Three years after #indyref, time to move beyond the divide

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Three years ago tonight, Scotland held its breath after the polls closed on that historical independence referendum. Christopher Silver reflects on what happened that night, and how it has shaped us today.

Clackmannanshire’s No vote at around half one on the morning of 19 September was an abrupt awakening from years of dreaming.

For some such dreaming was an old passion, others were drawn to the new thrill and the possibility it represented. Either way, the prospect of independence intensified in the summer of 2014, in a way that few expected and no one had experienced before.

Christopher Silver

By the time neighbouring Fife sealed the deal just after six, a change that had been glimpsed had disappeared. Defeat was total. The plucky dissenters in Glasgow and Dundee could not shake off the dead weight of douce auld Scotia: demanding of us all, as officious dominie, that we snap out of the daydream.

Serious, grown up, day to day politics would resume. Someone was even going to set up a commission. The scene shifted to Downing Street where power was retained, in the hands of a Prime Minister who would go on to create the current crisis.

Acknowledging the intensity of 2014 is not to seek to dwell or indulge in it. For many people, this was the truth of the experience: on the walk home that morning we passed an inconsolable woman collapsed on the pavement, asking of her country “what have you done?”

For many of my fellow Scots she’d be the object of hilarity: a freakish wailing creature to be mocked. But politics has the capacity to do that to all of us, whatever side we’re on. It can offer the enormous high of collective vision, realised. It can crush us too.

Memories of defeat 

Three years on, these memories sit there, potent, unresolved.

The facts remain blunt: that morning the core belief that bound together the long and winding project of Scottish independence was shattered. For the first time in their history, the Scottish people were sovereign. They handed that power back. It was not for us.

As a result that ‘us’ that defines all nations has become a far stranger thing to comprehend ever since.

In 1979 the immediate transition from a botched referendum on a Scottish Assembly, to the election of Margaret Thatcher, was also a defeat that was truly existential.

The Herald’s caged lion spoke to a deep sense of national emasculation. Combined with the grubby circumstances that framed the plebiscite itself, misery was the order of the day. Looking back on the depth of this loss Neal Ascherson noted :

Margo McDonald campaigning in 1979

“People seemed to shrink and fade. Many turned to alcohol, some to hard drugs. Many more fell back into the old assumption that Scotland was a dead-end (‘there’s nothing for young folk here’), and they left for London, America or continental Europe. The failure of self- government ruined many lives, and they were not the lives of politicians.”

Strangely, unlike in 1979, the loss of 2014 seemed to be immediately offset, as Ascherson himself noted in October of that year , ‘The sense of onrush, of irresistible change, has survived the ‘No’ vote.’

Rather than the end of an auld song, 2014 rapidly morphed into a set of new beginnings. But today, that morning of bleary eyed hugs three years ago seems like a different era.

Taking in the full range of all that has occurred over the past three years, it must be observed that, on balance, moments of triumph have been outweighed by greater defeat.

The SNP’s 2015 “tsunami” has receded and a second referendum has been reset. The Brexit crisis continues to expose the precarious foundations of the British state, but it has yet to significantly alter the shape of opinion in Scotland on independence.

This could change with time. As Scotland’s annual budget is squeezed by £1.7bn – £3.7bn after Brexit, as the absurdity of the project becomes clearer, as the revival of unionist Tory Scotland is exposed as a destructive force, more cracks will appear. But dreams are no longer the order of the day.

Re-grouping 

The rapid regrouping that began immediately over the course of the days following defeat were welcome, necessary, and probably an inevitable: a high-energy campaign can now gain an afterlife thanks to digital networks.

Robin McAlpine was one of the first out of the stalls, proclaiming, “dry your eyes, on your feet” – let’s keep moving forward.

We have long assumed such speed was healthy: undoubtedly it brought benefits, but it also stopped us pausing to stare defeat in the face.

At this moment, it’s important that we actually take the time to pause and, for the first time in three years, make an effort to properly understand the nature of the defeat in 2014.

After the disaster of 1979, the first steps on the long march back to relevance began with a great shake-up, brought about by the radical socialist and republican 79 Group.

At the time, the group seemed to simply underline the deep crisis in the national movement. Certainly, it failed to make any immediate impact on SNP policy: it was easily discredited and chucked out.

Yet by the end of the eighties a radical recasting of what Scottish nationalism was about had occurred: it discovered a new relevance and momentum in its stubborn opposition to the Poll Tax, a move that won it a broad base of support in urban Scotland.

