Maybe not. But it seems like my last 25 years of independence activism have gone by in a snap. Before the next quarter century begins to rush by, I want to try and stand on solid ground, even as it currently seems to be falling away beneath my feet.
I’ve been trying to prepare my head and heart for a No vote in the last few months, to sit alongside the expected euphoria and sense of purpose of a Yes vote. I have private reasons for doing so, but it has in any case been a helpful exercise.
As I walked over to Glasgow’s various media outlets on the Clyde last night, as the polls closed, my version of “what we achieved” in the indyref went something like this:
It was given a deadline by the SNP majority and its inevitable referendum; it was maybe branded and kicked-off by YesScotland, but in the end completely surpassed. But in the Yes movement we achieved something of global significance. We reinvented civic and community activism for the 21st century.
We tried to inspire a populace to vote for full national sovereignty, by means of encouraging that populace to meet among themselves, in local spaces, and use the tools of social media to amplify and inform their discussions.
We made exciting links between the traditional elements of official politics (parties, interest groups, think tanks), the imagination of artists and creatives, and the social skills of community activists (mostly women). This combination brewed up a special mood, in which difficult issues about how to forge a nation-state could be calmly and inclusively discussed - whether macro-economics, energy resources, defence, international relations, welfare and taxation - by people from all walks of life.
(Anyone who spoke at a public Yes meeting in the latter stages of the campaign knows what I’m talking about. The stream of working people coming to you at the end of an already long evening, with specific inquiries about pensions, bond yields, military provisioning, health-service budgeting, etc, etc. The dream of the “democratic intellect”, or the active citizen, finally realised).
Whether a Yes or a No, we have shown that we don’t need to live in a “post-democracy” (Colin Crouch’s term) - a cynical, exhausted, incurious realm, in which private (and privatised) interests are paramount, and where a passive electorate is nudged this way and that by clever branding and marketing strategies.
About the only idea that could unite leftist radicals and centre-right business organisations under a Yes-anything banner could be the original idea of “democracy” - the idea that the people who live in a polity are the people who should decide the future of that polity. So for all the new technology, underneath lies an old and enduring principle: We, The People. Not so solemnly exploring the possibilities of our national future.
So last night, reeling quietly in a green room at the BBC, these paragraphs stopped running through my head. Our Yes campaign encouraged 1,617,989 Scots - roughly 45% of the electorate - to vote for independence. But the No campaign encouraged 2,001,926 - roughly 55% - of Scots to vote against independence. Our movement moved many, but not enough to get us over the line of 50% + 1.
Did their campaign match ours in method and intent? No. “Project Fear”, its self-description as reported by the Sunday Herald, aimed at identifying weaknesses in the prospectus of mainly the SNP Government’s White Paper on independence. They focussed early on the SG’s proposals for a currency union, which became the fulcrum point in a target range of voter insecurities about the economic prospects of independence.
Among No voters, Lord Ashcroft’s overnight exit poll identified three elements in the No vote. An attachment to British traditions rated 25%, devolution’s “best of both worlds” rated 27% But the top reason for No, at 47%, was agreement with this sentence: “the risks of becoming independent looked too great when it came to things like the currency, EU membership, the economy, jobs and prices”.
So in terms of their fearful strategy, job executed. But at what cost?
Better Together coordinated a mighty top-down spectacle of media forces. But they were hardly successful in hiding their machinations. Both HM Treasury and HM Civil Service have been caught coordinating the leakage of information to powerful and pliant media outlets. This could be the London-based commercial press (out of 30-odd available titles to the Scottish electorate, only one - the Sunday Herald - supported independence).
Or to the BBC, which (operating out of the metropolitan capital, at least) behaved like an unashamed state broadcaster, framing and biasing its reports on indyref issues in service of the national (ie, British-unionist) interest. (Both BBC and the commercial papers have been subject to research that proves their Unionist bias).
The Westminster establishment shook its tree of contacts to rain as much negative elite opinion onto independence as possible - which reliably generated a slew of headlines. This nakedly broke surface in Cameron’s meets with retail moguls after the indyref lead poll, but clearly was going on at the highest possible levels - for example, the consistent message of leading Democrats like Obama and the Clintons, or of Eurocrats and corporate financial heads (the obedience of energy CEOs particularly obvious).
So we have a real battle of campaign models here, different blends of media and mobilisation. There’s BT’s “shock and awe” approach, driving messages of systemic doom and disaster about independence primarily through the mainstream media outlets, and catching voters attention in the usual ways: in a paper on a commute, settling down to nightly news.
And then the Yes movement’s mix of community meet-ups, digital media, cultural activism - getting people out of their work-leisure routines. The “cultures of indy” explored various indy policy options, as much as they tried to tear apart the existing policies of the Union. It’s this deep creativity which so entranced international observers (and in this, we include the London media).
But how nakedly BT asserted their communication power! Media complaints of political bias from small groups of activists are age-old. But in the indyref, the media-Westminster-Unionist complex is now clearly perceived in its operations, by 46% of the population. The forecourt protests in front of Pacific Quay were only the physical manifestation of what should correctly be described as the Yes movement’s critical counter-media.
These comprise a range of key websites (Wings Over Scotland, Bella Caledonia, Newsnet Scotland, Derek Bateman’s blogs and broadcasts, Referendum TV, and many many others), the multi-genre operations of National Collective, the live performances of David Greig, Zara Thompson, Alan Bissett, Tommy Sheppard and many others.
Never mind the sheer universal spontaneity of meme and video-clip culture, which spilled onto platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. These efforts weren’t ad-agency polished, but they were often hugely effective, either as information or satire (or often both).
