The Early Days of a Better Nation

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Two days in September

The best that can be said about the No campaign is that it worked. Its relentless focus-group-tested negative campaigning reached undecided voters while the Yes campaign -- for all its positivity and energy -- spent too much time talking to its own supporters, as a leading strategist of that campaign has acknowledged.

But by the last weekend before the referendum it wasn't at all obvious which side would win. It had come down to the wire. Any criticisms I might have of my own side were irrelevant. You fight with the army you have. I'd argued, debated, spoken, blogged, tweeted, re-tweeted. It didn't feel like I'd done enough.

So on Wednesday 17th I joined a Better Together get-out-the-vote team in Corstorphine. I used my bus pass and arrived at the street corner in Murrayfield before anyone else. The rest of the team turned up in ones and twos to make a dozen. Most looked like they'd qualify for a bus pass. The two Better Together organisers looked like they'd have to show proof of age to buy a drink. A brisk confident woman, older than them and much younger than me, seemed to know what to do. She drove off with three of us, the board (a ring-binder of contact names and addresses from earlier canvassing) and stacks of reminder cards. She parked in a back street, scribbled names and numbers on slips of paper, gave us her mobile number, pointed to streets on the A to Z and sent us off. It's been so long since I'd done anything like this that I'd forgotten how get-out-the-vote works. I phoned to check if I really was meant to just knock on two doors in a long street. Yes I was. Knock, nobody in, leave a card, run to the next house on the list, run back to the person with the board. Repeat, over and over. I'll say this for get-out-the-vote: it's healthy exercise in the fresh air. The area is very middle class. I was gloomy at first, then warmed by smiles from elderly people and firm statements that they didn't need a lift to the polls. On our way back to the meeting point I asked our impressively competent team leader if she'd ever done election campaigning. No, she said - she'd first volunteered two weekends earlier.

People like her, galvanised by the one poll that showed a Yes lead. People with bus passes. Striplings with clipboards. That was the ground operation the day before the vote.

Carol and I went to vote at lunchtime on Thursday. Then I caught the bus in to the Edinburgh Central office of the Labour Party, on the ground floor of a tenement building in Buccleuch St. The small rooms were crowded with people coming and going, some with rosettes for polling station duty (a rough gig in some places), most in teams of three or four with boards and leaflets and reminder cards. I recognised some local Labour councillors and activists but most there were young volunteers, a lot of them Labour students up from England.

My first team was me and two Scottish guys. One didn't know the area but he knew how to run a board so he took charge and I led the way to our patch, which was Cannongate, the bottom half of the Royal Mile. (It looks like it's all shops and offices but there are flats and also lots of wee alleys that access apartment blocks behind the street.) We headed there through crowds along Clerk St and South Bridge, then turned into the Royal Mile. It was a day of low cloud and drizzle. As I looked at the High Street's hazy towers I remembered the phrase about Edinburgh from Iain Banks's The Bridge: 'ghost capital'.

The Mile was awash with Yes badges, placards, and saltires. A joyous rally had begun outside the Scottish Parliament and people were coming and going to the pavement cafes and bars. It was like Yes had already won and were celebrating. Most people whose doors we knocked or rang at were out. We returned with slim pickings indeed, though one or two people had asked us for badges or stickers (which we didn't have). A van went past covered with the latest Yes posters printed in mimickry of Labour's signature red-and-yellow: End Tory Rule Forever. As we neared the office a guy walking unsteadily waved to us across the street:

'Bye-bye! Tomorrow you'll be gone! Into oblivion!'

The office was still a slow churn. Two young guys in the main room sat at desks with computers and stacks of returned boards. Norma Hart was sitting in the side room where the sandwiches were, dressed even smarter than usual and with a rosette on her lapel. She gave me a warm welcome and (over my protestations) made me an instant coffee. As I sipped it and ate a triangle of sandwich I listened to a young Labour student from Yorkshire, who looked shell-shocked. 'We knew it was bad from the polls,' he said. 'But we never imagined this. It's like Yes Yes Yes everywhere.'

'I assure you it's not as bad as it looks,' I said. 'You notice all the Yes badges but most people aren't wearing badges and most of these will be No. Every window without a poster is a likely No vote.'

A councillor sitting on the sofa beside me said: 'It's like Jim Murphy said, "windaes don't vote". And even some houses and flats with Yes posters have No voters in them.'

My next team was one of the guys from before, a young local Labour woman, and a Labour party regional organiser. We piled into her car, stuck a Labour flag on the window (after figuring out how the clip worked) and set off through rush-hour traffic to Craigentinny. The streets we had to cover were mostly grey blocks of flats. As we stickered up and she dealt out packs of the final-evening reminder cards the organiser said: 'Solid Labour area. We've had good returns here.'

