A Parcel of Rogues

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It’s Sunday after the vote and I’m sitting in a park in Edinburgh, killing time.  I had intended to stay in Scotland another week to do more interviews about what’s next but now, with a 10 point spread on a No vote, I find myself too brokenhearted to continue.  Especially since Maia left for California this morning and I am once again traveling alone.  I’ve re-booked my flight but unfortunately the first available seat does not leave until Monday.  I shout out on Twitter and Facebook that I am here for another day and would like to talk about what’s next.  A few people re-tweet the message, but no one local replies.  They’re busy picking up the pieces and mourning.  I understand.

In all, just a bit over 1.6 million people voted to leave the United Kingdom on a platform of nuclear disarmament, universal healthcare, increased social programs, investment in renewable energy, and a peaceful foreign policy based on cooperation.  That’s no small achievement and in an election with normal turnout would have been enough to win it.  16 and 17 years olds voted yes by a margin of 71% to 29%.  College age young people narrowly voted no (largely due to the huge number of students from England and EU students who were told by Better Together that Scotland would be kicked out of the EU and they’d have to return home).  Every other age demographic between 24 and 54 voted Yes – albeit mostly by relatively slim margins.  What sank it was that 73% of people over 65 voted no and Scotland has more than its share of pensioners.  For some of them the issue was undoubtedly a lingering sense of British nationalism (this is the last age demographic to have been raised during the days of the British Empire) or a reliance on an overtly Anglo-centric corporate media whose bias has been well documented.  For most of them, however, the issue seems to have been Pensions.  Specifically, the Better Together campaign lied to them and told them their pensions would be forfeit in an independent Scotland and even put up billboards to that effect all over the country.  This despite the fact that the UK Treasury had said that there was no risk to pensions and the fact that over 142 countries have left the British Empire in the last 80 years and pensions were not affected in any of them.

Even so, if the Yes campaign had won by larger margins in other age demographics they could have overcome the split.  The key issues seem to have been:

