Val Waldron: Five years on, Scotland and the UK have changed dramatically since indyref1

Ben Wray

CommonSpace columnist Val Waldron contributes to our week of coverage on Indyref at 5, finding dark days since the 2014 referendum, but with a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel

ON 19 September 2014 I arrived, sleepless and distraught at a prearranged social gathering. The Yes/No vote in the group was roughly 50:50, but we all ignored the elephant in the room and got through the weekend somehow.  Like so many others, my family and social networks remained intact, and, with this in mind, along with the peaceful and communicative nature of the campaign, I bristled every time a politician or commentator talked about the “divisive” Scottish independence referendum.

Occasionally I have given some thought to the impassioned plea from a friend, who, on believing ten days before the vote that Yes were on course to win, despaired that she would no longer be British as well as Scottish. It wasn’t until the morning after the 2016 EU referendum that I realised how it felt when the, albeit deeply flawed, status quo is upturned. Twice a loser in constitutional referendums, and I’m experiencing the grief for what might have been in 2014, along with the heady mix of resentment and fear of what the 2016 vote will bring, as we race towards the dramatic conclusion of the Brexit withdrawal stage.

Five and 3.5 years on from those votes, and with incessant campaigning at the grassroots for second referendums, it doesn’t take much to see now that the divisions run deep and in every direction. 

I’ve always believed that these major constitutional questions cannot be truly settled until we have the majority of the population on board. We may never achieve the 99.5 per cent who voted in favour of independence for Norway in 1905, however, I think we need to look beyond percentages, to the underlying reasons as to why neither the independence nor the EU referendums have resolved the dissatisfaction that inspired them.

The numbers game does matter, of course. A 22 per cent lead for the remain vote in Scotland at 62 per cent gives an undisputed mandate for a second independence referendum, and a right to say decisively that Scotland voted Remain. The problem is, it was a UK wide vote, and impotent without independence. The 10 point lead at 55:45 for No in the independence referendum is still a decisive win. The 52:48 margin in the EU referendum is ridiculously close, but in all honesty, I’d have taken 51 per cent in 2014.

READ MORE: Indyref at 5: Contribute to our special week of coverage 16-20 September

Maybe one of the first things that set the tone in the aftermath of the defeat, and set up the almost immediate resolve to try again, was the spectacle of Labour and Conservative Better Together campaigners hugging and shrieking in delight at their victory. 

Then there was Gordon Brown’s infamous Vow. It was to set about delivering further devolved powers for Scotland the day after the referendum. However, in the place where conciliation, consolation and the re-empowerment of Scotland should have been, PM David Cameron stood outside 10 Downing Street giving the final push to the birth of English nationalism, when he announced his EVEL plans.  

Elsewhere, within days, the “Scotland; we love you; stay with us!” rhetoric quickly evaporated. Journalist Robert Peston, the then BBC Economics Editor (now at ITV) released an erroneous, and subsequently discredited statement about the Barnett Formula. Jack Straw wrote a piece for The Times proposing a law decreeing that: “This Union is now indissoluble”. The BBC, now recognised as an unapologetic vessel of bias and cynical disregard for Scotland became toxic and untouchable, and remains so to many.

As the Smith Commission reached its conclusion, it was already clear that the limited tax and welfare powers were something more akin to a political and fiscal trap, than to Home Rule, as promised, and much of the energy of the Yes movement was subsequently channelled into sealing the massive 56 seat win for the SNP in the 2015 General Election.

In the Yes camp, the bitter disappointment quickly gave way to scapegoating, as the older generation, the EU nationals, the English…the “other” were all blamed for the defeat.

READ MORE: In Defence of 2014 – in defence of popular democracy

Within days we were flocking to the comforting and tribal safety of political parties in our thousands, where, eventually hard work and activism was at least tainted with blind faith and rivalry. This was most evident in the “Both votes SNP” campaign for the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections.

In the aftermath of both the Scottish Independence and EU referendums, we see that the cracks and and chasms are packed with lies, doubt, fear and suspicion. Certainly there was much free thinking and debate around the votes, but If the scaremongering about pensions and ironic threats about exclusion of EU membership characterise the opposition to the independence referendum, the lies of the EU referendum were scrawled across a bus, and characterised largely by the “othering” of the migrant. 

The unresolved drama of Brexit is a cliff-hanger, and the prospect of a second independence referendum hangs in the air. A proportion of Yes voters have become Leavers, who want neither union. Increasingly, No voting Remainers are embracing the idea of Scottish Independence. The situation is volatile and the stakes are high in so many ways and for so many people, not least, and most immediately the EU citizens living in the UK, whose future hangs in the balance, and those at the vulnerable end of our society who desperately need change. The demand for a re-run of both referendums and for a General Election screams of untenable urgency. We can’t go on like this. Something has to give.

Self Determination and Take Back Control sound like two sides of the same coin, but they feel very different to me, as it starts to boil down to the need for independence as an escape from the worst excesses of English nationalism.  I wonder if my friend and others like her, still equate their British identity with that comforting sense of stability and tradition as they did in 2014? Or does the spectacle of a monarch, handcuffed to the whims of a rogue Prime Minister change that? I wonder why the polls still indicate an almost 50:50 balance in these major constitutional questions, and what it would take to change that, and how we will ever find a consensus from the chaos.

READ MORE: The emergence of left-wing nationalism: the ’79 Group 40 years on

We are governed in bad faith by the Westminster elite. The issues and hardships that should unite us continue to divide us. There is no sense of reparation or tangible progress for those who need it most. There is austerity and divide and rule across the board, as if there’s not enough to go around, in a country that can afford to spend obscene amounts of money on Trident and on the Leave campaign to date. We have learned to be rightfully distrustful of the slogans and methods of electioneering and campaigning. It’s no wonder that so many of us remain rooted to the spot, and we can’t find our common ground.

If a further indyref is to be held it must not be tied entirely to the EU question despite the strong desire and mandate. We have to at least expose the downsides, and democratic deficit inherent in our continued place in the union. But we must find a really strong positive case for independence based on equality and justice. We need to recognise who our true oppressors are (it’s getting easier by the day), and focus our opposition in that direction.

We still have a chance here in Scotland, even with setbacks caused by an SNP leadership that is hesitant about loosening its control of the Yes campaign, and a shift towards the political centre. The grassroots can and must influence this, so that we can cut through the fear, heal the divisions and inertia that will leave us stranded yet again. As for the Brexit withdrawal saga, with its multiple choice endings; it looks dark. With the divisions running right up through the ruling UK party to the very top, it’s still a behind-the-sofa watch for now.

Picture courtesy of Christina Milarvie Quarrell (Poet/Artist/Photographer)

CommonSpace Forum 26 September: Indyref at 5