Archive for category Constitution

Forget governance, Scotland is more of a nation than ever.


In the end it was a fairly even match, but not a question of right and wrong. The results meant tears for some in my living room, but by the end of this afternoon there were two emails in my inbox and three voicemails by people galvanised to do something as quickly as possible. They were no voters, yes voters and non-voters.

There were soft and hard nationalism on both sides, loyalties to structures and institutions and patterns that saw Labour councillors from England and Greens and secessionists from around the world shipped in to fight the good fight.  There was old-nationalist graffiti on polling stations and union flag waving, no-voting Gaelic crofters and yes voting English academics. The thing they shared was a franchise and residency in the same almost-country.

What the referendum has done is give Scotland a greater sense of itself. Calling in those councils one by one mapped the nation. There was a moment when it seemed the future of an entire country might hang on the RNLI lifeboat on Barra.

The last two years have put me back in touch with a country I thought I knew. I visited places I had not seen since I was a child, sometimes for journalistic reasons and sometimes because I simply felt the need to see it afresh.

The day before the vote I was in a tower block in Coatbridge, knocking doors with a Danish film crew and talking to disaffected Labour voters about whether they could be swayed. In the end not enough of them were, but a No does not mean that the empty shop units and discount stores on the town’s main street will suddenly  vanish.  Danny, a stair cleaner and former taxi driver tasked with rinsing down all thirteen floors of the sixties high rise, saw it not as a personal gain but as a step forward for his children’s children.

In the centre of Glasgow, people thronged to George Square in the expectation that something was about to happen. Independence was the question but nobody quite knew what the consequences of either outcome would actually mean.  The Yes/No dichotomy was a battle for different personal futures, but it is the process that means Scotland has changed.

A defining memory is running into Jim Murphy in the grey drizzle of the quayside on East Loch Tarbert, waiting for the boat to Uig. He looked like a city boy uncomfortably forced to spend time somewhere he would much rather not be, standing there without a jacket next to a No Thanks banner designed for a windless community centre in Lanarkshire. It was jammed against a recycling bin for support, bright red against the grey pebbledash of the tourist information.

Until David Cameron visited Shetland to talk about oil as the campaign clock ran down, the most important political visitor had been the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. On the side of the museum in Scalloway is a small plaque commemorating the event. Shetland has been able to use the referendum to argue for itself, but like elsewhere in Scotland the edges have also been put in firmer contact with the centre.

I watched otters diving in Sullom Voe in the shadow of the huge oil terminal, dolphins off Arisaig, and deer in an unharvested field of beans in the shadow of the RBS headquarters, set against the perimeter fence of Edinburgh airport. I climbed the Fintry Hills and saw the turbines scything out of the mist in pure silence, followed a fox down Leith Walk at rush hour and interviewed teenagers and committed treason with schoolkids on the shinty pitch in Fort William by playing football.

I talked to the guys in the changing room at the local swim centre in Scotland shirts with No Thanks badges on. We stood there drying off as the noise of Britney Spears’ Toxic boomed through from the women’s aquafit next door and talked about where Hibs could go next. I climbed Ben Vrackie in deep snow and crouched just below the summit with a group of Glasgow mountaineers talking about land reform, listened to people visiting Eigg hatch plans to buy out a bit of their own local estate and was told by a farmer in the Borders to get off his land.

I saw London-based journalists mispronounce place names and recycle the tropes of the nineties, I sat drinking tea in a Conservative Club listening to someone lament the decline of industry, and I saw a gulf open up between Nationalists and unionist party hacks to be filled by people fowhom the question they were asked was not always the one that needed asking.

This is the new Scotland that the referendum made. This is where we are.

A natural majority for Yes

It’s a phrase I believe Nicola coined last year, and I admit I was sceptical about it. There’s rarely a natural majority for anything, even a binary choice like independence. But I’ve come to agree with her, and now I have polling that demonstrates what she means. Using my regular pollsters Survation, I asked a series of nine trust questions. These are the results with the Don’t Knows excluded (full tables here).

