Scotland: 'Defeat bears the seeds of victory'

September 29, 2014
People are flocking to the pro-independence parties, which have all had a wave of recruits.

Those who were expecting to see the supporters of Scottish independence dispirited ― and who hoped that the issue of independence was settled for at least a generation ― were quickly disappointed after the September 18 referendum.

This defeat, in which the pro-independence vote lost by roughly 45% to 55%, bears the seeds of future victory ― for at least three reasons.

First, the way the campaign unfolded. The rate of participation was huge. No less than 97% of potential voters registered on the electoral roll and 118,000 of them did so in the month before September 2, when the roll was closed. They are part of “the missing million” ― those who never voted and were often not even registered.

This time they voted: the turnout was 84%. You have to go back to 1910 ― before universal suffrage ― to find a higher level of participation. Many of these new voters had been motivated by the Yes campaign through door-to-door canvassing, one-to one-discussions and meetings in local halls, in which the radical wing of the campaign played a key role.

Poor and young vote Yes

Second, examining the vote leads to several conclusions. For one, it was very clearly a class vote. Out of the 32 regions or cities, Yes won a majority in four ― Glasgow, Dundee, and two areas near Glasgow.

These are the most socially deprived areas, with the highest levels of unemployment and of all the other symptoms of poverty. They have also been historically, and still are today, strongholds of the workers’ movement.

The information indicates that, everywhere, the vote for independence was higher in poor neighbourhoods. These are also areas that were dominated for nearly a century by the Labour Pary, although the Scottish National Party (SNP), which heads the Scottish government in Edinburgh, has made inroads in recent years.

In contrast, areas that were strongholds of the SNP since the 1970s, with more mixed populations, all voted no.

A survey released on September 20 revealed the limits of the No vote's victory. First, Yes was predominant in all age groups except 18-24 (48%), 55-64 (43%) and over 65 (27%). The Yes vote was 71% among 16-17 year olds, 59% for the 25-34 age group, 52-53% for those aged between 35 and 54.

So it can be concluded that the No campaign's win was secured by older voters and the Yes campaign won a majority of the population under 55. Politically, the result is anything but final.

This is confirmed by the motivations of those who voted Yes and No. For Yes voters, 10% were motivated by a hope of never again having a Conservative government; 20% because they thought that an independent Scotland would have a better future; and 70% so that all decisions concerning Scotland would be taken in Scotland.

The latter figure is perhaps the most important. These 70% are for independence for the most basic of reasons: democracy. This is not an abstract question because those who voted Yes have also very clearly expressed their opposition to neoliberalism and war, for social justice and redistribution of wealth.

Fear campaign

The corresponding figures for No voters are just as interesting, with 47% motivated by perceived risks associated with independence.

This is the result of what the leaders of the No campaign themselves called “Project Fear” ― creating the fear that a vote for independence would endanger jobs and pensions, that prices would go up, Scotland would not be allowed into the European Union, the English would not accept a monetary union, and the North Sea oil would soon run out.

Most of these fears would have proven to be unfounded or at least exaggerated if the Yes vote had won. But they were assiduously circulated by the three unionist parties (Conservative, Labour and the Liberal Democrats), the media and business leaders.

Some employers wrote to their workers to tell them to vote No ― a practice justified by a Labour MP. Twenty per cent voted no because they believed the promise of more powers for the Scottish parliament. The unionist parties called it a vow: increased powers would be sure and certain.

Unfortunately, the powers in question were never specified, among other reasons because the three parties do not agree on them.

And only 27% voted No from an hment to the “United Kingdom”. These figures confirm what everyone should have known already: the motivations of independence supporters are more solidly entrenched than their opponents.

Recruits flock to left

The third reason to doubt the finality of the September 18 result lies in what has happened since ― which has been astonishing. People are flocking to the pro-independence parties, which have all had a wave of recruits.

By September 25, the SNP had doubled its membership in four days, passing the 50,000 mark. The Green Party went from 2000 to 5000 members. The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) recruited 2500 new members.

As for the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), a coalition of left parties and individuals, it has received at least 7000 registrations for an upcoming conference in November.

People who commit themselves now are doing so to continue the fight, because nothing has been settled. The fight is to extract maximum powers for Scotland's parliament from Westminster and to put independence back on the agenda as soon as possible.

Ironically, the big winners of the referendum are the parties that lost it. And who will be the losers? There is only one candidate.

The Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties are fairly negligible quantities in Scotland. The biggest loser is likely to be the Labour Party.

