Scotland’s Independent Story isn’t over:
A Review of Yes/No: Inside the Indyref
Bella Caledonia, March 19th 2019
As British politics enters a mixture of meltdown and an endgame, convulsed by Brexit, everywhere in political discourse there is an obsession with the past. From the rise of Churchill to unquestioned national hero, to the ultra-Brexiteers talking of the UK reduced to a ‘vassal state’ of the EU; and now, Speaker John Bercow announcing there cannot be a rerun of parliamentary votes due to a 1604 English convention, while being compared to Speaker William Lenthall who presided over the long Parliament and English civil war.
Such a fraught period seems the ideal moment to revisit that other time of near-UK meltdown, namely our indyref – the subject of a three-part documentary on the new BBC Scotland channel, ‘Yes/No: Inside the Indyref’, the last episode of which airs tonight. It is a welcome, long overdue production, coming four and a half years after that historic September 2014 vote, underlying the problems the Beeb has had in Scotland and the UK in coming to terms with such high octane existential politics.
The three programmes covered the political environment in light of the SNP winning a parliamentary majority in 2011 and the agreement of the Scottish and UK Governments on an indyref; from the announcement of the date to the last weeks of the campaign; and the hectic final period of Yes going into the lead and the resulting panic of No and the British political establishment.
There are lots of great stories in the indyref – drama, personalities, controversies, against a longer-term backdrop of Scotland becoming more autonomous, self-confident, and well disposed to the idea of independence. Meanwhile, Britain had deep problems, from loss of Empire and its international standing, to relative economic decline, and harsh structural inequalities and imbalances.
The first film was dominated by big male beasts: Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, George Osborne, Alex Salmond and as the token woman, Nicola Sturgeon. But it lacked something: telling a story that shook the house of the UK to its foundations as high politics, and missing people who were not frontline politicians at Westminster and Holyrood.
The pace picked up in the second, as the campaign got into gear and Salmond announced on 21 March 2013 the historic day of 18 September 2014. It covered the strategies of Yes Scotland and its ten point scale of getting voters to rate their attitude to independence and Better Together’s segmenting the electorate into 66 different groups. Both had political strategies and intelligence, but only one had a real ground campaign.
This episode touched on the tensions in the respective campaigns: the complete own goal of Better Together self-titling their relentless negativity and rubbishing of independence as ‘Project Fear’: called ‘horrific’ by Michael Moore.
The first programme highlighted that Labour had problems with Better Together, and that Gordon Brown had problems with anyone who wasn’t called Gordon Brown. What was underplayed were the multiple tensions in No, firstly, about Darling’s laconic style of leadership, and secondly, between Scotland and Downing Street (and Cameron, Osborne and their teams who really didn’t understand a country far away in their minds).
Similarly, some of the tensions in Yes Scotland are identified, such as the extent to which it was really SNP controlled and funded. Nicola Sturgeon candidly put it that it took ‘a little bit of time to let go, and some in the Yes campaign will probably say we never quite let go and they may have some justification in saying that.’
Lots of the tensions within Yes, like No, are alluded to rather than explicitly stated such as how the Greens felt they were being used as window-dressing, and the tensions between Yes Scotland and its well-paid staff, and the grass roots, self-organising, DIY Scotland such as Women for Independence, National Collective, and Radical Independence Campaign: the first two cited and having witnesses, while the latter didn’t warrant one mention.
As the second programme drew to a close we enter the new year of 2014 and the tension mounting as Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, and George Osborne, Chancellor, start the currency debate. After Carney’s intervention in January 2014 when he spoke at SCDI in Edinburgh, Nick Robinson, the BBC’s Political Editor, cited Carney talking of the ‘clear risk’ of an independent Scotland continuing to use the pound and raised the stakes by mentioning ‘the spectre of a euro crisis’ and the ‘spectre of a Greece, Portugal, or Spain’ north of the border. This was to be only the beginning with Osborne wading into the debate in much more uncompromising terms.
The tensions underlying this come centrestage in the third programme in the Alex Salmond-Nick Robinson stand-off. This was focused on the last days of the indyref with big businesses announcing corporate warnings (aided by Downing Street lobbying), including Edinburgh-based RBS stating that they would consider moving their headquarters to London after an independence vote. Robinson broke this story, asked Salmond about it at an international press conference the next day, with Salmond claiming market sensitive information had been leaked to the BBC, and Robinson charging that Salmond had not answered the question.
This controversy did not end there for it ignited anger in many independence supporters about the shortcomings and biases of the mainstream media, the BBC in particular. Robinson, reflecting with the passing of time, thinks that after their set too, that he over-stated Salmond’s evasions. But critically, this has to be seen in the context of how the BBC in London saw this story, with even Robinson recognising the limits of understanding of senior corporation management.
