Natalie Bennett, the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales came to Scotland last week. Walking round Edinburgh, she said, you could tell that something very special was happening – something she had only experienced once before: the feeling that she had sensed when visiting Prague, quarter of a century ago, right after the fall of the wall.
She’s right. It’s not at all clear that Scotland will vote yes in the referendum this month – though the polls have swung significantly in that direction, it’s still extremely close. What is clear is that something very special is happening. Sat in an Edinburgh cafe the other day, every conversation around me was about the independence referendum. The waiter was worried about the implications for EU membership. The woman he was serving explained that she was voting yes because Westminster is making the poverty of the children she works with worse. Another woman chimed in that she was voting yes because she’s fed up with Westminster’s wars – “I think we could have stopped Holyrood from taking us into Iraq”.
This is remarkable not because it’s abnormal, but because it’s ubiquitous. In the pub next door the night before, the conversations on every table were about the referendum – how an independent country might manage its foreign policy, what it would mean for jobs, what it would mean for housing. Walk down the street outside, and you are rarely out of site of a “yes” poster in the window of a tenement flat: more people might vote no, but few will do it with enthusiasm, and you rarely see their signs.
At the bus stop up the road from the cafe, though, I did see an elderly woman with a “no” badge on. This is no coincidence. Recent polls have confirmed a trend which has been clear for a while: the majority of under 60s now support Scottish independence. If it’s a no, it will be the pensioners who have swung it, putting the UK on life support rather than saving it.
This isn’t about nationalism
It’s not clear what the result of the referendum will be. What is clear is that, over the last two years, in the course of the most informed and intense political conversation in a country anyone I know has come across since the wall fell, a huge number of people have been convinced to vote yes. These people are not the nationalists. Polls at the start of the campaign were clear. There were around 20% on either side who would vote either way come what may. 20% of the country are Scottish nationalists, 20% are British nationalists. Each identifies with one or the other as their sole nation and believes that it should be their state too, irrespective of anything else.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that they are chauvinistic nationalists. The best way to understand this is to realise that the SNP is probably the most popular party among the Scots-Asian community and it was they who provided Holyrood with its first non-white MSP. Sitting watching the debate in the Scottish Parliament on the SNP government’s plans for an independent country, I noted that every SNP MSP cited the opportunity to end Westminster’s xenophobic immigration controls as a reason to support independence, and the most common expression of it is “Scotland never votes Conservative, but often gets Conservative governments”. It’s nationalism in that it relies on the primacy of the Scottish (rather than British) nation, but that doesn’t mean it’s racist.
But these genuine Scottish nationalists were never enough to swing the vote for yes any more than the genuine British nationalists were enough to guarantee a no. Everyone else was persuadable. And, at the outset, a significant majority just assumed they’d vote for the status quo, with the yes vote starting out with perhaps 35%. Over the course of the debate, though, four separate things have happened, and it’s important to understand each of these in order to properly understand what’s going on on Scotland.
A radical referendum
First, the radicals backed the yes campaign. Greens, the various socialist parties, the vast majority of the artistic community and most the staff of the various campaigning NGOs (though the organisations they work for have usually maintained a cautious neutrality) have all swung behind yes. The latter isn’t surprising. People who work every day with both the Scottish Parliament and the Westminster Parliament see that whilst the former is no more perfect than an average Northern European legislature, the latter has the least democratic set-up of any Western state, and as a result has been more captured by global corporate power, turning Britain into the most unequal country in Europe.
Whilst the Scottish Green Party and most of Scotland’s socialist parties have long backed independence, their voters didn’t always concur. Now, it seems, that both in their own right and through the Radical Independence Campaign (the biggest alignment of the Scottish left in my lifetime), the Common Weal project, National Collective (artists for independence) and Green Yes, they have largely enthused their own supporters of the case for independence not as an end in itself, but as a path away from the prison of Westminster politics and towards possible better futures.
There is perhaps 15% of the population in Scotland who lean towards these sorts of radical politics, and whose votes swing between Greens, Socialists, Labour and the SNP depending on the election. These people coming on board didn’t just boost the yes vote. It also brought a new flavour to the campaign – it forced the SNP to tack to the left, and it meant the foot-soldiers were now not just those who made dead-end “Scotland’s a nation, nations should be independent” arguments, but those who had made up their mind because of broader concerns for justice, who see independence as the opportunity of a lifetime to build the kind of country that the post-imperial British State, which has delivered the most unequal country in Europe, will never permit.
These two groups are the coalition which has, largely, made up the yes campaign for two years, though the simplification excludes a huge number of other stories which run in parallel. This coalition of voters isn’t, though, quite sufficient to deliver victory. And so the result this month will rest on another two groups. The first is Labour voters.
The SNP and Labour hold a very similar position on the centre left of British politics, and they hate each other like only parties who share an electorate can. But there are two significant differences between them. The first is that the SNP is a Scottish nationalist (in the civic, inclusive sense) whilst Labour is a British nationalist party (usually relatively civic too). The second is that the SNP are a relatively competent Scottish government, while Labour have proved a notably incompetent opposition.
Despite this, there are significant swaths of the Scottish electorate who will always back the Labour party, and the vast majority of them have told pollsters for years that, like their party, they are against independence. In the last few weeks, it is this demographic which has started to shift – started to swing towards voting yes. The portion now seems to be as much as 1/3 of this group of previously loyal unionist voters. If that figure holds, and I expect it will, it will take the yes campaign very close to their winning margin.
The ‘missing million’
But it is the fourth group whose actions will decide the day. This is the demographic dubbed by Scottish commentator Gerry Hassan as the “missing million” – the excluded working class who have been so alienated by politics that they haven’t voted in years, people on housing schemes where political parties stopped knocking on the doors years ago, young people who have never been registered to vote, never mind turning up on the day. In a country of 5 million, the fact that this group is perhaps a fifth of the population tells you all you need to know about the shocking inequality in one of the richest nations on earth.
Opinion polls are absolutely clear that the less you have invested in the system, the less likely you are to support it. In other words, that if the missing million show up, then it will not be the voters for any one party who decide Scotland’s fate. It will be those who haven’t voted for any party for years.
All across the country, activists, particularly from the Radical Independence Campaign have been standing outside job centres and touring the colleges in deprived areas and have registered thousands upon thousands of people, many of whom will never have seen a ballot box in their life. As one activist, who had under his arm a pile of 101 forms he’d just got filled out by 16 and 17 year olds at a local college in a less well-off area of Edinburgh, “they just assumed we were yes campaigners – of course they were voting yes”. Yesterday was the deadline for registering to vote. City council offices across the country stayed open till midnight to allow queues of people to line up and fill out the forms so that their voices could be heard.
The reaction from the no campaign to this mass political engagement is dismissive: “people with mattresses in their garden don’t win elections”, one Better Together adviser said to the Daily Telegraph. Apart from being an offensive stereotype of working class people, it demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding. This isn’t an election. It is a referendum on an existential issue. People who have for too long been alienated by politics may well not define which neoliberal party attacks them next. That doesn’t mean that they won’t show up on the 18th of September. And if they do, then it’ll be game over for the UK.