In the No campaign, Labour played the central role. It was former prime minister Gordon Brown who came up with the “vow” of more powers in the last two weeks, when the No campaign was panicking at the prospect of a victory for independence.

Labour’s victory may well be Pyrrhic. To start with, 37% of its supporters voted for independence. It seems that people are starting to leave the party.

On the left of the movement for independence, there is a strong rejection of Labour. The Conservatives have always been the enemy, but Labour will be held accountable for what is viewed as a betrayal.

There will probably be a change in leadership, but it is more than doubtful this will be enough. Labour voters began to desert the party when it was in government from 1997 to 2010 in Westminster and from 1999 to 2007 in Edinburgh. The referendum experience may accelerate and amplify the process.

For independence supporters, compared with hopes ahead of September 18, the result was disappointing. But compared to the situation at the start of the campaign, it is a huge step forward. Not quite enough to win, but huge nonetheless.

As we have seen, the result was largely due to the fears spread by the No campaign and promises that remain hazy. In 2012, British PM David Cameron thought he would win by at least 70-30. He nearly lost.


This campaign involved a large-scale mobilisation and profound politicisation of Scottish society. It especially affected those who do not normally take an interest in politics ― the poorest. We can be pretty sure that this genie is not ready to be put back in the bottle.

But every sector of the population was drawn into the campaign. Since citizens of the European Union residing in Scotland could vote, we saw the appearance, for example, of “Poles for Independence”. Then there was Women for Independence, Scots Asians for Independence and, last but not least, “English Scots [sic] for Independence”.

It appears more of the community of Pakistani origin and about a quarter of English people living in Scotland voted yes.

There is a good relationship of forces for the pro-independence forces to demand more powers from London. Alex Salmond has resigned as Scottish first minister and SNP leader. Nobody asked him to ― his record was good. He did it to hand over power to the person who was almost certain to succeed him, his able deputy, Nicola Sturgeon.

In Sturgeon's first interview after announcing her candidacy for SNP leader, she refused to rule out a referendum within five years if London does not give enough powers to Scotland. As for Salmond, he will continue to sit in parliament and will remain a force to be reckoned with.

It should be clear: the movement for Scottish independence is not based on narrow nationalism. For many of its participants, it is not nationalist at all.

On the eve of the referendum, at a mass pro-independence rally in the main square of Glasgow, activist and lawyer Aamer Anwar was loudly applauded when he declared: “I am not a nationalist, I am an internationalist.”

This movement is not anti-English; it is for democracy, social justice, against war and for a new society. Most of its activists are broadly on the left.

There is nothing automatic about this. It is the result of changes over the past 30 years.

First, there was a change of leadership in the SNP in the 1980s and '90s. A new group of leaders rose, personified by Salmond, who aimed to outflank Labour on the left and win its supporters to independence. In this, the SNP was greatly helped by the evolution of Blairite New Labour.

At the same time, a big part of the Scottish radical left went beyond sterile ideological arguments that socialists had to oppose independence so as not to divide the British working class. It started to support independence, giving it a socialist content.

This development was important, because there is a space to be occupied to the left of the SNP. Between 1999 and 2007, this space was occupied by the SSP ― before the crisis which struck it and from which it now seems to be recovering.

This space still exists and was very effectively occupied during the campaign by the RIC, SSP, Greens and movements such as Women for Independence.

The radical left has an important role to play. The SNP may be to the left of Labour, but it remains a centre-left, social-democratic party. In the present situation, that is not so bad. It made it possible for the Greens and the SSP to be involved in the “official” campaign for the Yes vote while taking part in the RIC.

The SNP is relatively progressive on social issues, but it is not opposed to capitalism, either in Scotland or internationally.

Early in the campaign Salmond gave some guarantees that he would not be too radical ― for example by proposing to keep the Queen as head of state and by abandoning the SNP’s longstanding opposition to NATO. That decision was made by a small majority at an SNP conference. It has now led to the resignation of three SNP members of Scottish parliament from the party.

Some now joining the SNP do so with the aim of pulling it leftwards. We can wish them good luck, but it seems more important to create a political force to its left ― an anti-capitalist and pro-independence force that fights for a republic and socialism.

The elements already exist and contributed greatly to the Yes campaign. They need to come together, to organise for new challenges.

After the referendum, the audience for the ideas of the radical left has expanded considerably. That is a chance that should be seized with both hands.

[A longer version can be read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

Like the article? Subscribe to Green Left now! You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.