The Scottish Referendum Result: So what do we know, and what do we think we know?
A week on from Referendum day. After over 2 years of intensive campaigning we finally know the result. While it is important to not underplay the significance of the very substantial total vote for ‘Yes’, nor those areas of the country where ‘Yes’ were in the majority (the city of Glasgow and two neighbouring Authorities plus the city of Dundee), the first thing we know is that the people of Scotland did reject separation and they rejected it clearly with a 55.3% total – giving a 10.6% majority. The people of Scotland rejected separation across nearly the entire country – with 28 out of 32 Local Authority areas having a ‘No’ majority, many with over 60% voting for ‘No’. The results graphics published in the major newspapers illustrated this very starkly, with nearly a blanket of red, and just a few areas of green. This was not a general election of course – although on many issues the nationalists tried to confuse people into thinking it was. But if it were an election, the colours on that map of Scotland would signify not so much a landslide as an avalanche.
When people answered ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ the only thing we know about each decision is the way they answered that question. We do not for example know that someone voting ‘Yes’ wanted to remove Trident, or that they were vehemently against the way Westminster operates, no more than we know that someone voting ‘No’ was not passionate about the need for political change, or indeed felt any less strongly than anyone else about the need to address problems of poverty. So the second thing we know is that just over 2 million people voted ‘No’ and just over 1.6 million people voted ‘Yes’, indicating whether they did or did not support keeping the UK together. We cannot say with any degree of certainty what was behind their decision to vote the way they did. There has already been a lot of speculation by commentators, and opinion pollsters will also try to analyse the causes behind the voters’ decisions. But we should be very careful about some of the generalised assumptions that many are promoting as though they were fact. I for one have had enough of being told how I think and why I think it. That has been a definite tactic of some in the Referendum campaign, trying to shame people to vote a particular way or otherwise be ‘condemned’ for a variety of explicit or implied betrayals of a range of significant causes.
The third thing we know is that the overall turnout was amazingly high at 84.5% of those registered to vote, so no one can claim a lack of legitimacy for the result. With nearly everyone who could register doing so – 97% of the total – followed by such an incredible turnout, we know people wanted to take part in this decision like no other before.
Closely linked to the level of voter participation is the fourth thing we know which is that throughout the 2 years or so of the campaign, the people of Scotland engaged with this debate more enthusiastically and widely than any other in living memory. While the relative success of engagement across the campaigns might be argued about – and many have judged the ‘Yes’ side to have won that in terms of level of participation, enthusiasm, creativity and grass roots passion – it is clear that there were very high levels of active involvement on both sides of the campaign. Personally, I also feel that the ‘Yes’ side consistently made more noise throughout the campaign in all the various public and private occasions and in all the various ways in which they had an opportunity to make their presence felt, gaining a deserved reputation for shouting their opponents down.
Many have wanted to characterise the nature of the debate itself as being praiseworthy. The fifth thing we know is that the campaign has been almost completely peaceful, with the only exceptions being mercifully few, and I hope from what has been reported, not too serious, although of course anyone on the receiving end of violence or the threat of it, cannot but consider it serious at the time. While I can agree wholeheartedly with how fantastic it has been for such a significant and passionate debate to have passed off so peacefully, and I can see that and the levels of engagement and turnout as great positives for democracy, I cannot say the same about all aspects of the campaign. As the Referendum campaign progressed, there were those particularly amongst the nationalists who liked to describe the way the Referendum campaign was being conducted as an exemplar of civilised democratic process. However we do not know that. There were too many examples of intimidation and abuse, online and in day to day interactions between people for the overall campaign to receive such blanket plaudits as the nationalists liked to assert. There has been even more of this selective recall after the conclusion of the vote. The danger is that if we accept this ‘air-brushing’ adjustment of the collective memory so soon after the event we will lose some of the important lessons of what has just happened to our nation.
My own view is that while there were examples of unacceptable behaviour on both sides, it felt as though trying to speak out on the ‘No’ side was almost inevitably going to find you on the wrong end of intimidation. As a ‘No’ voter if you dared to put your head above the parapet you were potentially putting yourself and your family in the firing line of a tirade of angry recrimination and abuse. It has long been the case that divisiveness, confrontation and false grievances have been used by nationalists to effectively silence and intimidate those who want to express views in opposition to them. In the case of the ‘Yes’ campaign this was not just a small minority, it was a clear and widespread tactic and it was at times stoked up by a manipulative nationalist leadership determined to win at any cost.
