In Defence of 2014 – in defence of popular democracy

Ben Wray

Kicking off our week of special coverage on the fifth anniversary of the 2014 independence referendum, CommonSpace editor Ben Wray says those who remember fondly the transformative powers of 2014 need to defend popular democracy today, which is under-attack from a concerted effort to extract it from Britain’s body politic forever

IT’S a strange thing to think about the 2014 independence referendum as an item of history.

It feels like yesterday when my knees were aching from pounding up and down high-rise flats, my heart jumping as a dog vaulted itself into the door I was knocking, and the deep emptiness of the early hours of 19 September, when in the Commonwealth Arena in Dalmarnock, Glasgow, the Clackmannanshire result came through and I realised it was over.

I also remember overhearing some Glasgow Labour activists talking about how they were going to destroy the SNP now that No had won. Nine months later, they had lost all their seats in Glasgow – to the SNP.

That gives an indication of the extent to which none of us, especially not Labour, understood what the legacy of the referendum was going to be. In the five years since indyref, Scottish Labour have not come close to recovering, and it’s not clear at all that they ever will. As The Times reported last week, they are even struggling for candidates in half of the country for the upcoming General Election.

Labour’s demise is just one outcome of 2014, which has had a deep transformative effect on the character of Scottish politics. In the past year and a half alone, the record for the biggest political demonstrations ever in Scotland has been broken three times. The SNP still has proportionately the largest membership of any party in Europe. Turnout was up in subsequent elections, as was political engagement. Scotland undoubtedly has a more politically active populous as a result of the experience of 2014.

HAVE YOUR SAY: Contribute to our special week of coverage on Indyref at 5, 16-20 September

While the polarisation generated by 2014 has not always been helpful, it’s necessary to defend the politics of popular democracy in general, and the 2014 referendum experience specifically, in the face of those who now seek to establish it as the root of all evil. 

In her victory speech after becoming the Lib Dems new leader, Jo Swinson argued that 2014 “had heralded a new politics, but not in a good way”. 

“Twitter trolls, fake news, demonising journalists – we saw it in Scotland first,” the East Dunbartonshire MP added. 

In recent days, Swinson has come out in favour of cancelling the 2016 EU referendum vote by revoking Article 50. The leader of the Scottish party, Willie Rennie, has argued that Scots should not be able to secure another independence referendum even if they vote for one in the 2021 Scottish Parliamentary elections. The line of thinking is clear – popular democracy such as referenda never should have entered the fabric of Britain’s body politic. Like a malignant disease on an otherwise healthy parliamentary democracy, it must be surgically removed. 

The problem with the Swinson narrative is that some of us have a memory of 2014 which is a different universe from her vision of a festival of Trumpian hate. This anecdotal evidence of a joyous and inclusive campaign is also backed up by empirical research.

READ MORE: Survey – The Yes Volunteers: Capturing the biggest grassroots campaign in Scotland’s history

In 2016 Dr Iain Black and Sara Marsden published the most detailed and comprehensive survey yet of those who took part in the Yes campaign. The report found that The local Yes groups “were run in a welcoming and effective manner…whilst differences were found, they represent variation only around how strongly different volunteers felt that they had experienced a very positive, very exciting, and enjoyable campaign that left them feeling empowered and intending to continue their involvement in Scottish politics.”

The top beliefs of Yes volunteers were overwhelmingly positive: they wanted independence so that Scotland has greater democracy, more optimism for the future, can protect public services and scrap nuclear weapons. Local groups were considered to be “welcoming of people from divers backgrounds” and “encouraged people like me to get involved”.  Over 90 per cent of all respondents agreed or strongly agreed “that it was Exciting, Democratic, Friendly, Empowering and Exhilarating” to be involved with.

Of course the EU referendum was not fought in the same atmosphere as the independence referendum, just as the Better Together campaign was not the same as the Yes campaign, but it’s necessary for those of us who took part in 2014 and remember its hugely positive effects on the democratic culture of Scotland to defend popular democracy as a whole from those who would like to see the back of it for good, and in all circumstances.

That constituency is not restricted to the Lib Dems. There is a school of thought right across the liberal establishment that the entry of popular democracy into modern Britain was a backward step. 

READ MORE: ‘We saw it in Scotland first’: Swinson says indyref heralded ‘harsh, hostile’ politics in Lib Dem leader victory speech

ITV’s political editor Robert Peston speaks for many when enumerating on Johnson’s prorogation of parliament, arguing that the original sin was the “constitutional horror” of “direct democracy” trumping “centuries of parliamentary democracy”. 

“What was always outrageous, a constitutional horror, was that [David] Cameron should have so recklessly grafted on to the UK’s parliamentary traditions the idea that on the biggest and most complicated decisions – whether we stay or leave the EU, what’s the fairest system for electing MPs, whether Scotland should be an independent nation – direct democracy trumps centuries of parliamentary democracy,” Peston writes. 

This is entirely back to front. Popular democracy has emerged as a challenge to British parliamentary traditions due to the strains placed on the British constitution from the 2008 financial crash and subsequent decline in living standards, the 2003 Iraq war, the growth in obscene regional and wealth inequalities in the neoliberal era, Thatcherism, the long decline of Britain’s power in the world post-Empire, and other such epoch defining events. Britain’s arcane parliament is unequipped and incapable of addressing these challenges, which require popular democracy – for which referenda should be just one such type – to address it. For Peston to put indyref and EUref down to an error of leadership on the part of Cameron is a total misread of history.

At a time when the defence of Westminster through an elite institution like the Courts is all the rage in the independence movement, we should remember that we draw our strength from popular democracy, not parliament, and not the Courts. That’s the memory of 2014 which we have to keep alive. If we let it die, any hope of indyref2 will die with it.

Picture courtesy of Alf Melin