Sunday, 12 October 2014

Making Scotland an inclusive nation: the aftermath of the referendum

So, the posters are mostly down, the flags folded away, the leaflets in the recycling bin: well they are in Edinburgh, anyway. And elsewhere, one hopes, tears have been wiped. The referendum is well and truly over and we have entered the next phase, the work of the Smith Commission. I can now dare to write about the referendum, at last.

So, how was the referendum for you,  then?

Well, over here in the capital city it was flat, very flat. The day of the vote itself can only be described as 'weird'. I walked through the Parliament area twice that day.  Not a single Better Together (BT) supporter could be seen. Gaggles of Yes campaigners draped in flags were giving media interviews. A bizarrely-attired Braveheart-painted flag-bedecked Yes supporter walked quietly along the road, looking rather lonely. All quite low key. No Glaswegian extroversion, none at all.

The most colourful sight was of a couple of Catalonians wearing Ruritanian hats and carrying one of the most lurid flags I have ever seen. They paraded happily up and down outside the Parliament, arousing mild photographic interest among the few tourists around. But not a single No campaigner and not a BT poster or banner in sight. Indeed, hardly anyone was out at all. Edinburgh was keeping off the streets.

And it wasn't just in the Holyrood area either. Friends from across the city phoned up and said, 'Isn't it quiet?'

Well, they were almost right. In Craigmillar, in contrast, so the story went, the womenfolk marched as one body towards the polling station to cast their Yes votes, to the sound of O Flower of Scotland. However, in the rest of the city, almost as if prearranged, which it wasn't, every BT supporter it seemed, had stayed off the streets and remained at home. No voters had been cloaked in invisibility and only came out on the streets to vote. It was hardly surprising that their likely numbers were underestimated.

And what about when the results were announced?

The same. Not a soul on the streets and no celebrations. Just a collective, almost city-wide, sigh of relief.

Much has been said and written about 'intimidation' during the lead up to the referendum. If there were incidents of physical intimidation they were few and I personally don't know of any. Psychological intimidation, though? Day after day, our TV screens had shown noisy flag-waving crowds taking over public spaces. Not here, as far as we could see, not in the capital, but in the west.

Now, some people like the mass outpouring of emotion. At football matches, for example, fans sing in unison, banners aloft, swept up in the feelings of the moment.  In an age when religion has lost much of its power to move, bawling football chants or waving flags to the stirring sound of O Flower of Scotland is probably as near to a religious experience as many people get.

To other people like me, however, such sights can be quite repellant, no matter that they may be quite goodhearted most of the time, and I am sure I am not alone in this. Massed flags remind me of fascist marches rather than democratic action. Indeed, the purloining of Scotland's flag by one faction was divisive. Not our scene, many people must have thought. Indeed, I cannot imagine ever taking part in such emotional outpourings myself. I sign petitions and, occasionally, take part in marches when I feel strongly about an issue, but no, I don't bounce around publicly with Tigger-like enthusiasm. Call it age....

For me, taking part in an election is about reading as much as possible from all sides of the debate and weighing things up. It is about listening to the key players and assessing their stance. It is about talking with friends with a range of views. It is about watching the national debates on television and assessing the various contributions. There is nothing morally better about marching along the streets than sitting in one's room reading. Yet, somehow, the visibility and noise of the Yes campaign seemed in some eyes to have validated its status.

In contrast, the referendum vote was never going to be a clear-cut decision for most of us. There were pros and cons on both sides and a reasoned judgement was what was required. Being a voter was definitely never about jumping up and down shouting slogans in George, or any other, Square. Fine if you're seventeen but not for anyone beyond their twenties. How could anyone have thought the result would be any different? It was predicted months before. The only issue in question was, by how much. One positive poll result for Yes would not a summer make.

