If it’s a yes…

I realise this is supposed to be a blog about cooking. But today, I’m a little preoccupied with something else.

I’ve avoided broadcasting my voting intentions for the referendum for various reasons, the most obvious being that I haven’t been certain which way I’d be voting.

The past months have brought home to me that I’m not cut out to be one of life’s campaigners. I admire, and in some ways envy, those on both sides who’ve been pressing their case on the streets, on social media and in any number of pub and workplace conversations. And I realise that if everyone was like me, consciously standing apart and stubbornly refusing to pick a team and wear its colours, there’d have been next to no useful debate at all.

But for all my admiration for those who reached a firm decision quickly, I was never likely to be one of them. And when I did vote today, it was with some trepidation and regret as well as optimism and excitement. I don’t know – and nor, if you’re honest, do you – exactly what a Yes vote might bring. I’m pretty certain it would bring some economic hardship at first, but I couldn’t say how much or for how long. Nor do I know what additional powers – if any – will be handed to Scotland in the event of a No. I do know that, as an Englishman who has made Scotland his home, I’ll have a different sense of my own identity tomorrow morning if we vote to end the union; but I don’t know quite how that will feel or what my overriding emotions will be.

For life’s switherers and ditherers, voting in a General Election is relatively straightforward. It’s not a binary decision; there’s always an option that offers solace to an uneasy conscience. If you can’t face voting for one of the main contenders, there’s almost certain to be a minority alternative that sits more comfortably with your world view. So you still get the fuzzy feeling that comes from participating in a democratic process, albeit without any realistic prospect of influencing the outcome. (But in a first-past-the-post election, that feels OK too, because most of us live in constituencies that are never going to change hands anyway.)

In a referendum, there’s no such luxury. Once you’ve made the decision to take part, you know that a change of mind will have a double effect: switch sides, and you’re not just handing a vote to one side; you’re withdrawing a vote from the side you supported yesterday.

You’re also forced to share a position with people with whom you vehemently disagree in almost every other respect. If I voted Yes, I’d be standing alongside Brian Souter, as well as the guy who once hounded me out of a pub for being an “English c**t”. If I voted no, I’d be agreeing with the Orange Order and Nigel Farage.

So, for my first and only post about the referendum, I’ve deliberately waited until the polls have closed, so that it’s clear this isn’t a “vote yes” message (though that, ultimately, is what I did).

The reason I’m posting anything at all has less to do with readers in Scotland, most of whom have been engaged with the referendum for a long time, than readers outside it. For the past fortnight – in other words, ever since the shift in the opinion polls prompted a sudden and dramatic twitch in the collective sphincter of London politicians and media – I’ve heard several variations on the same stunned question: “How has it come to this?”

It’s a fair question. For decades, opinion polls have shown a significant majority of Scots to be opposed to independence. The SNP boasts the grand total of 6 MPs in Westminster – in other words, just over 10% of Scotland’s 59 MPs. Only one mainstream newspaper in the UK (the Sunday Herald) has come out in support of independence, and the huge majority of papers have actively opposed it. So how on earth can the referendum result be on a knife-edge on polling day?

Having watched Scottish politics for the past 15 years or so – sometimes from afar, but mainly at close quarters – I’ll try to offer a potted history.

I’ll begin in 1997. By then, we’d already had 18 years of Conservative rule, including the dismantling of heavy industry and the infamous Scottish “dry run” of the Poll Tax. But it wasn’t until ’97 that the Conservative vote finally collapsed, reducing the party from 11 Scottish seats to none and ultimately making “Tory” a dirty word in a historically fairly conservative country. This had the effect of creating a political space for the SNP to fill. But at the time, it still wasn’t enough to turn independence into anything more than a minority concern.

On finally coming to power, Labour proposed, campaigned for and won a referendum on Scottish devolution. The Scottish Parliament was formed – or rather, reformed – in 1999, using an electoral system (the Additional Member System) that was expected to ensure that no single party would ever secure a majority at Holyrood.

This system was primarily intended to ensure that Labour, which had won an overall majority of seats in Scotland at every General Election since 1959, would not have perpetual control of a Scottish Parliament. Such a system was essential for Labour to secure Lib Dem and SNP support in the devolution referendum; but it also suited Labour’s purposes, in that it provided an apparent guarantee against a future referendum on independence. Even if the Nationalists grew in popularity, there would always be a pro-union majority of Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories, so no proposal for a referendum would ever be passed. Or so it was thought.

With the independence issue apparently booted into touch for the foreseeable future, almost all of the Labour and Liberal Democrat big guns at Westminster, faced with the choice of forging their careers in London or Edinburgh, chose the former. The main exception – Donald Dewar – sadly died less than 18 months after devolution. And with so few political heavyweights in the Scottish Parliament, and the Holyrood building project spiralling in cost and slipping in timescale, the Parliament and its ruling Lib/Lab executive (it wasn’t officially a “Government” until 2007) became objects of widespread ridicule.