This would finally evolve into the modern successful SNP, but it also changed the terms of the debate about Scottish politics and independence — shifting a dry debate about the constitution towards a vital agenda to combat the ruining of so many lives.

What new effort will offer the equivalent provocation to reset the trajectory and purpose of the pro-independence movement today?

Comfort zones 

If a nationalism is, at root, simply an ‘us’ – a consensus that we constitute a group – a national movement must always struggle to reconfigure itself in the face of political events that divide the nation into two opposing camps.

This is why Scottish politics, across the spectrum, has become hobbled by an instinct to swing back, at the slightest test, towards the constitutional comfort zones of Yes/No.

At the same time, as the public realm has receded in the face of market forces, as technology chips away at what’s left of Scotland’s “national” media, the national space itself is in danger of collapsing altogether.

In that event, we really will be left with a collection of tribes north of an arbitrary geographic boundary.

The pro-independence insistence on never ending movement building, when there is no deadline to move towards, is as misguided as the blanket dismissal of anything that can be tagged nationalist.

The most pressing concern must be to work out what will transcend the divide and allow politics in Scotland to break out into a fresh and creative space where innovation is possible.

Rude awakenings 

Since 2014, events like Brexit have cast a long shadow of mounting crisis and division. Politics on these terms has often felt like one half of the population of a country delivering a rude awakening to the other.

So there may well be more of those mornings in which one half wakes up to find that the country they live in is not the country they thought it was.

Finding that consensus again won’t be easy, but serious political change never is. Rather than continuity, with more troubled times in store for Scotland, the task must be to start again. A new case, perhaps even a new movement, is necessary, in order to grasp the significance of the generational shift towards independence and nurture it.

Scots are inveterate sneerers at each other’s passions and convictions. On the morning of the 19 September 2014, I know that I was far from alone in witnessing the kind of raw emotional loss amongst friends and strangers that I had only ever previously seen in moments of bereavement.

Independence could come next year, or it could take a generation. Like devolution a long 18 year slog towards an inevitable outcome could be on the cards.

In the meantime, let’s heed the cry of those left bereft and those who felt a wave of relief on that autumn morning three years ago.

Let’s move beyond our instinctive constitutional comfort zones and find a provocative spark that will shift the terms of Scottish politics. In doing so we will make independence, like devolution, inevitable.

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25 COMMENTS

  1. My once proud Scotland continues to allow the United Kingdom of London to control us – I only have a few laps around the Sun left, but remain hopeful we will soon have the opportunity to control our own resources 😉

  2. Christopher asks, ‘What will transcend the divide?’ I think it comes down to asking the searching questions slightly differently. It shouldn’t be framed in terms of Scotland versus the UK. It’s perhaps better to ask Holyrood or the Palaces of Westminster – which of these serves Scotland’s interests better? Last year’s social attitudes survey showed massive popularity for full or almost full powers for the Scottish parliament.

    As Westminster stumbles on through the Brexit shambles, opportunities to achieve advantage will crop up for our SNP MPs. Votes can be be conditional and no one, as the Tories showed with their toxic deal with the DUP, can be too haughty and dismissive of behind the scenes deals.The SNP still remain the third largest party in the Commons and, with a bit of luck and a bit of cunning they might just succeed in achieving full fiscal autonomy for our small nation. That isn’t independence and harks back to Ireland’s dominion status almost 100 years ago but it’s the biggest single step we can take without achieving full independence. As Ireland also shows, dominion status doesn’t last too long anyway.

  3. “Scots are inveterate sneerers at each other’s passions and convictions” -what a breathtaking example of the so-called ‘Scottish cringe’. What place does such a statement have in the rest of the article?

    We are in an uncertain period with the shambles of Brexit. Alliances are being formed and broken and different ones formed. The situation is fluid. As David Crines indicates behind-the-scenes deals are always possible. And, such deals can often change the paradigm. Politics is usually pretty messy, often shabby, but it is a response to turn changing circumstances to one’s advantage.

    Amongst the ‘55%’ as amongst the ‘45%’ there were many who were genuinely swithering and many continue to swither. It is in this swithering and the discourse within it that will shift things in Scottish politics.

  4. “there may well be more of those mornings in which one half wakes up to find that the country they live in is not the country they thought it was.” – absolutely correct and it will happen once my house is sold and I’ve relocated to the continent.