Much has rightly been made of the revitalisation of the democratic process in some parts of the country during the referendum campaign. People who felt that the Westminster government did not represent their views but who, ironically, had in the past not bothered to register, let alone vote, now responded energetically to a simple binary decision. No long lists of parties on ballot papers. Yes or No. Right or Wrong. Simple. Easy. Reassuring. No great thought needed. A stark straightforward choice.

Overstatement and exaggeration can make ideas easy for first-time voters to digest. How much more difficult, indeed painful, is the appreciation of complexity. It will be interesting to see if the level of involvement we have seen during the referendum persists during the give and take of negotiation or the much messier politics of a national election.

'We'll give it a try!' exclaimed the enthusiastic Yes voter towards the end of a media interview.

'Well, actually, it doesn't quite work like that,' would have been the only response possible. Needless to say, his view was not challenged. To have done so would have been cruel.

However, perhaps it was crueller to leave the fantasists to their illusions. Sadly, no one had told these new voters that sometimes when you vote, the other side wins. That possibility is called 'democracy'.

The outcome was emotional melodrama. Claims of imminent doom slammed across Facebook, on the very day the result was announced. No quiet dignified licking of wounds in private, as has been the wont of many of us in election after election over the years.

In contrast, as soon as the results of the Scottish referendum were announced, the conspiracy theories poured through the web. Slanderous accusations of vote-rigging and fraud undermined the integrity of Scotland's public servants. George Black, Glasgow's chief executive, ascribes this hysteria to lack of familiarity with electoral procedures among many of the newly registered voters. In this alternative universe of online madness, the alleged foul plot was dependent on electoral fraud being committed across the country simultaneously by thousands of local government employees who had all been sworn to secrecy. I don't think so.

Probably my worst disappointment was the embittered allegation by people who should have known better on the very day the results were announced, that Labour had reneged on its commitment to the promised Commission. Talk about precipitate! They couldn't even wait until that first weekend was over, let alone until the Commission started work, before screaming foul!. The poison didn't just drip, it poured.

A lot of the responsibility for this nasty state of affairs has to be laid at the door of Alex Salmond. Most politicians when they resign, no matter how disappointed they are, try to do it graciously. Not Alex. 'Sour grapes' doesn't go anywhere near describing the first part of his resignation speech, perhaps one of the reasons why the media scarcely reported it. Both that afternoon and since, he has undermined the credibility of the Commission. He has threatened to make a Universal Declaration of Independence if he doesn't like what emerges. He used terms like 'hold their feet to the fire' which in their crude brutality absolutely convinced me that I had been right to vote the way I did. He would have made a disastrously divisive First Minister of an independent Scotland.

However, there is now hope of a more positive future. Nicola Sturgeon, who is almost certain to replace Salmond as First Minister, is able and, we hope, has enough common sense to know that she must endeavour to be more of a statesman. Many of us, regardless of the parties we might support, hold her in positive regard. We look forward to a strong female leader taking the reins and bringing together a fractured nation. However, will she withstand the temptation to demand so much of Devo Max (enhanced devolution) that the task of the Smith Commission is made impossible?

Solutions require compromise. That will be the test of all the political parties. I wonder how many are up for it?

The only political party in the Yes camp which accepted the result with a good grace and immediately expressed its commitment to working constructively and cooperatively is the Green Party. Patrick Harvie, the Convenor, has spoken about the importance of widespread consultation and of reaching out to No voters and working with them. He has urged supporters to drop the '45' label (a term used for those who voted Yes but have refused to accept the majority decision).

Solidarity, on the contrary, and its hangers on are divisive in the extreme, perceiving every issue in class terms. Their vision of Scotland is anything but inclusive and collaborative. Tommy Sheridan's fist is unlikely to become a handshake. His Hope over Fear rally in Glasgow's George Square has apparently attracted 6000 people who are not prepared to accept the outcome of the referendum and want to carry on fighting for independence against the wishes of the majority. And, yes, the flags were waving.

The three BT parties have been working on their proposals for enhanced devolution for a couple of years now. How they will fare under intense pressure from the SNP, I don't know. Both LibDems and Labour have problems of their own and who knows what pressure Ruth Davidson will come under from her own party.