For the sixth thing we know the obvious place to go is to the many fundamental principles that became the lifeblood of each campaign. While either side disputed, challenged and sometimes derided the other’s standpoints and major ‘causes’, there were a number of defining principles that clearly drew large numbers into each side. For ‘Yes’ these included: self-determination, particularly ensuring ‘Scotland gets the Government it votes for’; social justice and overcoming poverty; and removing nuclear weapons. For ‘No’ these included: understanding what currency an independent Scotland would use and the implications of this; the fundamental funding gap to deliver all the nationalists’ promises; and the loss of the security, strength, and shared heritage and values of the United Kingdom.
However, no one should be fooled by the crude attempts of some to deride and dismiss the legitimate beliefs and concerns of people on either side of the debate. This is particularly corrosive when it happens after the vote outcome is known. So, in the Herald newspaper’s Scotland Decides special supplement published on the 20th September, a correspondent shamelessly writes off the 61.1% of ‘No’ voters in Edinburgh as having “voted not with their hearts or their minds but with their wallets”. I know there are people who will be deeply disappointed that their side of this debate has not come out ahead, but we all need to think carefully before allowing anger and bitterness to transmit into the written word, particularly those representing themselves as delivering news to their readership.
During the course of the campaign it was a common tactic of both sides to imply that their opponents just did not care about a given issue as much as their side did. The truth is that after over two years of heavy campaigning neither side could really claim that their opponents did not understand the fundamentals of both sides’ main arguments. Across print media, the internet, TV and radio, and at work and in the pub and at social gatherings, as well as in local village and town hall debates, the two sides presented their cases as thoroughly and as clearly as they could and repeated them thousands of times. All of this came from a wide spectrum of professional politicians, media commentators, amateur bloggers, and local party activists. Those who voted for either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ knew the differences, might have agreed with some points championed by the opposite side to that which they eventually voted for, but they made a decision on the balance of what mattered to them.
Talking from the ‘No’ side of the debate it was depressing to have it implied that we were unpatriotic, did not have the best interests of Scotland in mind, did not care about poverty and social justice, were being led by the nose by the Westminster elite, etc , etc. Equally, no doubt many on the ‘Yes’ side were sick of it being suggested that they had not fully thought through the risks, that they were being misled by nationalists and that they were turning their backs on the people of the rest of the UK. These were all generalisations and over simplifications and for so many on both sides – indeed quite possibly for the great majority on both sides – these suggestions were just plain wrong. Unfortunately, in the heat of campaigning and seeking to gain some advantage over the other side, it became too easy to drift into cheap point scoring. Now after the event, it is surely best to conclude that the great majority on both sides of the independence debate voted with the best of intentions for Scotland’s future.
I do not want to see anyone left behind, or left out, as we go forward. Let us hope that now as some calm returns, we can all find it in ourselves to offer greater respect for those we previously disagreed with, recognising more of the common ground between us than we managed in the heat of the argument.
What is also clear, and it is the seventh thing we know, is that for the good of the people of Scotland it is crucial for us to get past all the wrangling and to start having more faith in everyone, giving each other the benefit of the doubt until we truly know otherwise. We need to quickly get to a point where we no longer view each other as ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, one side or the other, but rather the people of Scotland who need to work together for everyone’s benefit. Sadly however, early evidence is that for some this will be more difficult than others….
As he announced his intention to step down by the next SNP conference, there was something of the statesman in Alex Salmond’s stance, moving aside to allow the next generation to take the lead, doing what was right for Scotland. But very quickly, his true colours came through for all to see. The First Minister had often said that with a ‘Yes’ majority he would bring the sovereign will of the people of Scotland to the negotiating table with the rest of the UK, to ensure Scotland’s interests were protected on each key issue of negotiation. Yet within just a few short days of the result, having already sown the seeds of doubt amongst those who would listen, about how ‘Westminster’ would likely fail to deliver on their promises, the First Minister spoke out, and demonstrated that the sovereign will of the people of Scotland counted for nought when it did not deliver the result he wanted.