    It is unforgivable that Scots have placed their trust in the likes of BoJo, Gove and May.

    Scotland has thrown away its future and now deserves everything it gets, as much as it pains me to say it.

    The Scottish Goverment could have avoided all the forthcoming pain and division with a democratic vote in the Scottish Parliament or a National Assembly on Scotland’s constitutional future and deliberately chose not to do so. Unlike the Catalans, the Scottish Parliament knows its place and seems only too happy to oblige the British state in retaining Scotland’s power.

    A sorry state of affairs.

  5. I must say that I enjoyed the essay. Like the author, I had a terrible day on 19 September 2014 and my family were bitterly divided. I joined the SNP the next day and I remember a local hall being used to conduct the first meeting of a massively enlarged and strident SNP. It was like an early Dad`s Army film when Mainwaring calls for volunteers after Dunkirk. I took great satisfaction from GE 2015 and my household delivered 7 ( out of 8) votes for Nicola in May 2016. But since then I have become disillusioned.

    I am one of the 38% of Scots who voted to Leave. Like the great majority of nationalist authors, Silver never once questions why people voted Leave. Neither does he question why, of all political parties, SNP supporters were the most likely to vote Leave. On Brexit, he just throws out the same Remoan nonsense.
    Did it never occur to him that half a million missing SNP voters in GE 2017 is pretty close to the same number who voted Leave? Many of these Leave voters are in the market oriented, oil agriculture and fishing driven North East. For the record I voted ( or whispered) SNP in 2017

    The SNP`s strategy since 24 June 2016 has been a disaster. We need to accept Brexit and fashion a new strategy based on it. This is the conclusion that Salmond, Sheppard and Neil have reached. The Scottish people will never be roused to do anything driven by love of the EU.

    Disillusioned in Aberdeenshire

    William

    • On the other hand, that Brexit was rejected by a clear majority of people in Scotland is the premises for demanding a new Indyref. In this logic, a new Indyref must be in part to restore Scottish membership of the EU outwith the rUK. If we drop this asperition, then the premises for an early referendum begin to look shaky.

  6. FatCandy

    There were many individual reasons for my Leave vote but the heart of it was this: I am a nationalist and I love Scotland and I want us to make our decisions here. I do not want to be governed by any other country, be it the UK or the EU. Talking about Brexit we need to examine the nature of the EU. It uses weasel language but it is a country. It calls itself a sovereign entity. It has a government ( the Commission), a fake Parliament with fake parties, an ever closer- union driving Court of Justice, extensive law, passports and citizenship , an anthem, a disastrous currency, free movement and much more. Juncker wants an army. Some call this structure anti-democratic and it is that for sure. But this is not the main point. The EU cannot possibly be democratic because it is not a demos. There may be EU citizens but there is no EU people. It is a very dangerous mirage. Political legitimacy still rests in countries. The structure is top down and unworkable, hence Macron`s ( and Juncker`s) desperate efforts at further centralization.

    The EU is an economic failure made for and by Germany. Brexit has substantial economic benefits.

    I do not want the EU and if I had to chose I would go for the devil I know ( Westminster)

    • Sorry, I’ve tried to write a response to your comment a couple of times and I’m giving up. There doesn’t seem to be much point given that all your points are easily disproven with empirical evidence. Ignorance is bliss it seems.

      Anyways, may your dreams of a Great and Glorious Brexit soon be realised.

      • Truly Mr Ross is rather confused; or is he? The EU is far from being an ‘economic failure’. I do wonder if such people have actually been to what they disparagingly call ‘Europe’. The visual evidence of success is overwhelming. The EU, as currently constituted, is not perfect but compared with the archaic anglocentric oddity that is the United Kingdom it at least belongs to the 21st century
        I Suspect he’s an old style true Brit with Ukip leanings. Honestly the type isn’t worth arguing with. When push comes to shove they ultimately prefer the status quo.

        • William perhaps also misses the difference between the EU and the UK ‘unions’. In the EU an independent Scotland’s sovereignty would be fully respected, and it would be a full Member, whereas within the UK Scottish sovereignty does not even exist, Scotland basically being another region of England’s parliament. So these ‘unions’ are not the same at all and should not be compared.