Who do you trust more on each of these issues? Holyrood Westminster Net Holyrood
Doing what is right for Scotland * 79.9% 20.1% +59.8%
Representing our views * 76.7% 23.3% +53.4%
Having our best interests at heart * 72.5% 27.5% +45%
Improving the lives of the most vulnerable * 70.2% 29.8% +40.4%
Keeping public services in public hands * 69.6% 30.4% +39.2%
Making the best choices for me and my family 64% 36% +28%
Protecting our environment 60.3% 39.7% +20.6%
Delivering a fairer economy 59.5% 40.5% +19%
Playing a responsible role internationally 42.7% 57.3% -14.6%

So, on eight out of nine “values” issues, voters in Scotland trust Holyrood more. Only on one (which I admit baffled me – *cough* *Iraq*) was Westminster narrowly preferred. On the first five, indicated with an asterisk, there’s an absolute majority for Holyrood even when you include the Don’t Knows. And that’s on what this question is really about: where should decisions be made? As now, split between Holyrood and Westminster, or entirely at Holyrood?

It’s no wonder, either. The last decade plus of Westminster’s decision-making could have been designed as a campaign to make the entire institution as unpopular as possible. A system of bank deregulation in favour of the City led to an extraordinary crash. The aftermath of that crash was used not to fix banking and tackle inequality, but to build a three-party consensus for a war on the poor and disabled, the demonisation of immigrants, yet more tax cuts for the highest earners, and a continuation of the ideological privatisation agenda. How could an ever harsher Union not have been designed to alienate Scottish voters?

Maybe the extraordinary scare campaign against radical change, coordinated from within 10 Downing Street with their FTSE 100 allies, will win. Maybe our superior ground campaign will win. But sooner or later we will be independent. There’s a natural majority for it.

No shock, no awe

If Kinnick Wins-stThe establishment’s campaign to undermine a Yes vote got properly underway last week: every day a new banker or corporate boss was wheeled out to say we’d all be impoverished by a Yes. The media as a mass appeared not to be familiar with the phrase “vested interests”: each new corporate attempt to stifle Yes voters was regurgitated undigested onto our screens and newspapers. If Scotland votes Yes we’ll face massive job losses, or at least that’s the spin, as our nukes and our banks vanish overnight, then the border guards will keep us out of England. Today it got ramped up again. We’ll face a full economic depression, said one bank. Only a zombie apocalypse awaits us.

It started to ring a bell with me. It’s the exact same election campaign that the exact same establishment used to run against Labour before Blair took over. The same threats, just with added border guards. Capital flight has been cited for decades to intimidate people against change, and if it doesn’t work, it occasionally gets used if the vested interests see no other way to avoid change. No wonder Salmond felt obliged to suggest the SNP would cut corporation tax: presumably he optimistically thought it might diminish this phase of their efforts.

Pre-Blair, of course, Labour were the closest thing the establishment had to a credible threat. And so they got monstered over and over again. The arguments of those doing very well out of Thatcherism, thank you, were presented as objective economic facts. Every ad hominem attack they could muster, they did. There was no pretence of fairness or neutrality. It’s achingly familiar. We’re just waiting for celebs to threaten to leave Scotland.

But now Labour’s threat to those interests has evaporated. They’re a party intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich. They privatised whatever they could, gave sacks of cash away to corporate donors through PFI, began letting the markets into the NHS, and all because those corporate donations helped make up for a hollowed-out party membership. The party of Keir Hardie became the party of Lord Sainsbury. Alistair Darling, the No campaign’s figurehead, explained to Scots that the NHS was safe in Westminster hands having himself accepted money from the private companies taking apart the NHS. Blair did such a good job of reshaping the Labour Party in the Tories’ image that he got the Sun’s endorsement in 1997. They’d been an attempt at the solution. But by then they were an almost indistinguishable part of the problem.

