Christopher Silver: It’s Time To Transform Scotland

Whatever had transpired on the 18th, Scotland was always destined to wake on the 19th of September as a land of massive contradictions. A land of stone built villas and crumbling social housing ghettos with generations of obscenely concentrated wealth and endemic poverty. A Trident submarine would still have been lurking somewhere beneath the North Atlantic, despite decades of protest. The long denied riches of this place would still have been obscured to the public eye: private owners would remain just as covetous. Untapped potential would still have been the glaring reality of this country.

To change any of these facts of modern day Scottish life an unprecedented effort would have been needed had a majority for independence been won. As it turned out, in the measuring of it, millions thought that transformation was needed, while still more thought that it could wait, or that this road was not for them. However, those simply keen to maintain a status quo that worked for them may be disappointed. After two weeks of reflection on the referendum result, it seems increasingly clear that those alive to the prospect of transforming Scotland are intent on doing so anyway.

The movement that grew around Yes has had to be resilient, it is mature, self-regulating and mutually inclusive. Last week, even as the results were coming in, a certain resolve could be discerned. For me, the following from Andy Wightman was an early signpost as to what would transpire.

Still, the awful finality of the result seemed like it had changed everything. Yet, in the context of the authentic experience that those engaged in the campaign shared, it changed nothing.

This is not to say that the experience of those long final hours was anything other than heartbreaking. As the results came through, I was in a room with terrible acoustics surrounded by inconsolable bright young things. The combined howls of incomprehension and STV’s blaring referendum jingle had the effect of slamming home every result with a horrible intensity. Revolts in the great workers’ cities of Dundee and Glasgow were not enough. A million small hopes were extinguished. This was not the country we thought it might be.

Something was silenced then. It was not the Tartan Army-like brigades that popped up in George Square or outside the Parliament in the final few days (they were still going long after the result was known) nor ever more wearied political soundbites. Rather, the result put to rest the quiet assumption, perhaps the fault of arrogance or sheer narrative potency that independence was simply an underdog waiting for its day.

The draw of any ethnic or cultural nationalism in these parts is severely limited. Our situation is clearly not comparable to demands for sovereignty in say, Quebec or Catalonia. In the 2011 Census 62% of people in Scotland identified themselves as ‘Scottish only’, only 18% opted for ‘Scottish and British’. If the referendum has done nothing else, it has exploded the myth that support for Scottish independence correlates with ethnicity. It never has and it never will.

For all that we may long for a simpler form of national identity, we remain a place of awkward complexities. Last Thursday’s result proved no exception. For all that the referendum seemed to light up public space and trigger mass dialogue, the silent majority won through in the end.

Indeed, for those more engaged with traditional media and passive political engagement, British nationalism briefly became the only game in town. Once that (possibly fatal) YouGov poll suggested that Yes might be in the lead, British identity was quickly taken down from the attic, dusted off and presented to the world as a functioning project once again. A splurge of ‘Rule Britannia’ from the press and politicians, promises of financial ruin, celebrity endorsement and well stoked fears provided No with that decisive boost it needed. Yet it managed to win without ever understanding what it was up against.

Independence was about the idea that power could be radically decentralised, from 60 million to five million and that a country could be transformed as a result. It was about a desire to take responsibility, a long overdue political response to a non-existent big society in which there remain no alternatives. This is why the networks the Yes movement created seem resilient. With independence off the table for the foreseeable future, a surplus of grassroots political energy is already being channelled into parties, campaigns and initiatives based on different models, transformation or the nurturing of a distinct polity in Scotland.

Clearly, several mistakes were made in the pursuit of that elusive Yes majority. At a strategic level continuity of process became confused with a vision premised on continuity. The SNP, by far the biggest players in the campaign, opted to present a future in which not much would change in an independent Scotland. The White Paper was an awkward mix of party manifesto and technocratic blueprint. That fudge, along with a relentless campaign of attrition on currency from the south, gave the high ground to the No camp. It also positioned media narratives and headlines to focus on independence as a policy to be refuted, rather than one of two competing propositions.

For as long as I can remember Scottish independence has been greeted by its opponents as something that would simply never happen. Either that or an act of economic harakiri, a petulant gesture to the globalised world (London) based on a crushing sense of inferiority. In the process of this referendum campaign we have established that the case for independence is neither and that will not be easily extinguished. As the polling station boards reminded us, we were literally asked to seize the opportunity and told it wasn’t worth the risk. To move forward, we have to accept that Yes failed to make that opportunity tangible, pervasive and compelling enough.

We now have two options: to work towards seizing every other opportunity that presents itself and transforming Scotland from below, or to retreat into accepting that no level of engagement can combat an army of mandarins, journalists, spin-doctors, celebrities and, improbably, Gordon Brown.

We all know that Scotland was subjected to an unprecedented campaign of threats, bribes and scares. How else did we expect power to react? The British state staged a rearguard action which, ironically, is one of the few things that it has excelled at over the years. It has a weak civic identity and is dysfunctional on many levels, but it is masterful at facing down existential threats: it has been doing so for three centuries.

But here is something worth considering. Thousands, perhaps millions, of Yes voters experienced an emotional journey that rarely takes place in the public realm. Having surrendered so much of ourselves in order that the idea of a new country might actually take shape, many experienced the referendum’s conclusion in profoundly personal terms. On polling day itself, Twitter was awash, not with nationalism, but with tributes to friends, family members, those who had helped, those who had inspired. This was a profound display of civic emotion. It felt like a national community long imagined, might actually be conceived in a moment of peaceful, joyous, participation.

In its handling of the Scottish question as a distinct and separate problem, the UK has given itself a bigger challenge than it reckons. The sanctity of devolution rests on very shaky ground: the Scottish Parliament receives limited media coverage, experiences significantly lower turnouts than Westminster elections and is widely resented throughout the rest of the UK. For all that people voted in droves last month, how do we ensure that the glaring 35% difference in turnout between the 2011 Scottish Parliament election and the referendum is not repeated in 2016?

The key challenge that the ‘45%’ (I prefer the ‘1.6 million’) now faces, is in the first instance, not to encase itself in the virtuous armour of self-righteousness and chant, ‘we told you so’. There are far more important things to say to our two million No voting fellow citizens. Even as promises of more power evaporate, we must embed our new politics of transformation and maintain grassroots participation so that it becomes a definitive trait. We also have to build a truly civic national media or risk jeopardising the very existence of Scotland as distinct polity in the longer term.

Ours was not a nationalist movement. It was progressive, inclusive and premised on activism and participation. Such a movement does not stop or collapse in on itself because it failed to jump a hurdle. It continues until its vision of a better democracy is normalised and even then, it never really goes home. However, the entire exercise becomes pointless if we retreat into opposing, self-righteous minorities and echo chambers.

As it happens, something was different on the morning of the 19th. Millions had voted Yes. Most had been on a long and unique journey to that polling booth, while few imagined that they would see such a tangible glimpse of a new Scotland in their lifetimes. That decades of outrage at the UK state had transformed into a fragile hope was remarkable, to express it was a rare privilege. Those boxes cannot be un-crossed and to hold power collectively, even for a mere fifteen hours, is transformative. But those who are empowered, even fleetingly, have responsibilities. This is why we must now move beyond the referendum and change Scotland anyway.

Christopher Silver
National Collective

This article was originally published on Christopher’s website.