  7. The SNP is without doubt a significant driver in the independence movement but should it be the only one? That is the issue. Whether the leadership of the National party, some of whom are even sqeamish about the term ‘nationalist’, has the wisdom to tolerate another maybe more radical, less conservative ‘kid on the block’ is another matter.
    Party history suggests a tendency towards ‘control freakery’.
    Ditching the tired British standards of what a political movement should be and becoming more culturally European would be a giant step forward.
    We need to study the Catalan case. There are more than a few indicators of how the ‘externals’ ought to look.

  8. “If a nationalism is, at root, simply an ‘us’ – a consensus that we constitute a group ….”

    Prevailing institutionalised msm terminology is misleading. National independence is not about ‘nationalism’, it is about liberation, freedom, self-determination and, as the UN maintain, decolonisation.

    Nationalism can be considered as “an extreme form of patriotism marked by a feeling of superiority over other countries”. (Wha daes thon soond lyke?). Aggressive nationalism is simply the takeover and control of other territories and the subjugation of their people. In reality the Spanish and British governments would therefore appear to have far more connection with nationalism, if not fascism too.

    Similarly the term ‘unionist’ is clearly a misnomer, especially after the brexit/supreme court decision confirmed the supposed UK ‘union’ to be a charade, and a 300-year old political fraud – i.e. England’s 500+ MPs can do whatever they like with Scotland irrespective of what Scots may vote for (e.g. we voted for EU remain, indyref II, etc etc, but are ignored).

    In other words the ‘nationalists’ are not nationalists, but the ‘unionists’ are.

    • There have always been a variety of nationalisms, cultural, economic, ethnic, linguistic, and probably a few more. The big country nationalisms of America, China and Russia and the old British imperial type which lingers on in the minds of the UK’s ruling caste are of course intolerant of the small country varieties particularly if they threaten the territorial integrity of their political entity. As defined by them ‘nationalism’ is an evil. However, it was nationalism that liberated many European states from the overlordship of imperialist bullies and drove the dismemberment of European empires in Africa and Asia.
      We ought not to be too quick in using the definition supplied by the agents of the status quo. Their agenda is inimical to ours. Be nationalist and proud!

  9. Abulhaq takes me to task on my statement that the EU is an economic failure. He claims that the “visual evidence of success is overwhelming” I would not doubt that Germany, Holland Denmark and similar countries are very successful. The Euro is helping these countries especially Germany. All that is obvious. But when the Italian economy has not grown in a quarter century, when hundreds of people are committing suicide in austerity -crushed Greece ( who by I wonder?), when the youth of Spain and Portugal are mostly unemployed and without a future, I wonder what the EU has achieved for its members, especially in the South? For them it is disastrous.

    The EU share of World trade is falling all the time. Our trade with the EU is also falling all the time.

    It is funny to be accused of being old-fashioned and UKIP like. I have a foreign wife and son from Latin America. I campaigned like a fury in Indyref and my garden is still suffering from 2014. I voted SNP a few months ago but quite a few of our SNP MPs were felled by nationalists upset by our love affair with the EU.

    We are a deeply divided movement,

    William

    • Dont intend to get into the futile game of stats ping pong but over the last 5 years the year on year unemployement rates in countries such as Spain, Portugal, Italy and even Greece has shown a decrease.
      Knowing the south rather well I can assure you I have never personally encountered any major shift in allegiance re the EU. The British press, mostly hostile to anything European, does overplay the hand of disaffection with Brussels but then it suits their particularly parochial and Brexitising ‘worldview’.
      Their treatment of Scots and Scotland is actually even worse.

  10. Ah hah, now you are shifting your ground Abulhaq. I have no doubt that Portugal, Spain and Greece are locked into the EU and I never suggested otherwise. From an awful base, unemployment may be dropping. Being in the Euro, it is virtually impossible to leave. Ask Mr Varoufakis.

    Welcome to the Hotel California

  11. Alf

    I am well aware of the difference between the UK and the EU as far as Scotland is concerned. Scotland is part of the UK ( albeit as a sovereign nation within the UK and benefitting from certain protections in the Treaty of Union) but ( in your scenario) would be an ostensibly independent state in the EU. The only problem is that this would not be real independence as the EU is also a country ( sovereign entity) and must inevitably centralise.
    I do not want to be part of the EU country for the reasons stated above.

    William

    • It seems that you fundamentally misunderstand what you’re talking about. Scotland is not a “sovereign nation” within the UK. It’s for that very reason that the Scottish Parliament must ask the UK government’s permission if it can hold a vote on independence.