A thoughtful voice in this is Alan Little, the BBC’s referendum correspondent (and a consultant on the series). He reflected on a discussion in London where he asked colleagues what they thought contributed to the independence debate, with it coming down to two factors: ‘One, the Scots being chippy, and two, Salmond is wily’. He observed that: ‘I was quite surprised by some of my colleagues failing to understand their own assumption that the Yes side was wrong.’
Ken MacQuarrie, then head of BBC Scotland, stuck to the official party line, talking about ‘truth telling’ and ‘fairness’ in the corporation. Missing was any comment from John Boothman, Head of News and Current Affairs at BBC Scotland up until close to the vote, known to be pro-Labour and who had issues in how he did strategy, planning and supported staff.
There is no comment about STV’s coverage beyond that they hosted the first Darling-Salmond TV debate and the BBC the second. Missing is any comment on the press beyond the ‘Daily Record’ and ‘the Vow’: the creation of then ‘Record’ and now independence supporter Murray Foote.
Social media is represented by Stuart Campbell of ‘Wings over Scotland’ fame and Stewart Kirkpatrick, Head of Digital at Yes Scotland. Campbell, says of his abrasive Twitter style: ‘Other peoples’ independence campaigns have waded knee deep in blood. All we did was occasionally call each other some names on Twitter.’ Kirkpatrick reflected that there were two Wings, the fact checker and the uber-partisan tweeter, and that: ‘The cybernat thing definitely hurt us. Unequivocally people being abusive online did not help the Yes campaign.’
The final programme dwells on the high drama of the independence campaign getting ‘the Big Mo’ behind it, pulling ahead in the polls, and the mass panic it induced in the British political establishment. It tells the story of not just the legendary ‘Sunday Times’ poll putting Yes ahead 51:49 two Sundays before polling, but a private Downing Street tracker poll which put Yes four percent ahead.
There was at the time rumours of a private poll showing a sizeable Yes lead, but it was thought to be a Yes related survey, not from the other side. This Yes surge occurred eleven days before polling, and while lots of the underlying data was moving towards Yes, with independence appearing to be winning the campaign, seen as the most trusted, and ahead in all age groups under 60 years, there was concern then in the Yes camp that they had peaked too early. The No campaign had time to regroup, launch several high level initiatives including the three UK party leaders heading north, and come up with ‘the Vow’ which broke the cycle of never-ending negativity that No had created for itself. Related to this, Douglas Alexander had earlier come up with the phrase ‘No Thanks’ about how to say with respect no to independence, inspired by the pro-Canadian unity campaign in the 1980 Quebec referendum.
The story so far concludes with the 55:45 victory for No on an astonishing 84.6% turnout. But campaigns are about ideas and unintended consequences – and what happens in their aftermath. On the morning after Scotland’s date with destiny, David Cameron stood outside Downing Street and declared that now was the time for England to speak and bring in ‘English votes for English laws’, the supposed answer to the West Lothian Question. This would diminish the voting rights of Scottish MPs, much to the horror and fury of Darling and Nick Clegg, then Deputy PM.
One recurring theme running through the documentary is how the Westminster class and village struggled to understand modern Scotland, the Tories having to seek regular updates from Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson. Cameron did not give an interview for this, but Osborne reveals his limited understanding of Scotland and abilities as a political strategist. At one point he compares independence to ‘being about Braveheart’ and stands by Cameron’s post-vote EVEL stance to this day, saying of Scotland after the 2014 vote that ‘The SNP were put firmly back in their box’ which is delusional.
There are lots to enjoy and ruminate over this three hour extravangza of our very own home made political earthquake, but it is by its nature a creature of political compromise. It is also four and a half years after the vote, when with Britain imperiled in crisis, independence is not a settled issue, but live and ongoing, something not even hinted at.
This documentary is one contribution to an ongoing political debate. It was revealing that many pro-union supporters voiced their disdain for this series from the outset, for example, asking, ‘am I alone in simply not having the stomach for this’ (Kevin Hague), ‘It is already ancient history told by ancient irrelevant voices’ (Edwin Moore), and ‘I’d rather stick pins in my eyes that watch it’ (Kate Potts).
Such sentiment seems reflective of the widespread pro-union unease during the indyref that has continued since. Pro-union sentiment contributed to Scotland making history in what was a completely peaceful revolution, but to many on the No side was something painful to get through and then never look back. This could be seen as the mirror image of the uber-independence supporters who cannot stop talking about the summer of 2014 and seem to find it hard to stop revisiting the recent past.
What is incontrovertible is that this slice of contemporary history is not the final take on a story we are still creating and arguing over, and that the destination and conclusion of Scotland’s independence debate will continue to be the subject of many more studies and TV programmes. And will ‘Yes/No’ aid the BBC and other broadcasters in getting it right next time and will it ever be shown on the main UK channels, or is too late and too far into the endgame of Britain?