He had signed the Edinburgh agreement, and if he had won he would have ensured the rest of the UK kept to the letter as well as the spirit of that agreement. But as the result had gone against him, he had already dismissed that agreement, abandoned it to his personal and party ambitions to achieve their goal of the break-up of the United Kingdom at any cost. So he started to speak of the many ways that independence could still be achieved. Through a general election result perhaps. Or through gaining sufficient additional powers to make the final step to independence as small as possible. In either case he implied that independence could be claimed unilaterally. This showed, if further proof was needed, that Alex Salmond and his version of the ‘Yes’ campaign were always about a vociferous minority trying to impose their will on a generally silent majority. Just as he had manipulated his coalition of the aggrieved, the dispossessed and the disgruntled, throughout the Referendum campaign, now this First Minister with absolutely no scruples, finally revealed to all concerned the shallowness of his position. It seems that the only rules or agreements that apply to Alex Salmond are those that work in his favour.
On Sunday the 21st September, leaders of the two campaigns were called to a church service of reconciliation. All the leaders of the ‘No’ campaign were there. But no Alex Salmond. No Nicola Sturgeon. Just John Swinney from the SNP leadership to represent the ‘Yes’ side. We all know that if ‘Yes’ had won then there would have been a full turnout from the leadership of the SNP, because reconciliation would have served their political purpose. However, because the majority had voted ‘No’, reconciliation was not the first thing on the minds of the nationalist leadership. Instead, Alex Salmond spent the Sunday in front of the cameras of as many television channels as would take him. He chose to stoke up yet more bitter division, saying his opponents had tricked the electorate, asserting their promises would not be delivered, and implied that because the vote did not go his way he would abandon the Edinburgh agreement and his many pledges about the Referendum being a once in a generation event, and instead promoted the idea that independence could still be pursued by many routes. There were hints of a potential for some kind of unilateral declaration of independence. While he seemed to move away from that position a couple of days later in the Scottish Parliament, the damage was by then already done. He had lit the fuse of nationalist frustration and we have since heard all manner of talk of how another referendum could follow within short order or otherwise independence could be claimed after an SNP victory in 2016 or as a short step on from receiving additional powers that in their view took Scotland close enough to independence for them to declare unilaterally that they would bridge the final gap.
For a few days it appeared that the nationalist leadership would simply seek to ignore the 2 million people of Scotland who voted to keep the UK together. They implied they would find some method to impose their view, the will of the minority. One of the nationalist campaign’s chief propagandists declared they may have lost the battle but they could soon go on to win the war – this from Lesley Riddoch in another of her articles hell bent on deriding the will of those who do not agree with her.
Fortunately, on Tuesday 23rd with the politicians first day back at Hollyrood, we saw the first signs of sanity returning. Alex Salmond made clear he did not intend to suggest a unilateral declaration of independence, apparently distancing himself from his previous comments. Then the following day, launching her likely unopposed bid for the leadership, Nicola Sturgeon clarified that she still viewed a referendum as the only route to securing independence. While she did say she would continue to have independence as her longer term aim, she confirmed she would look to work positively with the new commission formed to frame the new powers for Scotland. She also rejected suggestions that the Referendum vote count had been manipulated. Such conspiracy theories had been circulating in social media after the Referendum result went against the nationalists.
The Referendum campaign has left Scotland badly divided and there will need to be a long term commitment to heal the wounds. The extra powers for Scotland will hopefully go a long way to help that process but will not be enough on their own. All of those who care for the best interests of everyone in Scotland – rather than just their side of the argument – must do all they can to reach out to those who have previously disagreed with them. The new leadership of the SNP will need to decide if it will seek to help the process of moving forward together or whether instead it continues to look for every opportunity to stoke up grievances at every turn.
One thing for Nicola Sturgeon to consider very carefully is whether nationalism will ever gain majority support while it bases its mass appeal on divisive calls to the disenchanted. Arguably promising so much to so many without care for whether it could be afforded or was even feasible, played a major part in lifting the number of those in favour of separation from about a third to 45%. But will that strategy create an absolute limit beyond which they can never go due to the essential shallowness of such a fundamentally false prospectus?