      The EU is not a superstate, it is a union of fully sovereign nations, despite the falsehoods the UK press has been pumping out for the last four decades. The UK is a fully independent state within the EU hence the reason the UK did not have to obtain permission before holding a referendum on EU membership. It’s true that EU states pool their sovereignty. However, we do this with the UN too and the UN actually has an military at its disposal and isn’t just talking about one, should we also withdraw from it?

      The UK is free to walk from the EU anytime it likes. The EU is not preventing this from happening. It’s the fact the UK *needs* a trade deal of some sort post Brexit that prevents May & co. from doing this. Whatever misconceptions you have about declining EU/UK trade the fact remains that ~50% of UK trade is with the EU. That’s a whole lot of pain for Blighty on the back of ignorance and misinformation.

  12. FatCandy

    Again you are the one who has fundamental misunderstandings.

    Scotland voted in an SNP majority in the Scottish Parliament and Cameron had no option but to grant a referendum. This is effectively being sovereign in the UK. We have a right to secede ( unlike poor Catalonia in enlightened Spain) Better Together never once objected to the repeated assertion that Scotland is a ” country”. This is a country which has voluntarily submerged its international sovereignty into the UK for now. Scotland is not Yorkshire. Yes, we do have to agree referendum terms with the UK. The UK is preventing Indyref 2 because of the weakness of the mandate and the fact that Indyref1 was in 2014. I do believe we will have Indyref 2 but only after Brexit.
    Every British leader since at least Thatcher has said that we can go if we want to.

    The EU is a country, not as powerful as the Commission wish no doubt, but still a country. EU states do not pool sovereignty, they enter a sovereign entity called the European Union ( clue is in the name) Check out Guy Verhofstadt`s book called ” Europe`s Last Chance”. The UN is in no way comparable to the EU. It has no autonomous government and its “army” is for peace keeping only when the Security Council approves.

    Yes, the UK can leave the EU when it likes but there is no legal exit from membership of the Euro ( which is what I was talking about — that is Hotel California) A trade deal would be very beneficial and logical for both the UK and the EU and I am confident that it will happen. 45% of UK trade is with the EU but this will not decline much even with WTO rules. Average tariffs are only 3.5%

    Facts are chiels that ” winna ding”

    William

  13. Willie what is your definition of country?
    Is the EU a nation state?
    Reading the Wikipedia definition I think it difficult to justify calling the EU a country, though I am quite confident you will find a fit. The EU is unique as an association of nation states. Pooling of sovereignty is something all countries do to some degree. Think of Mercur, Nafta and the African Union. There are others.

    Would you want an independent Scotland to be isolated from the rest of the world?

    We share a desire for Scottish independence. We agree that decisions about Scotland should be made in Scotland. You seem to go one step further and propose we live in isolation from the rest of the world. Is this so?

  14. Piotr

    I am sorry to disagree with your view. The EU is a weak chaotic country but its problem is that it cannot be a “nation state” because it is not and never will be a nation.

    To your question! What is a country? A country is a sovereign entity recognised by the World ( EU is such), with a Government ( Commission/ Council of Ministers/European Council), with a Parliament, ( European Parliament) with a legal system with broad legislative scope ( EU Law) with a Supreme Court ( ECJ) with a Central Bank ( ECB) with a currency ( Euro), with citizenship ( EU citizenship) with internal free movement, with a single external tariff system, with an anthem , with an army ( see Juncker`s latest speech). Mercosur, NAFTA and the African Union HAVE NONE OF THESE! They are not comparable to the EU!

    Guy Verhofstadt has published a brilliant book about the EU called ” Europe`s Last Chance” He is the EU Parliament negotiator on Brexit and a virulent ( though truthful) Euro-Federalist. His exposes the manifest failings of the EU and his argument is that although the EU country has all the attributes of sovereignty I describe these are not strong enough. The EU, in his words, is a “weak Confederation” and a weak sui generis country. It must either further integrate to fiscal and budgetary union which people like Verhofstadt, Juncker and Macron want OR disintegrate into a free trade association like NAFTA.
    There is no real ” Remain ” option in Europe. Both Guy and I ( from different standpoints) believe that the current EU is a dangerous mirage.

    Off course I do not want Scotland isolated from the World. I am an internationalist ( meaning between countries). Is Canada isolated from the World? Australia? New Zealand? Switzerland?

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