We Scots have to start listening to each other

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, January 23rd 2019

Brexit seems to have no end, consuming nearly all political energy and devouring those who come into contact with it. Or so it seems for now.

The Economist recently made the point in its ‘Bagehot’ column that one of the seldom understood groups in British politics were the long haulers. These were people who once occupied the margins of political life, and have now in the case of Brexiteers and Corbynistas, come centrestage and turned politics upside down.

These two groups involved people who refused to compromise and were once dismissed as dogmatists and cranks, but by standing firm have forced the mainstream to bend to their will. The Brexiteers were aided by successive Tory leaderships dismissing or appeasing them, culminating in David Cameron announcing an in-out referendum. And in the Corbynista case by the discrediting of the Blair-Brown project from the Iraq war onwards.

In their Westminster focus The Economist forgot one other group of long haulers who have shaken the foundations of politics: Scottish independence supporters. They, similarly, came in from the cold, where for decades they were caricatured as oddballs who did not understand the modern world. Now independence has remade Scottish and British politics and the union will never be the same again.

Yet, as the experience of Brexiteers and Corbynistas illustrate, with success comes new expectations and pressures which require very different political skills to those of outsiders. And after decades spent on the margins, in each case, the adjustment required when you become part of the mainstream can be very difficult for some.

This has proven as true of Scottish independence, witness the current tensions and push-pull factors, between Nicola Sturgeon playing a longer game, and those, including Alex Salmond who want an independence referendum as soon as possible. Salmond was quoted at the weekend saying that ‘Westminster’s Brexit difficulty should be Scotland’s opportunity’ and in effect telling Sturgeon to ‘hurry up’.

Former SNP MP George Kerevan is among many who has pushed for an immediate vote this year, while not to be outdone Tommy Sheridan outflanked everyone by calling for an indyref to be held on Thursday March 28 2019: the day before the UK and hence Scotland leaves the EU on existing plans. There are voices calling for calm in this including SNP MP Pete Wishart, but overall the climate is one of impatience and wanting instant action.

This debate is not just about timescales and judging when is the most appropriate time to call another independence referendum. Instead, it is about profound questions about democracy, trust, and how we respect voters.

Joyce McMillan touched on this in her Scotsman column last week when she said that we needed to acknowledge in this febrile atmosphere that calling for an immediate indyef was the equivalent of the ‘useless grandstanding’ of the worst of Brexit.

She made the case that ploughing forward with the prospect at best of winning an indyref by the narrowest of margins might not be the best prospect for anyone (including that of independence) writing:

… if the final aim is a peaceful confederation of countries living in a mutually respectful economic and trading union … then we are unlikely to get there by seeking to snatch a second independence referendum out of the jaws of the Brexit crisis and pushing a divided electorate to a knife-edge decision.

And on top of that is the process of Section 30 which Westminster is highly unlikely to give in the present circumstances, and which then leaves independence supporters facing either an unofficial or Catalonia style vote – neither of which would progress matters. As McMillan argues the alternative is the slow work of building a national consensus – and that entails reaching out to people you don’t agree with.

There is more at work than this. There is the strange mood of our nation. The playwright David Greig caught this last week when he said: ‘I sense people in Scotland are just sick and tired of chaos and stress … indyref, SNP surge, Cameron, Brexit, a general election, not to mention Trump …’ ‘To Yes People in Scotland this all indicates the obvious ‘safe’ step of independence within the EU’, he wrote, ‘But to huge numbers of previous No people it just indicates – please stop making everything crazy! No more referendums.’ At least for a while.

Some would argue that there can be no return to calm times and ‘the normal’. That this kind of political atmosphere reflects the huge questions we face in present day societies, along with the anxieties people feel about a host of economic and social concerns. It is an argument put by the radical left, from Paul Mason on the Corbynista left in England to the likes of Jonathon Shafi of the RISE left in Scotland.

There is an understandable logic to the above argument. But to argue that there can be no return to what we used to think of as ‘the normal’, and therefore bring forward the maximum disruption and waves of uncertainty, might make you feel your radical left project can seize the day and have an impact. However, it shows next to zero empathy with the desire of millions of working people for security and certainty – which should be at the heart of any left politics worthy of the name.

Back to independence. Nicola Sturgeon has promised a timetable on independence in ‘a matter of weeks’. For some this is the dream moment in which the next referendum campaign will be launched. For others this is just another Groundhog Day as Nationalists do what Nationalists do.