But now, much to the establishment’s surprise, there appears not only to be some sort of vote in Scotland, but it could in fact lead to a rejection of the entire Westminster-establishment-elite edifice. And who knows, if the Scots successfully reject it, how long before the rest of the UK might do so too? No wonder they’ve dusted off the Defeat Change playbook from the 1980s. The grid is almost unchanged: although the threat is deeper this time, because Westminster itself faces a loss of territory and power in a way it didn’t with a hypothetical Labour win in 1992. Pre-Blair Labour parties used potentially to be transitory change. Independence is permanent change. No wonder Labour have allied themselves with the Tories, with the bankers, with the corporate chief execs. The occasional stint of Westminster rule, provided they don’t change too much, is the accommodation they’ve made with the establishment.

I should say that 1992 was the last time I’d have defined myself as a Labour voter, although they’ve had the odd second or third preference off me since. Back then I was voting with the Labour leadership as the best hope of change, rejecting the threats from the bankers and from the establishment. In this referendum, I’m voting against the Labour leadership but again for the best hope of change. Those threats meant nothing to me then, and they mean nothing to me now.

As the referendum dawns, what new conversations will break?

A guest post today, looking beyond the indyref, from Shonagh McEwan, former head of research for the Green MSPs. Thanks Shonagh!

yougovScotland is nearly there. The polls are suggesting a narrow result, but in whose favour we will have to wait just a wee bit longer. After a long campaign, really long, the people of Scotland will at least waken to the result soon.  Who’s counting the sleeps? Who, in the most active quarters of the campaign, is even getting any sleep?

I’ve voted (yes, by the way). And so my attention has started to turn to the next stage in Scotland’s journey. Regardless of whether win, lose, draw, extra time or golden goal (I can’t stand penalty shoot outs, so I won’t go there), I seek assurances from our politicians over how they will handle the challenges we, the electorate, will set them on September the 18th.

Whatever the outcome, I know what I want to see.  I need positive leadership, and respect and compassion shown towards the voters.  We need to grow from the result, and move forwards, without petty or negative politics scuppering this.

So how confident am I of this happening?  Well, it seems a fairly well-supported observation, even from the most politically-neutral commentators, that there has been a positive campaign from Yes, and negative campaign from No. The pollsters say the public agree (pic above). Those choices were made, and strategies selected, by the respective campaign groups and that’s what the electorate has been deluged with. So, if the Yes campaign gets the most votes, does that mean we’ll see sour grapes? Will project fear turn into project damage? An attitude of ‘you’ve made your bed, now you’ll have to lie in it’, we’ll not be helping make it easy for you?  If the No campaign gets the most votes, will we see tired, dejected attitudes turn into resentment and blame, ‘well, if you’d only voted for independence…’?

I noticed Alex Salmond providing an open and welcome hand to Alistair Darling at the end of the last televised BBC debate.  Be part of a constructive aftermath with me, Salmond suggested. Darling’s eyebrows raised. A hint of a wry smile given. You can kind of see how tempting it would have been for Darling, after such an adversarial debate, to bring both thumbs to his temples, wave his fingers and childishly blow a raspberry back.  The more recent STV debate, after what was a very different style of debating, questioning and discussing, ended with a rather different mood.  A good question from the audience near the end of the debate asked about the ‘what next’, and panellist members Ruth Davidson and Patrick Harvie both answered constructively and positively in turn.  I want Scotland to flourish whatever the result, said Davidson, refusing to be drawn into doom and gloom. We have to accept the decision of the electorate and work for the best, was the commitment from Harvie.

That’s what we need to hear.  And I am hopeful that is, indeed, what we will get.  If there is ever a time in a country’s history that requires skillful and positive leadership, it’s in the days, weeks and months following the referendum result.  And that responsibility is not just about politicians, it’s about us all.  So many people have given their time, energy and passion to this debate whether they are voting yes or no.  These discussions have been across the dinner table, on living room couches, in the pub, the town hall, at the school gates, street stalls, twitter feeds – you name it, the referendum debate has permeated every nook and cranny of the country.