Scotland has to move on from what has been a bruising experience for many, and not just Yes voters who only happen to be noisier. The country has to become inclusive of the wide range of its citizens, including the quiet majority, and tackle increased divisiveness.

People who voted No have been made to feel that their views don't count, that they are not worth as much as those of Yes voters.

Language has become distinctly ageist. Older people who voted No have been accused of having betrayed their country. People who paid into the national coffers all their lives, who brought up their families, who in their retirement acted as unpaid volunteers, have been labelled traitors.

Scotland's endemic sectarianism befouled the streets, even in the capital.

The division between the west and the east of the country has widened. Only a couple of days ago I read an article suggesting that the capital should be moved from Edinburgh to Glasgow as a punishment for its citizens having voted the 'wrong' way.

Threats to repeat the referendum in order to achieve the 'right' result are undermining the very principle of democracy. In many areas, the Yes campaign continues its activities. Indeed, a 'masked' march for independence is to take place in Edinburgh on November 5th.

And under it all runs a centuries-old river of anti-Englishness. This is not the racism of the poorer English council areas. Scots don't need to make bogeymen of immigrants. In the English many of them have bogeymen of their own. Many Scottish families have been brought up with a sort of underlying, sub-conscious anti-English resentment. Interestingly, the English tend not to resent the Scots, or at least not since the years of the Borders raids. I suppose, more infuriatingly, they tend to ignore them.  Scots don't need UKIP when anti-Englishness can find a comfortable home in people's families.... and the SNP. During the referendum, proxy words were usually used for the term 'English'. Constant derogatory references to 'Westminster' (the Parliament for four nations) really meant 'England'.

For Scotland to become a truly inclusive nation, it has to get rid of the last elements of divisive nationalism and suspicion. Get rid of the massed flags. Get rid of the cries for 'freedom'. (Freedom from what? From whom?) Stop singing that jolly but mischievous Proclaimers song Cap in handBut I can't understand why we let someone else rule our land. Really? Factual evidence? Does anyone actually believe this rubbish? 

Above all, get rid of O Flower of Scotland, or at least, leave it as the equivalent to the hakka, a leftover from the old enmities of the past which can be quite useful on the rugby pitch. BUT NOWHERE ELSE AND CERTAINLY NOT ON PUBLIC OCCASIONS.

I first came across O Flower of Scotland shortly after it was written, during a school concert in the 1970s. The school had helpfully printed out the words. I couldn't believe what I was reading. Remember this was the time when people like me were called white settlers. During the rendition, members of the audience one by one came to their feet. I sat squirming. Was I really responsible for the actions of Edwards I and II seven hundred years ago? Or Flodden? Or Culloden? Or the execution of Mary Queen of Scots? Emotional and exaggerated recollections of past injustices do not help the development of positive and inclusive approaches to government and community life.

And please don't protest that God Save the Queen has a verse about General Wade and the rebellious Scots. Nobody in England ever sings this verse because, like me, they don't know it exists until some helpful Scot points it out. Actually, most English people have never even heard of General Wade. But people do sing O Flower of Scotland.

Isn't it time that Scotland found a new national anthem, one that looks to the future, that embraces all its people, that is inclusive and positive? What about Highland Cathedral or O Caledonia? Or perhaps the Proclaimers could be asked to compose something jolly to which we can all sing along.

Perhaps with a new national anthem and a parliamentary leader who sees herself as the First Minister for all its people, whether they voted Yes or No, Scotland can move into a new phase. It can prove that its new enhanced powers make life better for all its people. It can educate its citizens about the rights and responsibilities of democracy. It can get rid of the divisions and the suspicions, whether of those across the border or those on the other side of the country or of a different social class. It can become one nation.  And then, perhaps, the possibility of independence will become a more attractive prospect.

You may also be interested in the following posts:

The Scottish referendum: how I am voting and why

The Scottish referendum: head versus heart

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