Scotland: Despite fear campaign 45% vote for independence

September 19, 2014
Glasgow on the eve of the referendum.

After two years of campaigning, Scotland’s independence referendum has ended. It saw victory for the No side, the opponents of independence with 55% backing compared to 45% who backed a Yes to independence.

The referendum saw an unprecedented level of engagement and debate throughout Scotland. This was reflected in the huge and unprecedented turnout of 84.59%, reversing the trend of recent decades of dwindling poll turnouts. Some rural areas even recorded 100% turnout.

Pro-independence campaigners, especially around the Radical Independence Campaign, registered thousands to vote in Scotland’s poorest and most marginalised communities, where many had been off the voters roll since the days of the poll tax.

We spoke to people who had never voted and needed the process explained. These alienated communities were enfranchised by the referendum.

Poor voted Yes

"The four poorest and most deprived local authorities in Scotland were the only local authorities (out of 32) who voted Yes. Glasgow, Dundee, West Dunbartonshire and North Lanarkshire,” noted Frances Curran, a former Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) Member of the Scottish Parliament. “Says it all about what this referendum was about.”

These communities have been hit hardest by Tory austerity and benefit cuts. Thousands rely on food banks for survival.

Tales circulate of families opening tins of beans on the spot and eating them cold, with their hands due to hunger. Police report a surge of house break-ins, in order to steal food. Some areas of Glasgow have an average male life expectancy of 58 years, lower than sub-Saharan Africa.

The “union of the crowns” has offered nothing to these communities but deindustrialisation, unemployment, poverty and despair.

In some areas such as Craigmillar in Edinburgh, voters organised early morning marches to the polling stations; mums and dads with prams and the elderly being pushed in wheelchairs to vote, led by banners and pipers.

This reflected the emergence, especially in the last few weeks of the campaign, of a dynamic and radical mass movement which mobilised in communities across Scotland to attempt to secure a Yes vote.

The great advantage of the Yes campaign was that we ceased to be led by politicians and men in grey suits and became a popular movement rallying around progressive and democratic ideas.

Young people were to the fore in this social movement, increasingly questioning and debating the kind of society we want to become.

The demands that inspired the grassroots did not come from the conservative Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) manifesto, they were not focused on historical or ethnic questions. They were focused on social justice and equality. They were for an end to ill health and food banks. They were for peace and the scrapping of Trident nuclear missiles.

Most had no previous political involvement but came into the campaign through their local community Yes group, from coalitions like the Radical Independence Campaign or campaigning groups like Women for Independence or the National Collective arts group.

Shock to establishment

This movement gave the establishment, the politicians and the City of London the shock of their lives, coming within a few percentage points of victory.

The British state threw everything it had into the fight. The Labour Party led the “Better Together” campaign and shared platforms with Tory leaders to campaign for a No vote. Labour has done itself serious damage and is now cut off from a new generation of politically conscious youth. Their final slogan at the polling stations was “it’s not worth the risk”.

In a display of “shock and awe”, Tory Prime Minister David Cameron phoned all his old school friends on the boards of the banks and called in favours from the supermarkets and oil companies. They lined up to issue tales of capital flight and soaring prices.

Many of these were quickly debunked but these tales were given great prominence by the media, which overwhelmingly backed No.

Chief among these was the BBC, the supposedly impartial state broadcaster. Some BBC reports were stunningly biased. Although Yes used social media brilliantly to counter this onslaught, it did do damage.

There were endless threats that Scotland would be thrown out of the EU and would not be allowed to use the pound, cutting it off from international lending.

In the face of this assault, the Yes vote held up astonishingly well. Yes supporters overwhelmingly won the ground war in the last few days, literally taking over the streets of the big towns and cities every night for spontaneous mass rallies and marches.

New constitutional debate

We now face a new constitutional debate. Scotland has been promised new powers by Westminster and the possibility of a new constitutional settlement for the UK.

Already however, both Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband are backing away from their “pledge” to give greater powers. The Tories will undoubtedly try to use this to their advantage and to appease their right wing and the far-right “little Englanders”.

The SNP has seen the resignation of popular First Minister Alex Salmond. The SNP demonstrated strong organisation and has widespread support. It will probably now be led by capable deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon, who played a crucial role in the campaign.

The left may be strengthened over the next period if it can react strategically and make a turn towards the social movement that emerged in the campaign.

There may be attempts by the social democratic “Common Weal” platform, which drew support from many intellectuals and celebrities as well as grassroots campaigners, to build a new force.

Radical Independence and the SSP also emerged from the campaign with their reputations enhanced as have the Scottish Greens. Many activists will be keen to continue the degree of unity achieved during the campaign.

In the face of an establishment onslaught, and after 25 years of being told that tackling poverty and inequality was a dream and there could be no alternative to the neoliberal consensus, 45% of Scots still voted Yes.

This is a great achievement and an even better achievement has been the building of a mass social movement. If we can now harness that movement to build a new political force in Scottish society then, despite our defeat in the referendum, we can regroup and organise to shake up politics.

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