And so it proved. We soon ran into a group of five smiling mums not even on our list who'd all gone together to vote No. As we went around I noticed and pointed out that there were hardly any Yes posters. And this was exactly the sort of working-class area Yes had targetted. The only sign we saw of the Yes campaign was a white van covered with placards and blasting out folk-songs as it cruised the streets. The organiser worked the board and two of us ran up stairs and the young Labour woman (who hadn't been well and still wasn't) did the ground floors. Nearly all responses were good. Some people had switched, some wouldn't say how they'd voted (especially not, I guess, to a stranger's voice on their stair intercom). But most had voted or swore they were about to and were solid No. As one of us remarked, we were racing to get out the vote in a poll where everyone was voting.

We finished after 7.30 and I got dropped off at the top of Leith Walk. I headed for the bus station but saw a tram about to leave York Place, so for the novelty took it to the West End, then the first coach going out past the Forth. (Ah, the joys of a bus pass.) The driver saw my sticker and asked how I thought things were going. I said I didn't know how the votes were going but the No campaign's get-out- the-vote operation was going well. 'I'm glad to hear that,' he said. On the bus back I felt very strange. The five mums of Craigentinny had been my first real indication that there was still a steadfast block of working class votes for No and that #LabourNo was a real thing. But in the dark and fog the landscape itself seemed in an undecided state.

'I hope we wake up in the same country,' I said to the driver as I got off. He gave me a grim look. As I walked along the back street in our neighbourhood I saw a couple of people with Yes badges in a heated conversation with someone, and a bit further on a woman clutching a polling station card as she got into her car. Not much more than an hour to go.

We got a take-away. Just after ten I tweeted: 'For the next few hours we are Schrodinger's country, liminal. You'd need a 5th colour to map us.' We waited up, watching this and that and following Twitter, until at about 1:30 the first result came in: Clackmannanshire. Yes: 16350 No: 19036.

From Michael's two years on the Wee County News we knew that Clacks is a microcosm of Scotland. We went to bed, setting the alarm for 7:00. I woke before it, and hesitated a minute or two before checking STV news online.

I woke Carol and told her, watched more news, then wrote: 'Opened the box. The cat is alive and having kittens.'


Great post. Had a stomach churning day in Glasgow myself - a slight disgust at the way flags were used to mark out territory, depression at Labour voters opting for Yes, the joy you feel when a total stranger thanks you for doing what are doing and looks to you for reassurance.

Great post.Your blogs during the campaign were a great source of reassurance.

I'm worried about what's coming next. I've seen good, thoughtful socialists denouncing the majority of their compatriots as liars, fools and lackeys of imperialism - it's all a bit reminiscent of Serbia before the fall. If the SNP sweeps the Scottish Westminster seats next year - which seems entirely possible at the moment - it's not going to be a nice country to call yourself British in (never mind English!).

Adrian, Tom - thanks!

Conan - I have looked up Dick Gaughan now, and will definitely look further - thanks for the reminder. Good to see you and Steve on Friday evening.

Phil - I don't think an upsurge of nationalism in the sense you suggest is really the problem in Scotland (though it could turn into that). The absence of a Labour machine in areas where there is still a significant level of support for Labour is indicative of what the real problem is, and it's not a million miles from the sort of problems you tend to discuss on your blog. And (as you know, professor) these are not confined to England.

'The national peculiarities represent a specific combination of the basic features of the world process' is (somewhat to my surprise) a good starting point for analysis.

Ken in the aftermath of the No vote now we've had a bit of time to reflect can you tell how us how you feel about the UK and the way it appears to be shifting very much to the right given we have just picked up our first UKIP MP?

Also where do you feel peoples political energies should be put to getting more progressive politics back on the agenda?

I was in and around Glasgow today and it certainly seems the left or the larger part of it is still very much looking to Independence.

I happy to state that is where my sympathies lie, although I am interested in what you have to say.

Just watched your Writers Together video from last month. There was something quite depressing in the way and manner with which you say you vote Labour given how bankrupt I think that party is. I noticed Iain Banks got a passing mention, it is a crying shame that his untimely passing robbed us of an Independence debate between the two of you as well as many other contributions he had to make to the world both in private and public life. That would I think have been quite something to watch.

I constantly try to empthasize and see the other persons point of view. In the case of supporting the Union I find this difficult but I can see I think the sense in some of what you say even if on balance I think other factors still keep on the side of what I consider the greater opportunity for something more postive and progressive in an independent Scotland. Can you tell me what if any aspect of Independence appealed to you even if on balance you felt the future of the Union was going to be more positive?

