My post-Referendum Scots Independent Column...
As defeats go it could have been worse. Much worse. Remember when we were being hectored by those who understand such matters that a ‘No’ vote was ‘in the bag’, and the only remaining question was how large the winning margin was going to be? I think it’s fair to say that the polls in the final referendum fortnight saw more money invested by Better Together types in brown trousers and bicycle clips than in bottles of Bollinger.
For all the establishment panic, the hard fact is that we still lost. Yet all is changed, we are told, changed utterly. Even diehard unionists now stand before their party conferences to tell us that the status quo is smashed. All agree that the campaign has reinvigorated democracy. Now, the latest iteration of 'more powers' is to come our way, even if there is (still) no agreement on what those extra powers should be.
Naturally, thoughts turn to ‘what if?’. What if the swing to ‘Yes’ hadn’t come so late in the day? How could we have better defended our flank against any desperate last-minute offer of more powers? Was there anything more we could have done to allay the fears of pensioners about independence? Was it really easier to explain the intricacies of the TITP relative to the threat posed to the NHS than it was to explain that English policy decides Scottish funding?
I had two thoughts when the now infamous poll appeared which showed ‘Yes’ just narrowly ahead. The first was that we needed to have at least one poll showing us in front before polling day, unless we were going to somehow contrive to nick it right at the finishing tape. The second was that there was going to be one hell of a backlash in consequence, and that coming so late in the day, there might not be enough time left to steady collective nerves to allow us to push on for a win.
Let's not forget that we had the kitchen sink thrown at us and still 45% of the electorate decided to say no thanks to the crude blandishments of the establishment. The best you can say for the proponents of an utterly appalling ‘No’ campaign is that they may have won a reprieve, but will now have to move with a sure-footedness and alacrity previously uncredited to them if they are to succeed in preventing a re-run at some point in the future.
The determination of 'Yes' campaigners to keep talking and stay active in the aftermath of the referendum has been truly inspiring. It's a thought that anyone in possession of an SNP membership card as the polls closed on 18 September is now a minority in a party which now numbers well in excess of 70,000 members. We now have a job to do to both to retain and involve these members, as well as to make sure that we have a ready-made army of activists ready to hit the streets again when the moment is ripe to do so.
The first chance to get those new recruits in action will be next year's Westminster election, where we will have an opportunity to ask the electorate to use us as their guarantee of the better devolution they were promised in the dying days of the referendum campaign. The next will be when we are able to compare the final settlement with what we could have had under independence.
There are reports that Labour and the Tories have managed to reach accommodation over tax and welfare, which is all well and good. If true, it will mean that both parties will have taken the best from each of their proposals while cancelling out the worst. Yet that of itself still doesn’t make the proposal either workable or desirable. If the package is to be any good, it has to be far more than a series of powers designed simply to devolve responsibility for budget cuts.
When the detail of those powers comes, we can be certain that the reality will fail to match up with the rhetoric. Already, it’s impossible to square Gordon Brown’s pledge that we’d be “moving quite close to something near to federalism” with the wording of the post-referendum House of Commons motion which lauds the “pooling and sharing of resources”, for which read “don’t expect us to go much further than we’d already promised.”
Arguably, it’s at that point of delivery and only at that point that people will truly be in a position to judge for themselves how far short the unionists have fallen from what they allowed people to believe they were promising. Yet however frustrating and diversionary it might be, it’s still a process which has to be gone through and treated respectfully.
The decision to have natural conciliators like John Swinney and Linda Fabiani as the SNP’s representatives to the commission being chaired by Lord Smith of Kelvin shows just how seriously the SNP is prepared to work on this stage. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t expect any recognition or reward for so doing.
The reaction of the Lib Dems’ Willie Rennie is a case in point. Faced with a potential ally in the SNP which could give him the leverage to extract something closer to federalism than what is currently on offer, he instead warns the SNP against seeking something called “ultra extreme” devolution. Say what you like about Oor Willie, but he’s certainly not a man you’d ever mistake for being someone in possession of a clue.
We’d all hoped to take a more direct route to independence, but for now at least, it’s not to be. However, in light of the outcome of the referendum, it’s a route we have to take, and importantly, one which we have to be fully committed to if we’re to have any chance of persuading voters to go further in future.
We’ve also now got many more friends and fellow travelers to help us complete the journey. Let’s welcome them aboard and get on our way again.