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Scott Hames: No Face Paint Beyond This Point: Pro-Independence Politics After No

The rocketing membership of the pro-independence parties shouldn’t be such a surprise. Thousands of energised Yessers feel an urgent need to express their unity and defiance, to hug and support each other, and to maintain the buzz and fellow-feeling of a mass campaign. The SNP and Green parties are convenient receptacles for the half-thwarted passions of ‘the 45%’, and both are credible keepers of the flame. 

But the Yes campaign is over. It was a creature of the referendum itself, and very different from the electoral politics that made the referendum possible. Its furiously glowing embers have no obvious outlet in the power dynamics of the post-No landscape, in which Holyrood parties are likely to play a diminished role. 

Does the stampede of new party members suggest a deep appetite for the long haul, or a failure to appreciate just how long and dreary it’s likely to be – and how very unlike the openness and excitement of the Yes campaign? Here are five gloomy observations on Yes after No. 

1. The dog did not bark, and that changes everything

Sometimes the most obvious changes take longest to digest. Here is one almost embarrassing to spell out: the constitutional debate looks completely different once the threat of independence drops out of the equation. Loop back a few decades. In the cold gaze of realpolitik, devolution was a ‘deep state’ containment strategy tolerated only because it seemed the most effective means of preventing the nightmare scenario we have just lived through: an open challenge to the legitimacy of the UK. For half a century, major concessions and advantages have been extracted to tame and stymie the threat of Scottish nationalism – a threat which has just rung hollow at the ballot box. This is the central fact of the new dispensation. For all the unseemly panic of the final stages of the campaign, and whatever lasting damage has been sustained by British parties and institutions (notably Labour and the BBC), the dog did not bark, and the established constitutional order emerges shaken but largely unscathed. Parties with clear incentives to prevent major constitutional change are now firmly in charge of ‘reforming and rebalancing’ devolution. With their Holyrood majority and swelling membership the SNP have significant moral authority to negotiate the best possible fulfillment of ‘the vow’ – but no credible threat with which to leverage a losing position into a winning one. 

A blackmail scenario collapses when the secret is broadcast and nothing much happens. The threat of independence is off the table and in the cupboard, where it will remain for some time. The previous dynamic of threat and concession is history. 

2. And now back to London 

Since 1999 Holyrood politics have set the pace of devolution. After the No result, it is the Westminster electoral calculus that will determine the nature and limits of further constitutional change. For those of us slowly emerging from years of indyref immersion, it is difficult to grasp that the Scottish question is no longer a thrilling chessboard unto itself, but one relatively ‘settled’ issue in a broader electoral picture. With brutal swiftness, the agenda has already shifted to the 2015 General Election. Even as the polls closed on 18 September, David Cameron and George Osborne met to finalise the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ trap sprung immediately after the result was announced – forcing Labour into the impossible choice either to renege on ‘the vow’ to Scottish voters or to relegate its future Scottish MPs to second-class status, entrenching Conservative advantage at Westminster. The fact that constitutional policy (on enhanced devolution and the EU referendum) seems likely to feature within the core ‘offers’ of the major parties for 2015 will thirl the Scottish question all the more tightly to Westminster ‘positionality’ and calculations of party advantage. Even a much-improved showing for the SNP in 2015 – perhaps tripling its number of MPs to 18 out of 650 – would have limited clout. A hung parliament or minority Labour government would hold opportunities for a significantly enlarged SNP contingent at Westminster, but Labour would pay a heavy price in England for jumping into bed with the conquered ‘separatists’, especially if cutting a deal to prevent the very popular ‘EVEL’. 

3. The ‘Punish Labour’ Reckoning of 2015 is highly improbable (which, for supporters of Scottish self-government, is just as well) 

Disgust with Scottish Labour is general among the rapidly fragmenting Yes movement, and revenge fantasies abound. One of the more prominent is the prospect of a ‘wipeout’ of Labour MPs in 2015, either from Yes-voting Glasgow or from Scotland overall. Both scenarios are unlikely in the extreme. Across its seven Glasgow seats Labour averaged fully 56% of the poll in 2010, with the SNP on 17%. By May 2015 many enraged Yes  voters currently drawn to the ‘punish Labour’ narrative will grasp that in a tight Westminster election voting to punish the ‘Red Tories’ only increases the likelihood of actual Tory government. And recall that a majority of Scottish voters just rejected independence; a sizable fraction of that majority will be amenable to the argument that only Labour can prevent a ‘neverendum’. 

A painful irony for Labour-loathing Yessers: even if it were possible, ‘destroying’ Scottish Labour would be a terrible strategy for supporters of independence (or, now, home-rule). At the electoral level, the driving force of Scottish devolution was the self-preservation of the UK Labour party, desperate to hold seats threatened by the SNP. If Labour were somehow to lose all its Scottish seats, the key electoral ‘lever’ would be broken by which the threat of independence was leveraged all the way to the establishment of Holyrood and the indyref itself. The less Labour have to play for in Scotland, the less the Scottish question is a counter in Westminster party politics – and the No result puts Westminster firmly in charge of what happens next. That’s before we consider whether any other UK party has either the means or the motive to ‘deliver’ enhanced Scottish devolution.