So you won
And now the UK is lurching hard to the right!
The Tories polling higher than Labour even after all they have done!

I worry about what will happen if the Tories or even the UKIP win the next election
Will the Scots accept it?
Or will it drive a more violent devolution

Has Scotland turned away from a golden opportunity?

Topper - Yeah, there may well be something quite depressing, because it depresses me. I vote Labour not because I think it's wonderful but because it's the actually existing mass party of the British working class.

The electoral alternatives on the left appeal to me even less: the Greens because they're anti-progress, and the various Trot lash-ups because they're Trots and because they always fall apart (these points are not unconnected).

No aspect of Independence appealed to me.

Duncan - the Tories might win, though the odds are still against it. And even if Labour wins, it'll probably still be pretty tough.

Not as tough as it would be in an independent Scotland with John Swinney making cuts while Eddie Reader sings patriotic songs, however.

"Not as tough as it would be in an independent Scotland with John Swinney making cuts while Eddie Reader sings patriotic songs, however."


Bit harsh on Swinney, though, aren't you? I mean, all those neoliberal corporate tax cuts Salmond promised for a supposedly independent Scotland without its own currency would have to be paid for somehow. But once they're paid for, social democratic utopia in a Scotland that's racism free, unlike the English scum.

Scotland as an independent nation

I believe that cutting the ties to the stupid austerian policies of the both Labour and Tory parties would lead to a level of growth that would enable Scotland to operate a much more socialist state

One of the reasons for that is that a better economy and higher wages would lead to much less "welfare" costs

A good comparison would be the Norwegian prison system which by spending more per prisoner on reform and rehabilitation has ended up with a much lower number of prisoners and much lower total costs

I should not push too much on this as I have already left Scotland for a better life for my family
(Although it sometimes feels like I'm still there except the weather is better)(South Island New Zealand)

A campaign with no activists on the ground until the last week, that when it looked like it would lose changed the offer to make a No vote into a "devo max" vote, that relied on fear and lies to persuade people, and you are proud to be part of it?

The independence campaign has little to do with romantic nationaism and everything to do with making a better nation free from the baggage of history and empire of the english empire. It's inclusive and welcoming. No-one thinks independence is an end in itself, it's a way for social change to be achieved.

The No campaign had activisits on the ground all through. It didn't change the offer to 'Devo Max'. It didn't rely on fear and lies. But you do get one thing right: I'm proud to have been even a small part of it.

I'm well aware of the character of the Yes campaign. I've argued all along that independence is no way to achieve social change, or at least the kind of social change its supporters say they want.

Pretty hard line stance there Ken, absolutely no appeal whatsoever that you couldn't even find under a microscope? Ah well moving on.

"Labour not because I think it's wonderful but because it's the actually existing mass party of the British working class."

Is it? I guess it was and could be in the future but to say it is right now just seems blatantly untrue. I'll concede you have closer ties and perhaps know people in the party that feel that way but it does not look or feel like that to an outsider. I have one friend in fact that works for Labour based in London and absolutely one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet but when you had the Blair/Brown years or listen to Milliband/Lamont/Murphy et al it is absolutely for me impossible to reconcile the idea of Labour as a party fighting for the broader working class. In Scotland it is complacent to a staggering degree.

I'm not saying any other mainstream party is the party of the working class either but Labour I think is so far from its roots right now it is beyond saving.

"The electoral alternatives on the left appeal to me even less: the Greens because they're anti-progress, and the various Trot lash-ups because they're Trots and because they always fall apart (these points are not unconnected)."

You are on much firmer ground here I fear. If it is renewable energy it seems the Greens are on board, on a few other areas they have some bonkers ideas. In general though I find them more appealing than any other national party right now. Perhaps you should join them and influence them as a scientific advisor? :-)

Topper - I can easily imagine an independent Scotland with aspects I would like (a republic, land reform and/or land value taxation, etc) but I think any independent Scotland would most likely be one where a lot of the currently poorest would be worse off for at several years if not longer. Now there may be a case for that, on a nationalist or republican or free-market basis, but it isn't the case that was made, and especially not by the Yes left.

That the Labour party in Scotland is staggeringly complacent is a problem, but not evidence against its being the mass party of the class. (Unfortunately.) From my post you can see some indication of just how depleted it is. There's just no comparison with the old Labour party machine. But as I also indicate, the support is still there. And I've had some experience (which I may yet write up) of how the Labour party in Edinburgh has begun to shake itself out of complacency.

I'm going to get nowhere here, but on the facts:

The meaning of the No vote did change during the campaign, the "VOW" was only made when polls were moving yes. Exactly what was on offer when is beyond my desire to find out to argue against a brick wall, but Ruth Davidson did offer "devo super max" on live TV late on. I don't remember that early on.

