning a majority tells us something about how toxic the political and economic environment has now become for the traditional ruling parties in Scotland – and probably in Britain as well. But in the end the environment was not quite toxic enough for the advocates of Scottish independence, because there were many Scots who thought they still had a lot to lose from a radical rupture in Scotland’s constitutional position. Whatever one thinks about this belief, the fact that elements of the ‘Yes’ campaign (though not, I suspect, the SNP leadership) regarded a mobilisation of deprived working class Scots as sufficient to swing the vote their way suggests a misunderstanding of the political dynamics of affluent post-industrial economies such as Scotland’s. The electoral arithmetic of the class composition of Scotland is such that the only way to build a successful majority for ‘Yes’, or for that matter for parliamentary elections, is through constructing a broad cross-class coalition. The electoral glory days of the Scottish Labour Party in the 1990s and early 2000s were founded on precisely this insight, by marrying together working class support with the votes of middle class public sector workers and professionals, all of whom came to see Labour as the party that best expressed their worldview and interests.

The ‘Yes’ campaign was clearly a magical experience for those involved in it: the rallies, the meetings, the street campaigning, the conversations. Its energy and enthusiasm was inspiring. But to some extent it ended up preaching to the converted, leaving those outside the movement to feel, as Miss Jean Brodie remarked to her pupils about the question of joining the Girl Guides, ‘for those who like that sort of thing, then that is the sort of thing they like.’ Participants in the ‘Yes’ campaign might consider in retrospect whether their evangelical political style actually prevented meaningful discussion with undecided or ‘No’ voters or even alienated possible supporters from their cause. To take a small but revealing example: it was often noted that people wearing ‘Yes’ stickers or displaying ‘Yes’ signs in windows vastly outnumbered those from the ‘No Thanks’ campaign. When I walked around the centre of Glasgow a few days before the vote, there was hardly a single ‘No Thanks’ sticker to be spotted amid the profusion of public displays for the other side. There are a number of reasons for this, but I have no doubt that one important factor was that some ‘No’ supporters simply concluded that it wasn’t worth the hassle of, at a minimum, receiving unsolicited political heckling from fired up supporters of the other side. In this sense, while the creation of the wider ‘Yes’ movement was a great democratic achievement, in certain respects it also circumscribed the room for serious democratic dialogue with opponents and limited the campaign’s appeal. The readiness with which the language of ‘traitors’ and ‘quislings’ circulated and was used by the fringes of the ‘Yes’ campaign against their opponents should have been a sobering warning sign for the decent majority of the independence movement, but amid the hurly burly of the campaign seems to have been simply brushed off as all part of a rich tradition of high spirited and robust political exchange. For the avoidance of doubt, it is not, and should have been loudly and clearly repudiated if the ‘Yes’ campaign wanted to be heard by the widest possible audience.

The ‘No’ campaign was certainly an uninspiring and gratuitously negative affair, though also at certain key points quite effective, as negative campaigns often are. Indeed, one of the most successful moments of the campaign for the ‘Yes’ camp – when the momentum shifted towards ‘Yes’, and ‘No’ campaigners felt the ground move beneath their feet – was itself a negative one, when the exponents of independence attempted to reverse Better Together’s characterisation of independence as a risk by suggesting that remaining part of the UK would threaten the privatisation of the NHS. Nonetheless, the sheer inarticulacy of the positive case for the Union was itself revealing. Had Gordon Brown not done the heavy lifting by framing a case for Britain in terms of sharing resources and pooling risks, the mind boggles as to what the ‘No’ campaign would have found itself saying in the final few weeks of the campaign. It would be a mistake for advocates of the Union to let this discussion go off the boil because it has in fact only just begun. The proponents of independence have a very clear analysis of the problems of the British state and of the gains to be won from Scottish self-determination which they have honed over many years. The case for the Union, if it is to remain a living rather than a historical doctrine, now requires equivalent attention.

Scottish Labour in Space

The paradox, as a number of commentators have pointed out, is that it is the Labour Party that now faces the most vexing political problems as a result of the ‘No’ vote. For one thing, there are the widely canvassed complexities of working out how to enhance Scotland’s devolutionary powers as promised during the referendum campaign while simultaneously grappling with the English question. A second problem is what the referendum vote revealed about the popularity of Labour with its core constituency. While the ‘Yes’ camp wasn’t able to assemble a coalition that encompassed all the necessary middle class support, the ‘No’ campaign struggled to keep on board some of the traditional working class supporters of the Labour Party. The areas that voted ‘Yes’ in the West of Scotland – Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, West Dunbartonshire – are strong Labour areas that regularly send Labour MPs to Westminster and Holyrood.

Scottish Labour now faces a serious political problem in preventing its working class vote in the West of Scotland, and perhaps elsewhere, moving over to the SNP. Obituaries for the Scottish Labour Party are premature, because it retains significant assets, not least of which is the diminishing but still powerful historical bond between the party and the communities it represents (witness the ‘Yes’ campaign’s insistence that independence was desirable precisely because it would enable Scotland to have a good old fashioned Labour government once again). But Scottish Labour undoubtedly has a major battle on its hands if it is to hold on to its existing parliamentary seats and, more ambitiously, regain its place as the leading party in Scottish politics. Labour in the 1980s and 1990s was able to outmanoeuvre the SNP by positioning itself as the party that would deliver devolution. A similar, but more demanding, act of political dexterity will be required from Labour now.

A lot of ‘No’ voters and a lot of ‘Yes’ voters cast their ballots with a heavy heart last week – pushed into a binary choice but torn between the competing siren calls of greater Scottish self-government and a wider social solidarity and co-operation. There is therefore probably still just about space in Scottish politics for a party that could win elections and govern at Holyrood by backing both advanced devolution and the politics of social justice. Scottish Labour could be that party, but it will only be able to play this role if it undertakes a radical overhaul. It will require a shift in its programmatic orientation in Scotland to the left (the referendum started pushing the party in this direction anyway), but more fundamentally Scottish Labour needs a serious injection of political imagination and skill. The current predicament of the party is entirely its own fault and a direct result of its failure over many years to take the Scottish Parliament seriously. The most ambitious and talented Scottish Labour politicians have notably failed to stand for election to Holyrood, leaving Alex Salmond and his colleagues untroubled by a credible alternative Scottish government. The jury is out on whether Labour will be able to meet these challenges, but a lot hangs on its ability to do so. If it cannot, then the SNP or a wider bloc of the SNP plus smaller pro-independence parties like the Greens will claim that political space and in due course turn their minds to a reprise of the independence debate. The referendum result has bought Labour and its project of a British social democracy some time, but no more than that.

Ben Jackson is Associate Professor of Modern History at Oxford University and the Editor of Renewal: A Journal of Social Democracy.

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