And just as importantly, they have devised their own political economy, using crowdfunding to support their productions (with many others raising tens of thousands of pounds per project from supporters and well-wishers). It’s very important that we maintain these structures - and think very seriously about how to fund them.
“Unity”, in the face of a popular rejection of a constitutional option for an independent nation state is one thing - that has to be accepted. But there can be no “unity” around the way that the Unionist parties used and abused their access to mainstream media and establishment power - and essentially frightened enough Scots to vote No, with their deeply partial version of the consequences of independence.
Of course (sigh), elements of the Yes movement (primarily the Holyrood parties, SNP and Greens) must become to some degree willing players in whatever constitutional “conventioning” is rustled up in the next few months. (It’s not for me - I have never had patience for devolution as an end in itself, and I’m not about to start developing it.)
Even figures as gradualist as the great Canon Kenyon Wright, he of the original Constitutional Convention, came to believe that the unitary state of Britain was a dysfunctional mess we needed to escape from with a Yes. So if there are a new generation of muscular devolutionists abroad in Scotia, your time is now.
But there is something poignant - beyond all my sadness for a man I hugely admire, accepting the consequences of defeat - in Alex Salmond’s citation of the Yes movement in his resignation speech: "Today the point is this. The real guardians of progress are not the politicians at Westminster, or even at Holyrood, but the energised activism of tens of thousands of people who I predict will refuse meekly to go back into the political shadows.”
The poignancy for me comes from my experience of those very same “energised activists” in the last few years of this campaign. They came out of the shadows, strong not meek - but they did not all buy into the SNP’s “independence lite” ticket. Particularly on currency or Nato, corporation tax or monarchy, to share a platform with a Green MSP, a Common Weal representative, a Radical Independence or SSP rep, Jim Sillars or Dennis Canavan, or any other of the small-i independence actors in the movement, was never to be involved in “selling the SNP’s line” (the common critique of the Better Together discussants, if they ever turned up to a meeting).
There was of course much to support in the SNP’s White Paper - removal of Trident, childcare proposals, free higher education, implacable defence of publicly owned NHS, a solid industrial policy on renewables, and in general the sheer integration of powers it displayed. The indy-left tribes did support these, often and vigorously.
But to get us above the third of SNP voters who would vote for independence anyway, a constituency had to be built - yes, from Labour voters who hadn’t already gone over to the SNP. But from where else?
The SNP had bolted together with Indy Lite a “retail offer” - something they thought early-21st political consumers in Scotland could bear. And the truth is, they didn’t think they could bear too much.
The currency question - so crucial in the Ashcroft polling - lingers in the air most pungently. As an indy lite policy of "change everything, so nothing changes", the currency union was exemplary. It’s clear that if we had broached 50% on the night, some kind of stable currency arrangement would have had to be struck, in order to placate international markets. As it turned out, the dogs of fear on this issue howled loud and terrifyingly enough beforehand to make it a fatal flaw in the independence prospectus.
In my grimly determined journey into economic writing at the service of the Yes campaign, economist after economist - not all of them BT stooges - said that a separate Scots currency was ultimately the best option, although the early road to establishing it might well be rocky. I was relaxed about a currency union as an opening and stable relationship between two new independent nations. But should we have begun with a separate currency as our Plan A?
If we ever get anywhere near a nation-state vote again, we have to ask ourselves: how strong would a national movement have to be, before it could confidently go into a vote with plans for a separate Scots currency - a Scots “pound”, like the Norwegian, Danish and Swedish “krone” - pegged to our most powerful neighbour, at least in the short term? (A position that Salmond himself took in the mid-90s)?
How strong would that national movement have to be to endure even a period of higher taxes post-indy, in order to eventually get Scotland’s treasury on a secure keel, where our national finances could stably serve our economic progress through the the world?
As strong as those “energised activists”, perhaps? Those who by their relentless, passionate actions were “being the Scotland they wished to see”? Those who might want the currency option of their new nation to be a pragmatic, not a dogmatic matter - a judgement call for sensible experts in a room, not a giant poker-game of double-bluff?
Who might want a currency that functionally served the society we wanted to bring about, and not the other way round? Who could hold their nerve in the face of an onslaught from the financial masters of the universe?
Maybe questions for another time, another opportunity, a better-educated movement economically. (If the clusterfuck of a Brexit comes upon us in 2017, we may need to be prepared. Robin McAlpine's Come On Scotland blog posts show the smeddum required). I've changed my mind on this being now or never for independence - this movement was so powerful in its last few days before the indyref.
I hope our moment does come again. We were so, so close!
In the meantime, we have a referendum vote in which the top three Yes regions are in below average employment, and the top three No ones are in above average employment. A vote in which a map of Scotland, coloured with gradations of Yes and No voters, sees giant stretches of depopulated rural territory in a pinkish No, and with tiny urban/post-industrial scraps of intensely populated land as blood-red Yes.
A vote in which our new voters of 16-17 year old vote as avidly for Yes, as their over-65 grandparents and elders vote as determinedly for No. A vote where our biggest cities are self-consciously at loggerheads with each other over the future of the country.
A “Scotland United”? At this very minute, it seems a ludicrous concept. And presumptive: the Yes side had a real ideological critique of the way things were, and you don’t abandon that, no matter what discredited party of labour shouts “unity, unity”. Don't stupidly force things, please.
I have been invited onto the board of Common Weal, along with many others, and I hope that - once this permanent headache stops - we can get down to the business of keeping the policy idealism and vision of the Yes movement alive.
But we’re in pain, we have wounds, and we’ll have to give them light and air to heal.