As for No activists on the ground, there were a few but it was hardly a grassroots mobilisation.

Neil - as far as I can make out, the 'vow' promises what was already htere, already legislated for or already in all the main parties' proposals. If Ruth Davidson offered 'devo super max' (and this is the first time I've heard that) she was either over-egging the Conservative proposals or well out of line with her party. The official No campaign ended by just shouting louder about the same powers that they had said were on offer from the beginning.

I may have missed some nuances, and I may have missed some impact, because I don't want more powers for the Scottish Parliament anyway.

It's true the No campaign wasn't much of a grassroots mobilisation, but it didn't have to be. It just had to get people out on the day, and it did. Next time, if there is a next time, a different approach might be called for.

The questions I would like to have answered are

How much money was spent on the two campaigns?

Where/Who did it come from?

I am on the other side of the planet but my impression was that the "No" campaign outspent the "yes" by a LOT

And that it was not "the people of Scotland" contributing the money

I'm beginning to wonder how much attention you were paying to the campaign.
Ruth Davidson made the devo super max statement in the debate in the Hydro in front of schoolchildren. She was joined by the great socialist George Galloway.

As for the vow, this is one of many links

And there will be lots on Bellacaledonia

It's not over. The referendum has stirred things up massively. There's still no answer to the West Lothain Question. History will show that Scottish independence started with the parliament Labour thought it could control forever.

The questions Duncan asks about money are pertinent, and will be answered by official accounts. He could also ask about media bias. There has been one study so far by a South African based academic of the print media, which found huge bias to the No camp. When interviewed, he said that he started as a total No but after reading everything he became a Yes.

Link to research,-or-hype-in-bold-newspaper-framing-of-the-scottish-independence-debate/

A google search will turn up a study showing the BBC and STV were biased too.

Thumbs up from me Ken.

I only discovered your books recently and have a lot of reading to do. But I did think to myself, 'Hmm, left-wing, friend of Iain Banks, must be a nationalist.' I'm pleasantly surprised to find out what your views actually are on this.

There's little I can add to what you've said, but I have one observation. I grew up in South Africa during the late '70s and '80s (my parents moved there for reasons that are frankly shameful). As a student I became involved in the anti-apartheid movement, and it's there my left-wing views were born. The grand conceit of the left at the time was that it was essential to build a broad front to fight Pretoria. But after victory the nationalists and liberals would be cast aside and the socialist vanguard would seize power (yes - vanguardism - that should have rung some warning bells). What happened instead? The exact reverse - the CPSA was neutered and turned into the ANC's lapdog as it courted big business and clung to the economic status quo. The poverty gap in South Africa was already crushing and has merely grown worse. Khayelitsha today is no better than it was 20 years ago.

The lesson is very clear. If you want socialism, you need to fight for it directly, and not get sidetracked by nationalists who merely want to replace one elite with another. The decision made in South Africa was forgiveable, as while the apartheid regime was in power there was no chance of any social progress. But it demonstrates how easily the left can be exploited by those whose real aims lie elsewhere. So much of the left-wing Yes campaign seemed predicated on the idea that the Scottish people are miraculously immune to the greed and chauvinism that fuels the right. Would be wonderful if true, but it's ultimately just magical thinking (which, let's face it, has always been the bane of the left).

Ironically enough, Billy Bragg's most famous song is 'There is Power in the Union'. We need that power, and we need every scrap of it.

Thanks, Charles. Well said.

Neil - nothing in these links contradicts what I said above. The Yes side is busy muddling up 'the vow', 'devo max' and what Gordon Brown proposed. What Devo Max means is 'devolve everything except defence and foreign affairs'. That has never been promised and as far as I know exists in no federal state anywhere.

As I've said elsewhere, I supported the No campaign despite and not because of the promise of more powers for Holyrood.

That's the problem with the vow, no-one is clear what it means.

Charles point about replacing one elite with another is good and well made. I just think in a smaller state the political elite will be more accessible and less removed from the population.

I'll shut up and let you get back to writing books, hopefully involving spaceships and Scottish landscapes.

Thanks Neil, happy to leave it there for now.

Hi Ken
With the very nasty looking lurch to the right in England
UKIP and the Tories,

Are you still sure you pushed the correct direction??
(as opposed to the RIGHT way)

Duncan - yes. I think it would have been worse in England if the vote had gone the other way.

The last line of this suggests there might be a bit of work for a No voter who is not a party hack but is an accomplished writer.

This isn't going away like the politicians hoped.

This is nice post. I am following this blog regularly.

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