It is hard, on these mornings after, to feel positive. It is hard not to imagine that all the energy, all the creativity and enthusiasm, has been wasted. Scotland has voted to remain part of the United Kingdom, and its future role within that kingdom will be decided by the very politicians from whom the Yes campaign was attempting to wrestle power.
I am not by nature an optimist, but I am trying my best. Hope, today, is no less important than it was last Thursday as we went to the polls.
The most striking thing about the debate over Scottish independence was the degree to which so many Yes voters were inspired not by any kind of nationalism – ‘identity’ barely came into it – but by a desire for social change and for greater democracy. Somehow, the No campaign, together with much of the mainstream media, failed to recognise this basic fact until it was almost too late. Their last-minute acknowledgement that the status quo could not continue may just have saved the union.
But while the UK remains intact for now, the issues that engaged people have not gone away. Poverty, social exclusion and inequality; the desire for land reform and for a more humane economic policy; the need to see Trident gone: these things are still with us. And, crucially, they would still be with us had the country voted Yes.
Independence was never meant to be the end, only the means; it was just a point from which to move forward. All of the energy of the Yes campaign, all of its momentum, was towards a single day. But had that energy dissolved after the 18th of September, it would have been disastrous. A Yes vote followed by disengagement would have been far worse than a No vote followed by a strengthening of resolve.
The real triumph of this referendum was the turnout. The result itself was too close to be celebrated as a great victory, or mourned as a crushing defeat. But 84.5 per cent of the Scottish electorate cast a vote. That is the highest degree of political participation in Britain since the introduction of universal suffrage. And the fact that nearly half of those voters were prepared to mark their cross beside the word ‘Yes’ – a word they had been told, over and over, to fear – is remarkable.
For me, there were many highlights in this campaign, but certainly the most exciting and revealing moment occurred less than two weeks ago, on the 7th of September. When a YouGov poll showed, for the first time, that a majority in Scotland intended to vote Yes, something snapped within the British establishment. Politicians who previously had looked complacent were suddenly terrified. Cameron, Miliband, Carmichael, Darling: a huddle of rabbits caught in a beam they had not seen coming. Their fear was palpable, and the sense of power truly shifting into the hands of voters was extraordinary and intoxicating.
It is important to remember that the vast majority of those on both sides of this campaign have wanted the very same thing in the end. They have wanted to choose what is best, not just for themselves but for others too. Some who voted Yes could do only so because they believed that Scottish independence would prove, ultimately, to benefit those south of the border as well. Yet there were many others who could not be convinced that this was true. For me, this division was one of the most troubling aspects of the debate. And yet now it brings comfort. People whose thoughts and values I respect greatly chose not to vote Yes; but today that difference no longer divides us.
The result of Thursday’s referendum was not what I had hoped for, but nor has it emptied me of hope. There will be changes in Scotland, and across the UK, too. And while some of those changes will be decided by those at the top, the independence campaign has stirred a democratic revolution that will reshape this country. Whatever is proposed next week, next month, next year, will not be the end of the story.
What is needed first of all, though, is a coming together. Some will find it hard to swallow the bitterness left over from this campaign. Yes supporters have been consistently and unfairly portrayed, by both politicians and the media, as fanatical bullies. But equally, there is no doubt that some unionists have felt intimidated, online and on the streets, by the vociferousness of pro-independence campaigners. It would be easy to dwell on a sense of unfairness or anger, but it would not be helpful. And to cling to ‘the 45’, as a label or a hashtag, is self-defeating. It is a reminder that, on this question, we were the minority. But there are other questions.
Just as a Yes vote would have been nothing more than a point from which to move forward, so too is a No vote. There is tremendous energy in this country right now – a desire for change, and the strength to make it happen. That energy must be harnessed and encouraged.
Those words are easy to write, of course, and much harder to turn into reality. In the run-up to this referendum, a diverse, creative and inspiring movement gathered behind the word ‘Yes’. But now that it has passed, what must that movement do? Beyond the simple and largely illusory opposition of Yes and No, things are so much more complicated.
What is necessary is to remember the why: the reasons that change is needed. Around those reasons, both Yes and No voters can find common cause, and the energy of the campaign, perhaps, can find its focus and its momentum again. Groups such as National Collective, such as the Common Weal and Radical Independence Campaign, should not disappear. Their work is as essential now as it ever was. The fight for social justice, and for greater self-determination, need their strength and their commitment.
But equally, since we are to remain a part of the United Kingdom, at least for the time being, it is surely necessary to reach out further still, to other parts of the union. There was much talk from No voters about solidarity, so now is the time to show it. Across England, Wales and Northern Ireland there will be many who long to feel the sense of engagement and power that we have felt these past weeks and months. I hope we may find ways to share those feelings.
Within communities, within the media, and within the traditional political sphere, the effects of this referendum are going to be felt for a very long time. Those who hold power are nervous. They recognise their vulnerability, perhaps for the first time. Never again should they be allowed to forget it.
Image from Robb Mcrae