  • A lack of focus on the Business case for independence.  The trouble with democratic grassroots movements is that they reflect the hopes and passions of activists, which are not necessarily the hopes and passions of the population at large.  There was a very strong case to be made that Scottish businesses from oil, fishing, and whiskey to technology and engineering would have benefited from independence. With a direct seat at the EU table Scotland could have better negotiated for her key industries instead of having them used as bargaining chips by Westminster to protect the London financial centers.  Yes activists talked about wanting to re-industrialize the country and reinvest oil revenues instead of letting Westminster squander them, but they were unable to flesh those plans out convincingly enough to win over skeptics.   While the general shape of it was there – notably in the “Wee Blue Book” produced by Wings Over Scotland – this case was never a core part of the Yes campaign because the activists whose passion drove the campaign were more interested in social justice and abolishing nuclear weapons.  For many (including myself) those were the biggest issues for the campaign, but Edinburgh went 60% no and it’s not a coincidence that this city is Scotland’s financial hub.  It didn’t have to go that way.
  • The overtly Leftist nature of the campaign also alienated conservatives who might have voted Yes.  Campaign posters proclaiming “End Tory Rule Forever” were very motivating in working class areas but for the conservative voters who make up almost 40% of Scottish politics they were strong motivation to get to the polls and vote No.  Building a left-right coalition is difficult but has been a fundamental feature of every successful independence movement I can think of.  That doesn’t mean promoting Tory policies but it does mean talking to conservative voters about the values they share with independence campaigners.  My conversations with the few more conservative folks I met who were involved in the campaign are instructive – framing the issue as Scotland taking responsibility for itself and allowing the Scottish people to stand on their own feet might well have resonated.
  • The BBC’s overt and unrelenting bias. The corporate media was awful too, but that’s expected. The BBC is actually state-funded and is legally required to maintain neutrality. Their behavior was therefore illegal as well as unethical.
  • Further, BBC and Corporate commenter collaborated with the No campaign in an overt effort to demonize Alex Salmond and present the referendum as being about him and not about Scottish independence. The claim that Salmond is a power mad bully who wants to be “king of Scotland” was repeated ad nauseum. Now I’m no fan of politicians, but there were no political parties or politicians on the ballot.
  • They also spread all sorts of misinformation about Scotland’s finances claiming that they are subsidized by England (in fact Scotland receives a bit more per head than England but pays even more back into the national treasury) and leading Better together campaigners claimed that Scottish Independence would “embolden the forces of darkness,” encourage terrorism, make Scotland vulnerable to invasion from Space aliens (I couldn’t make this stuff up) and that Scotland would be kicked out of the EU. Never mind that Scotland has 1/3 of Europe’s oil reserves and the odds of Germany or France letting them be ejected from the EU are about even with the odds of the aforementioned alien invasion.  Every ridiculous scare tactic you can think of was tried.
  • UK media is incredibly anglo-centric. Even though the Yes campaigners would never say this, it’s glaringly obvious as an outsider.  On the first episode of this season of Dr. Who (which aired just before the vote) the Doctor is – for the first time ever – given a human nationality and proclaims upon realizing that he’s Scottish and that it’s great because he gets to blame the English for everything.  Or look at the English Sky News reporter who, the day before the referendum, broke down and started shouting at a Yes campaigner that he’s just an ignorant knob driven by anti-English racism even though he’d said nothing that would give a reasonable person that impression.  England simply couldn’t understand that this referendum wasn’t about them and took it as a very personal insult that many Scots would prefer to govern themselves.  That sense of offended incredulity and condescension permeated virtually all of the mass media, almost all of which is based in England.In point of fact, I saw no signs of anti-English racism anywhere.  Yes activists steadfastly refused to frame things in terms of ethnicity even as English voters were the largest No block and ultimately cost Scotland its independence. Even days after the election, literally no one from the Yes movement that I have spoken to will frame things in those terms. As an outsider looking at the raw polling data it’s obvious to me, but they refuse to even go there. And, of course, the English people I spoke to who support independence were unanimous that there was not the slightest hint of ethnic nationalism in the movement.
  • The British mass media also has a strong conservative bias. On the night after the vote, a group of far-right British nationalists including Orange Order members and neo nazis rioted in Glasgow to celebrate their victory by throwing flares, charging police lines, burning Scottish flags, attacking anyone who had Yes buttons or stickers, and attempting to set fire to the offices of the Sunday Herald – one of the few papers actually based in Scotland and the only one to actively back independence.  The BBC headline was about “clashes between Unionists and Yes voters,” even though the entire article was about violence by people who had supported the No campaign.  That’s an overt editorial decision and an overt display of bias in defiance of facts.   In response, Yes campaigners launched a campaign for people to refuse to pay the license fees that support the BBC.
  • A lingering sense of inferiority that is the universal legacy of nations that have been conquered and colonized.  Several of the people I spoke to talked about how Scots had been told over and over again that they are not smart or strong or wealthy enough to govern themselves.  One of the Labour MP’s who campaigned against independence even said that the “Scots aren’t genetically programmed to make big decisions for themselves.”  Despite such overt displays of racism on the No side, the mass media continued to insist that wanting independence must be driven by racism against the English, a complete inversion of reality.
  • Promises of devolution and home-rule within the UK.  As before, UK politicians promised extensive new powers to Scotland if they would only abandon all this crazy talk of governing themselves.   The corporate media plastered the “Vow” across headlines for days prior to the referendum and acted as though it was a done deal.  Post-election polling suggests this was responsible for about 5% of the electorate swinging towards the No campaign at the last minute – enough to make the difference between victory and defeat.Of course, these promises were mostly nonspecific and Labour / Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition that fought Scottish independence has already backtracked and missed the first several deadlines on their promised timetable.  Before Salmond resigned as Scotland’s first Minister, he called Gordon Brown (the former UK Prime Minister who led the No campaign) to ask about the timetable on the promised devolution.  Brown told him those promises were “meaningless.”

    The national UK media has already tried to switch the narrative to a conversation about home-rule for England and Brown has said that there will be no devolution for Scotland without matching home rule for England, which makes devolution a poison pill for Labour that they will be forced to try and block since England is more conservative and losing the voice of Scottish Labour MP’s in Westminster on English matters will dramatically weaken their party.  In short, very little if anything will actually be delivered from the “solemn vow” made by the heads of all three UK parties.  Americans will not be surprised to find out that politicians lie, but apparently many Scots were. The good news is that this betrayal will hopefully make people less likely to fall for such promises if and when the next vote comes around.

I do not have answers on how to address these issues and as a Californian it’s not my place to try even if I did.  But they will need to be answered if Scotland is to ever win independence.

The good news is that the incredible movement of movements that came together around the Yes campaign is not going anywhere.  In the days since the election thousands of people have registered as members of the Greens, Scottish Socialists, and SNP and the pro-independence organizations within the Labour party that defied their leadership are seriously considering breaking away from the national Labour party and striking out on their own.  The non-party grassroots organizations are also steeling themselves for the next fight, the hashtag #the45 (for the 45% of voters who voted Yes) has already gained currency on twitter. The SNP is now the third largest political party by membership in the entire UK with over 80k members.

As I said before, the bad guys almost always win.  What matters is that we keep working for freedom.  So, while I’m deeply disappointed in the results, I’m glad that people have not given up.

As for the scoundrels that used lies to intimidate pensioners and plastered absurdities all over the media,  I suspect that future generations will look back on them with the same scorn that Robert Burns heaped on the traitors who took bribes from the English Lords to dissolve the original Scottish Parliament and merge Scotland into the UK in the first place.  “A parcel of rogues in a nation” was how he described them then.  It still seems fitting to me.