Yet, maybe things will not turn out as simply as that. Kenny Farquharson summarised what he thought Sturgeon would come forward with in the next few weeks. Sturgeon would he wrote ‘instruct civil servants to update indy White Paper; ask May for Section 30 powers to be devolved to Holyrood; be vague about timing; not actually announce indyref2.’

This sounds an accurate reading of the Sturgeon approach: which so far over the last four years has been consistently based on playing for time and looking to push the big critical decisions further down the line. In this Sturgeon shows some similar characteristics to Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn on Brexit. None of this is that surprising considering one false move could be fatal and signal the end of their respective leaderships.

The People’s Vote and the Second IndyRef

Often forgotten about in all the claims and counter-claims here are the voters. A comparison with the Brexit debate on the prospect of a second referendum or ‘People’s Vote’ throws light on the Scottish debate.

In the debate on a second Brexit referendum the outlines of what kind of result might overturn the 2016 vote has come into clearer view. In 2016 Leave won by a margin of 1,269,501 votes, and Brexit supporters have rightfully asked what would happen if Remain won by a margin of less than 51.9% to 48.1% and that 1.2 million votes? The implication in this is that in any second vote the Remain camp would have to win by a greater margin – in actual votes or percentages and ideally in both – to overturn the first vote.

As well as this there is the not irrelevant issue that the Leave campaign already have a honed message: ‘What didn’t you understand about Leave first time?’ They have already tested it and know it works well with voters who feel they weren’t listened to first time.

Take this logic to the indyref and any second vote. In 2014 the No campaign won by a wider margin than in the Brexit vote: by 55.3% to 44.7% – and by 383,937 votes on a turnout of 3,623,344. Thus for Yes to win in a way which No supporters would accept Yes would need to win by at least 10.6% and/or a lead of nearly 400,000 voters. That involves a political shift whereby 767,874 voters – 20% of voters – change their view and move to Yes – an unprecedented degree of change which there is as yet no sign off. And then like Brexit the No camp would have a telling campaign slogan: ‘What didn’t you understand about No first time?’ and we already know that ‘No means No’ has worked for resurrecting the Scottish Conservatives.

A number of other factors spring from all of this which seldom get the attention they deserve. The first is the scale of the mandate won in 2014 and the respect it should get. This was a vote and victory on a turnout of 84.6% in what by most accounts is the longest campaign known anywhere certainly in living memory. Longer than any US Presidential campaign; or a referendum anywhere else.

This turnout and length of campaign give the result a legitimacy and depth which has to be honoured and cannot just be turned around and flipped with ease. This does not mean the 2014 result is written in stone and cannot at some point be reversed. It is just that it should take time and demand patience and respect.

As well as this are the views of No voters who like independence supporters come in many different shades and hues. Everything about the future of Scotland should put centrestage listening to and understanding why people voted No and hearing where they are now.

David Greig makes the case that the last indyref wasn’t exactly this unblemished ‘summer of love’ for many No voters. He writes that: ‘We in the Yes movement have done very little to communicate to No people about how they experienced the 2014 referendum as horrible and upsetting.’ Those who argue for an immediate referendum are not listening to, engaging with and respecting No voters and the fact that No won. What they are doing is embracing the confirmation bias which comes with referendums and their aftermath, and living in a Scotland which they have reduced to an echo chamber of them and their fellow believers.

This leads us to people who should know better wanting an independence referendum in the next few months or some time this year. In so doing they are not listening to voices other than similar impatience Yes voices. They are not listening to the Scotland beyond them: of No voters who were a majority in 2014 and in nearly every poll since Brexit have also been in a majority.

This takes us back to the long haulers of political life. Scottish independence is now part of the mainstream. Yet parts of Yes opinion do not completely reflect on how far they and Scotland has come and act as if they need to harry and cajole the country over the winning line as quickly as possible before it has second thoughts. It belies a lack of confidence and inner doubt which is worth reflecting upon but seldom finds voice.

We Scots need to listen to and respect each other, seek out views different from our own, and resist living in our own echo chambers. We have a small amount of breathing space – as we aren’t going to have an indyref this year or probably even next – so we can get down to the serious work of understanding one another. That is seems to be a difficult challenge for some but in it lies the best route for democracy and debate and arriving at a future most of us can agree on.