That’s partly what gives me hope, because these conversations have been overwhelmingly considered and respectful. Yet it is also why part of me is a little anxious – because virtually no-one has escaped this dynamic and changing political climate, it is of even greater importance that the next steps this country takes are taken sensitively and compassionately.  We will all be affected.

I’m also hopeful because it’s been done before. The Scottish Conservatives, for example, campaigned against devolution, but were constructive in building a new Scottish Parliament and devolution process following the yes vote. Admittedly, it was an overwhelming result, but my point is that project fear does not need to become project damage, it can become project pragmatic.  And of course Yes campaigners, need not be dejected, all is not lost. That is because the vote result in itself does not end the matter. It is another beginning.

Different political conversatons will need to emerge. A new pathway will need to be crafted either way.  This is not about breaking up relationships, but setting them on a new course.  As a country, Scotland has evolved and changed.  It’s these dynamic relationships that will continue to evolve.  And as long as we’re given the space to grow, we will not fail to meet any challenges that we are set.

This will require a new kind of politics. It’s exciting. It’s fresh. Scotland has great people, with many talents and politicians are also capable of moving us forward, whatever the result.  As a resident of this country, I want to, need to, hear nothing more than my political leaders pledge to be constructive, fair and respectful.  Decisions will have to be taken. Boldness will be required. But that doesn’t mean we lose sight of being sensitive to one another.

So come on politicians.  Get some sleep after the result. Then up your game and move this country forward compassionately and maturely.  Let’s hear you say it.




From the inside, the referendum is almost too close to call

Working at a university I count the year from September to September. The last few days of August have the same timeless quality as the lull between Christmas and January.

As the Scottish Parliament convened for the final time before the independence referendum a thunderstorm swept across Edinburgh and into the windows of my office, looking out over the Crags. You’ve been able to smell autumn in the air these last few days, and though the seasons may not be what they used to be they have still rolled around in more or less the usual order from last September to this.

What has changed though is Scotland, fundamentally so. Eighteen months ago I would have counted the chances of independence actually happening as virtually zero. There was a sense of inevitability that the SNP, misreading their defeat of Iain Gray as a ringing endorsement of their own policies, would plough a lone furrow. Some of the conversations that had begun to happen in the background were politically interesting but showed little sign of reaching the general public.

Having followed Yes and No activists, written about them and got to know some of them, the rising hope on the faces of the Yes side has been mirrored by a fear on the No side that everything could unravel. Nowhere was this clearer than when I ran into a wet and single-minded Jim Murphy on the harbour in Tarbert, surrounded by Labour aides and with no apparent public interest.

Whereas the Yes campaign, if not the SNP, has been able to galvanise support and activists, the No campaign has ended up going no further than where the Yes side were two years ago at Cineworld in Fountainbridge. Back then some retrograde patriotism and some minor celebrities made the Yes campaign look like an overeager and under-thought Visit Scotland ad, with Colin Fox drafted in as a fig leaf for the SNP’s centrist economics.

In the same way that the expansion of Yes has diluted the presence of some of the diehard nationalists in the SNP, the No campaign has inadvertently fuelled Scotland’s latent unionism. The Orange Order’s decision to march in Edinburgh in the days running up to the vote and the rhetoric of British or foreign produced by senior campaign members has served to isolate a great many people. I recently interviewed one English resident of Edinburgh who said they could not bring themselves to vote No, even though they were undecided as to whether they would vote yes.

The No side are unfortunate that the campaign has coincided with a fragmenting of British politics generally. Old loyalties are fading with both UKIP on the populist right and the Greens on the middle-class Left sucking up votes. Although they have huge financial resources, both Labour and the Conservatives are engaged in an electoral fight for survival to come anywhere near the dominance both crave. What chance the Liberal Democrats might have had to articulate a robust and egalitarian British federalism seems to have vanished, and given a choice between Holyrood and Westminster people are beginning to show a distinct preference.

Inside the No campaign it is just a question of hanging on till polling day and hoping the Yes side do not arrive within the one per cent margin of error. If they do, and they may well do, then there’ll be an autumn storm over Edinburgh that could wash over Scotland and leave it changed forever.