All of this was a tremendous help to the Nationalists; as was the decision of the pro-union parties, fresh from completing one disastrous, overspent, delayed construction project, to launch straight into another: the Edinburgh trams. The SNP opposed the project, announcing its intention to cancel it in its 2007 Scottish election manifesto. Meanwhile, in contrast to Labour and the Lib Dems, it continued to send its big hitters to the now-completed Holyrood, not Westminster, including its newly re-elected leader: Alex Salmond.

At that 2007 election, I was asked by a friend to cast her vote by proxy. To my surprise, she asked me to give her first vote to the SNP; not because she had any great sympathy for the independence cause, but because she felt their politicians in Holyrood would govern Scotland more capably than the existing lot. Apparently, a lot of Scots felt the same way, and the SNP was returned as the largest party, albeit by a single seat.

Over the next four years, the SNP did indeed govern capably. Salmond, to his credit, moulded what was widely perceived as a ragtag, ideologically disparate, single issue group into a largely coherent, left-of-centre, social democratic party. The SNP differentiated itself from the Westminster parties with popular (or, depending on your point of view, populist) policies such as free university tuition and free NHS prescriptions; and it cleverly presented itself as something of a martyr over the Edinburgh tram project, graciously “allowing” the project to progress. In reality, it had no choice but to allow it, as it lacked the required majority to defeat it. But the Scottish people were left in no doubt that it was doing so under protest; and when the project inevitably descended into chaos, the SNP emerged with its credibility further enhanced.

At the UK General Election in 2010, Labour once again won a significant majority of Scottish seats – 41 out of 59. But the Tories became the largest party, and to the horror of many of their supporters, the Lib Dems joined them in coalition. Arguably, that was the decision that allowed today’s referendum to take place.

The immediate (and indeed continuing) upshot of that decision was that support for the Lib Dems plummeted. The Holyrood elections took place a year later, and the Lib Dems lost 12 of their 17 seats, 8 of them to the SNP; and the SNP secured the narrow majority that was never supposed to happen.

At that point, it became a certainty that there would be a referendum on independence. And you’d have thought it would also have been the point at which the pro-Union parties realised the seriousness of their situation and got their act together.

They didn’t – despite the fact that, in Salmond, they were facing a politician they respected and feared; and despite knowing that independence supporters dominated social media almost as effectively as independence opponents dominated traditional media. Instead, the parties reverted to type, directed their rhetoric towards issues that they thought mattered to potential “swing” voters in England – benefits, EU membership and immigration – and paid scant attention to Scotland. When MPs talked of a referendum, you could be 90% sure they were referring to the one about Europe that didn’t actually exist, rather than the one in Scotland that did.

Realising that their collective brand was toxic in Scotland, the Tories and Lib Dems deferred to Labour on much of the campaign, even though Labour’s own image, still tarnished by the Iraq war, was barely any better. Alistair Darling – not exactly a Scottish folk hero – became the figurehead, and Labour was allowed to take the lead on the desperate last-minute pledge to grant more powers to Holyrood, despite the fact that it, as a party, was proposing fewer enhancements than either of the coalition partners.

And the Holyrood leaders of the three main parties were barely seen – perhaps because hardly anybody in Scotland knows who they are. And on that, I refer you back to that decision of so many pro-Union MPs to stay put in Westminster rather than up sticks to Scotland. I understand that, independent or not, Gordon Brown and Jim Murphy are likely to stand at the next Holyrood election. From the No campaign’s point of view, it may be too little, too late.

And the No campaign itself has been almost tragicomically dismal, shifting from indifference, via scaremongering, to blind panic. If that really is down to complacency – and the panicked reaction to the more recent polls suggests little else – then it’s the most extraordinary misjudgement. Because in this referendum, whatever the overall outcome, every vote really does count.

Had the No campaign got its act together, treated Scotland as a priority rather than an afterthought, and committed to increased powers at the outset rather than in the final week of campaigning, it might have won this vote by a distance – something similar to the 2-1 anti-independence majority that was supposed to exist in Scotland all along. That would have put the debate to bed for a generation, or perhaps even more.

Instead, they’ve made a colossal Horlicks of it; with the consequence that hundreds of thousands of people, myself included, have done something they never quite imagined they’d do: placed a cross in the box beside the word “yes”. And so, as I prepare to stay up all night watching the results roll in for perhaps the most significant poll of any of our lifetimes, the vote is – to use a phrase I’ll hear more than once tonight – “too close to call”.

Even if the result turns out to be a narrow no, Cameron and company would be ill-advised to celebrate too wildly. The die has been cast, and the issue will arise again, in Scotland and perhaps elsewhere in the UK. If the main UK parties renege on their pledge for increased powers for Scotland, and try to carry on as if nothing has happened, it will arise again all the sooner. A lot of Yes campaigners will be gutted; but they shouldn’t be disheartened.

And if it’s a yes, it will be a reflection on a number of things: a competent, hard-working Yes campaign; a discernible rise in Scottish self-confidence; but perhaps most of all, a catalogue of cock-ups and misplaced confidence by the pro-union parties, not just over the past few months, but over the best part of two decades.

If it is a yes, it’ll be more than a bit scary. But it’ll be bloody exciting. And, in common with all the countries that have achieved independence from Britain – usually much more bloodily than this – Scotland will never ask to go back.

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