Among the minority who voted Yes, and perhaps beyond, Scottish Labour will be in the doghouse for some time; but as a major player in Scottish elections they are going nowhere. Whisper it, but the thousands of ex-Yessers joining the SNP might have been better advised to join Scottish Labour, strengthening the faction that is serious about enhancing devolution. 

4. Put away the guitars and banners (it’s boring old devolution or bust) 

Barring something extraordinary triggering a snap referendum (such as the UK voting to leave the EU), maximising devolution and leveraging ‘the vow’ is now the only pro-independence game in town – gradually accruing additional powers for the Scottish Parliament, and inching toward de facto independence rather than achieving a (messy and protracted) ‘clean break’ backed by a referendum mandate. Compared to the indyref this will be deadly dull – or perhaps interesting in a different way. 

Passionate Yessers who dreamed of breaking (or breaking with) the Westminster system may baulk at years of the SNP playing that system in a long trudge to the consolation prize of home-rule. The broad, sunny and direct appeal of Yes contrasts sharply with the long grind of triangulation and compromise likely to characterise the next phase of home-ruleism. There is no call for folksong or face-paint in the political space supporters of independence must quickly adapt to. It will be extremely difficult to sustain the indyref’s sense of participatory openness as the focus of dispute becomes the financial implications – and indeed the technical feasibility – of, for example, partially devolving housing benefit. The No result was a one-way ticket to wonk-world, and only a tiny fraction of the electorate will maintain its enthusiasm, or any sense of agency, on that terrain. The emotional tenor of this grey new world replaces the blue-skies of Yes with a constant smirr of ‘constructive’ rejection: an endless refrain of ‘not good enough’ which – for fear of painting the SNP as ‘spoilers’ of the devo-more process – must avoid the unconditional ring of Yes. 

5. The ‘wider Yes movement’ is fragmenting: where now for ‘not-nationalists’? 

Yes bundled together a range of attractive but contradictory aspirations, only some of which the individual voter needed to endorse in order to feel part of a larger movement. The watchwords of that wider movement, lest we forget, were ‘it’s not about the SNP’ and ‘I’m-not-a-nationalist-but’. Both claims sound less credible after the flag-fest of the closing stages of the campaign, and the dizzying rise in SNP membership. It is clear that the intensity of the campaign, and the pain of the result, has transformed the nature of many Yessers’ support for independence. Large numbers of people who entered the referendum debate without regarding independence is an end in itself would appear to hold the opposite view today, and critical voices who warned that ‘non-nationalist’ Yes-ism was a chimera believe they’ve been proven right. The stronger elements of the wider Yes movement – Common Weal, Women for Independence, the Radical Independence Convention – have their own plans and goals, and will remain attractive to those skeptical of achieving real social or constitutional change via party structures. It remains to be seen how (if at all) these bodies will mesh with the altered electoral dynamic. New media platforms, think tanks and local campaigns will soak up a great deal of pro-independence energy, but even as a network of pressure groups it’s difficult to see how these groupings or extra-party activism will be able to shift the independence agenda back onto the front burner of electoral politics. And there is no sign of pro-independence politics deviating from its overwhelmingly electoralist and voluntarist basis – both its weakness and its strength. 

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This list will make gloomy reading for supporters of independence (of whom I am one), but there is room for qualified hope. Writing in the aftermath of the 1979 referendum, James Kellas observed that: 

it is much more usual for constitutional change to come about through ‘elite’ initiative; in particular, from party leaders and civil servants working through Parliament and the Whitehall machine. Until now, this elite has been most suspicious of devolution and has taken action only when forced to do so through the apparent pressure of the masses and the SNP. But now that that pressure has been removed, a section of the elite may feel more secure in moving toward devolution, this time as an elite demand and not as a concession to the irrational masses.[1]

The long and thorny path to de facto more-or-less independence seems likely to accord with this pattern: the incremental achievement of Scottish self-government until a tipping-point is reached where the trouble, energy and money it takes to keep Scotland nominally and symbolically within the Union can no longer be justified, and ‘elite demand’ gives up the ghost. Crafty, multi-level party politics will be key to making this happen, but in the absence of a credible threat I suspect ‘independence’ will only be arrived at via a long trudge through closed committees and impenetrable reports, rather than a second colourful burst of popular empowerment.

Dr Scott Hames is a lecturer in English Studies at the University of Stirling.

[1] James Kellas, ‘On To An Assembly?’ in The Referendum Experience: Scotland 1979, ed. by John Bochel, David Denver and Alan Macartney (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1981), pp. 147-52 (p. 151).

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