It isn’t about independence
Polling day is suitably dreich in Fife. Since yesterday morning the damp mists of a haar have loomed over us like a hangover that won’t go away. We cannot see the Forth, the Isle of May or the Lammermuirs marking the horizon beyond. In Arncroach, where I live, there’s just the polling booth adorned with a single large Yes poster.
The most striking thing about the referendum is the extent to which it has turned out to be not about Scottish independence. Despite the electoral success of the SNP, the nationalist cause in Scotland has never been more than marginal, part of the background music but not a burning issue for the vast majority of people and politicians, including SNP supporters.
The most common reasons cited by friends of all classes for voting Yes are local democracy and social justice. The SNP’s record on both is hardly glowing (a single-minded focus on the acquisition of power is the sine qua non of successful nationalist movements) and there are strong arguments that both stand a better chance in a post-referendum union than in the chaos of an economically challenged fledgling state.
Yet these arguments find little purchase. ‘I’ve got nothing left to lose,’ a friend told me, adding that he’d been within a hair’s breadth of having to go to a foodbank last week. The wish to reject the status quo – whether it’s the Union, rule by the Westminster elite or politicians tout court – is overwhelming. Behind that is an excitement that for the first time a vote matters – something real is at stake – and this sense of power is more important than its destructiveness, about which Yes voters are alternatively disbelieving, insouciant or welcoming with a nihilistic Schadenfreude.
For years Westminster politicians have blanked Scotland. The Tories, all too aware that Thatcher made them toxic in Scotland, abandoned the country to Labour. Labour took its working class constituency for granted, preferring to rest on the laurels of trade union history than grapple with the challenge of a growing underclass of benefit-dependents. Chucking money at the problem via the Barnett formula and giving way to the nationalists on self-government and the referendum did as much good as spoiling a neglected child with sweets and letting him stay up all night.
How long have we been wringing our hands about the democratic deficit? About political disengagement and social disenfranchisement? These phenomena have been sufficiently nebulous – or marginal – to allow business as usual, except for those heading to a foodbank. The flare-up in support for Scottish independence is a sign that the politically disengaged and socially disenfranchised are demanding more than polite hand-wringing. And today’s outcome, whatever it is, will not lay this demand to rest.