Scotland: “Yes” Was for Social Justice, Not Narrow Patriotism

TPQ features a guest post by Hilary Horrocks, a socialist activist who lives in Edinburgh. The piece earlier appeared in People and Nature.

The day after the Scottish independence referendum on 18 September – in which 45% voted “yes” to independence and 55% voted “no” – someone chalked on the pavement of Glasgow’s George Square: “Glasgow said Yes”.

Its past tense was a poignant comment on the despair felt in the immediate aftermath by the “yes” campaign, which had latterly turned this area of the city into a mini-Tahrir Square.

In many respects the 45% support for independence was remarkable, given that its backers were subjected to what the Sunday Herald called “the political equivalent of carpet bombing” in the last two weeks of the campaign, after a YouGov poll suggested for the first time that “yes” might carry the day. The “Better Together” campaign, complacent up till now, suddenly sent its big guns into Scotland, Labour leaders allying with Tories and LibDems to try to “save the Union”.

Catalan demonstrators at an Edinburgh city centre polling station

Prime Minister David Cameron flew in twice, but never met a single voter on the street: he was filmed for TV talking to carefully selected audiences. Even the reclusive ex-PM Gordon Brown was pressed into service to make impassioned pleas against separation, promising an extension of devolution if there was a “no” vote that had not been discussed with anyone else, and which is now contributing to a UK-wide constitutional crisis.

In a concerted onslaught, Scottish-based banks and finance houses threatened to decamp to England if the vote was for independence, endangering thousands of jobs in Edinburgh (which then voted 60% “no”). Many of the major supermarkets, after meeting Cameron in Downing Street, declared that their prices would rise. Older voters were told their pensions might not be safe and Tory treasurer George Osborne had already vetoed a currency union in the event of a “yes” vote. (A telling photograph in The Guardian caught him among the rubbish bins, scuttling into the back entrance of an Edinburgh hotel.)

All the mainstream print and broadcasting media – with the sole exception of The Sunday Herald, based in Glasgow, which subsequently experienced a circulation surge – promoted the “no” side strenuously and often dishonestly.

Despite all this, 71% of Scottish 16-17-year-olds, temporarily enfranchised for the referendum, voted yes (by contrast, 73% of over-65s voted no). “Yes” held the majority in the traditional working-class, de-industrialised and poorer areas of Scotland: Dundee and the old “Red Clydeside” – Glasgow, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire. Inverclyde and North Ayrshire, other areas of western Scotland devastated by the Thatcher years, voted “no” by the narrowest of margins (0.2% and 2% respectively). Polls indicate that 37% of Labour Party members defied their party, which was campaigning with the “Better Together” Tories and LibDems for a “No” vote, and voted yes.

In the Scottish National Party (SNP) heartlands in the north-east, where the urban working class is outnumbered by fishing and farming interests, the “yes” vote was defeated. In fact one in seven SNP voters did not vote for independence.

“It was the affluent voting against the poor”, a woman from Bridge of Weir said bitterly of the result on a Radio Scotland phone-in the next day. Not quite as black-and-white as that, perhaps, but there are firm grounds for characterizing the yes vote in class terms rather than as a vote for the SNP or even a vaguely nationalist vote. Allan Little, reflecting on the campaign for the BBC, commented that “you couldn’t move at ‘yes’ gatherings for people telling you they weren’t nationalist”. In the last few weeks of the campaign, it became clear that communities were involved in the push for “yes” in a way not seen since the poll tax was imposed on Scotland in 1989, a year earlier than the rest of Britain.

First-time voters in Muirhouse, Edinburgh
Young people also got involved in unprecedented numbers: one, in tears, told Channel 4 News the day after the result that she would vote again for independence, but never in a general election. She was expressing the disgust of many of her generation for mainstream politicians and the perceived remoteness – not only in geographical, but in class and cultural terms – of the UK government which is supposed to represent them.

But this was a vote that people really wanted to take part in: an astonishing 97% of those eligible to vote had registered by the time polling took place (many registered through the efforts of the Yes campaign) and 84.5% of those actually voted, a figure unknown in British electoral history. It’s certainly the only time I can remember ever having to queue up to vote, and seeing on TV news queues forming before the polling stations opened.

The “yes” campaign became a way of fighting against social injustice, rather than an assertion of national identity. So many people no longer had confidence in Labour, the traditional working-class party in Scotland, to defeat the hated Tory-LibDem government at the next UK general election in 2015, or, even if they did, to introduce policies that would combat poverty and deprivation. The widespread setting up of food banks and the Tories’ “bedroom tax”, in which housing benefit is reduced if you are deemed to be living in too large a house, were frequently cited as reasons why people were voting “yes”.

I don’t think this mass nature of the yes campaign, or its broad class character, was apparent in its early days. Certainly not to me – I was undecided about which way to vote for months, thinking that the independence campaign was a nationalist movement diverting attention away from a common UK-wide working-class interest and away from an internationalist perspective. But, in my experience, in recent weeks any contact with the grass-roots campaigns that sprang up completely independent of the SNP politicians, was enough to convince you that something else was happening here. Commentators have likened it to the “Podemos” movement in Spain, and it feels like there’s some truth in this.

On social media – which they turned to, to huge effect, in the face of the hostility of the mainstream media – the community-based campaigns are already talking about their next moves: they don’t seem to be about to give up in despair. An important initiative must surely be now to link up with protest movements south of the border, recognizing that the strongest component of the “yes” campaign was for social justice and not nostalgic patriotism.

The reckoning will be stark above all for the Scottish Labour Party, which was condemned by a “yes” voter on the Radio Scotland phone-in as having “split the progressive vote”. Left-wingers who voted “no” for reasons of international solidarity, and substantial numbers did, can’t be accused of this, of course: but for the Labour Party leadership it was an entirely cynical exercise, which sought above all to try to keep their Scottish MPs in the UK parliament, without whom they would probably be stuffed in the next general election.

And what of the trade unions? The Scottish TUC did not join many British trade union leaders in calling for a “no” vote. It maintained a neutral stance and union members were active in both camps – those in the “no” camp often struggling to persuade undecided voters that the Labour Party would deal with poverty and deprivation in Scotland, and persistently defining independence supporters as pro-SNP, which had long ceased to be true. Members will be looking for more commitment to the fight for social justice from their unions in the wake of this campaign.

The establishment is now making a pious call for “reconciliation”: a service at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh had the main “no” and “yes” party leaders all lighting a candle together. But the campaign at the grassroots has aroused a level of committed argument which will not be damped down. As Channel 4 Economics Editor Paul Mason pointed out, this level of passion is what politics used to be like when it was still about ideology. The vicious attack during the day after the vote on “yes” supporters in George Square, Glasgow, by extreme right-wing Loyalist and Scottish Defence League “No” supporters, highlights the class antagonisms behind the campaigns – antagonisms that usually lie politely buried under the cracking surface of British political life. 22 September 2014

More on People & Nature about Scotland

Scotland: ‘the opportunity for real people power’ by Catherine Milligan

John Maclean: the accuser of capitalism (August 2014) (Maclean’s speech from the dock, 1918)

Gas blowout on Total’s Elgin field: letter from a North Sea oil worker to Reclaim the Power

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