Whatever the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum on 18 September one thing is certain: the campaign waged by Yes has electrified large swathes of public opinion and reinvigorated democratic debate. The formal Yes campaign, launched two years ago, has been the public face of the pro-independence case. But this has been eclipsed by a burgeoning mass movement of unprecedented scale and breadth.
Night after night, in public halls and housing schemes, communities and trade unions, debate has been joined in an open and democratic spirit of enquiry, charged with optimism that an alternative Scotland is possible. Even on rainy nights it has been common to find audiences of 50 to 200 turning up.
Alongside this there has been a cyber campaign in which websites such as Newsnet Scotland, Bella Caledonia and Wings Over Scotland and scores of Youtube videos have provided an alternative forum for news and debate that challenges the corporate-owned and overwhelmingly unionist mainstream media. All this has dashed the myth that political debate is dead and the public either turned off all ideas of politics or sunk in a swamp of introspective individualism.
This mass movement is certainly the biggest since the poll tax protests and arguably broader, deeper and more numerous
This movement contains a range of political forces, including the Scottish Socialist Party, the Greens and the SNP, but it has grown far beyond them with groups such as the Radical Independence Campaign, National Collective, Commonweal and Women for Independence. For those on the left seeking a sustainable, socially just Scotland, this mass movement – certainly the biggest since the poll tax protests and arguably broader, deeper and more numerous – is a development of the utmost significance.
Before discussing its implications, it might be helpful to look at the contrasting organisation and operation of the pro-unionist campaign. This has been based around Better Together but now also has the breakaway United with Labour. While it is still leading in most opinion polls, just, the unionist cause has come under increasing pressure with dwindling poll leads and growing unease, particularly among its Labour section.
Although headed by former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling, the fact that Better Together also contains what most of Scotland regards as the ‘toxic Tories’ and their Lib Dem austerity partners has been a sore point with Labour activists. Their discontent broke cover with the launch of the pro-UK United with Labour, fronted by Gordon Brown, as a vehicle for a Labour-only campaign to save their Scottish base. The problem is that in Scotland Labour is compromised by the New Labour years and faces an opponent, in the SNP, which is not to its right but in many respects occupies much of what was traditional Labour territory.
What passes for a unionist left wing is grouped around the Red Paper Collective and backed by the lone Labour left winger at Holyrood, Neil Findlay. Essentially backers of the idea of a British road to socialism, they make plaintive calls for a federal UK, which is not on the political radar despite starry talk from all three unionist parties of more devolution in exchange for a No vote.
One of the most striking features of the No campaign has been its virtual non‑existence at grassroots level
The central difference between the two sides, however, is that the Noes have run an intensely negative campaign, which has seen all three parties telling Scots what they can’t do or have if they vote Yes. This saw the spectacle of Ed Balls, George Osborne and Danny Alexander jointly informing Scotland that it couldn’t use the pound after a Yes vote. It was not well received – nobody likes to be bullied.
At heart the No camp depends on PR stunts, increasingly incredible scares (no Coronation Street in an independent Scotland!) and the support of the pro-unionist media. The referendum campaign has increasingly been characterised by a growing mass movement with a grassroots base campaigning for Yes, faced with a Westminster-led, Tory-funded, Labour-fronted establishment campaign of smear and fear. Indeed, one of the most striking features of the No campaign has been its virtual non‑existence at grassroots level, with Yes campaigners often not able to get a No spokesperson to debate with.
At a rally for independence, people wrote what they wanted to see from an independent Scotland and put in on a ‘wish tree’. Photos: David Officer, National Collective
After the referendum
Whatever the outcome, the Scottish left, overwhelmingly on the Yes side, has a grave political responsibility. It will need to be nimble in its actions, open and inclusive in its approach and aware of the precious gain that the mass Yes campaign represents.
The character and content of the campaign, with its stress on social justice, poverty and opposition to Trident (Scottish CND back Yes), is clearly of the left but it has now far outgrown the organisations of the left. The task, then, is to find an approach that keeps this movement mobilised and able to deal with whatever the referendum produces.
In the case of a Yes vote there would be a major temptation for the SNP to say that as the government that got the referendum it is their task to negotiate the terms with London. First Minister Alex Salmond has indicated that he favours a ‘Team Scotland’ drawn from all parties, including the No camp, to do the job. Such an approach risks not just marginalising a mass movement but ignoring it – and this would be folly as it can provide a vital counterweight to the chicanery that Westminster will try on everything from Trident removal to oilfield rights.
A No result poses even more difficult challenges. First, many of the layers of people – particularly youth – energised by the campaign would face a bitter defeat. It would be vital that the left acts to assess the result and how to deal with it to prevent disillusionment and demobilisation.
For the first time in many years the left has been part of, indeed helped to create, a mass movement that goes beyond the single issue of Yes and starts to open up a vision of a different Scotland and, more widely, a different world. Whatever the result, a democratic debate on how we find both a grassroots and electoral expression of that movement needs to take place immediately.
At its heart will be the need for the left, in dialogue with and not dictating to the mass movement, to win purchase for the kind of green, left democratic politics that energises the broad Yes movement. The consequences of not doing so were shown at the Euro elections, when early discussions of a red/green candidate backed by the Greens and the SSP fell by the wayside. Such an alliance might well have prevented UKIP winning Scotland’s fourth Euro seat and, while a bitter lesson, it also points to the prospects that exist if the left can grasp the opportunities to hand.
Democracy has been the driver of the Yes campaign’s aims and on 18 September it needs to be the watchword for the left whatever the result.