Rising Powers: Post-Referendum Expectations with a Non-Compliant Media

I am still struck by the number of ‘Yes’ posters resolutely and proudly displayed in windows as one walks around Edinburgh on a sunny Saturday afternoon. The statue of Victoria at the Foot of the Walk might have lost her post-result ‘Yes’ saltire cape, but a resolute quiet presence remains. As one commentator put it: “after 1979 [the Scottish Assembly referendum], we were on our knees for what seemed like a decade – this time, it felt like only 24 hours”. In contrast, even the local Scotland For Marriage car-owner has now removed the ‘No Thanks’ sticker (perhaps more disturbingly, the ‘Scotland for Marriage’ sticker has been left) and the union flag with lights art installation has gone from the bay window. In part, this persistence of Yes is unsurprising, given what Blair Jenkins referred to as the (deep breath) anarcho-syndicalist nature of the Yes movement: because Yes consisted of some 350 different campaign groups that spontaneously sprang up and did their own thing under a very broad umbrella, that devolved vitality is not so easy to switch off with a single central defeat. The online presence of Yes also gained a high profile, which like other indy websites seem to surprisingly be continuing. For the month of September, Wings Over Scotland received over 910,000 unique visitors, despite a radical fall off in new material being produced before the polling day, and it will be interesting to see how this flagship site of the independence movement fares. The expansion of its readership had been felt for a long time, simply through the number of comments on a given story – I remember a year ago I could turn up at the end of a working day and flick through the less than a hundred comments comfortably on any given story. For much of this year, that has simply been impractical, and by August comments were regularly over 800 for a given story.

On and offline, that level of engagement just does not go meekly away overnight.

But is this activity just a form of denial, an insistence that ‘we wuz robbed’? This brings me to the conspiracy theories about the rigging of the election. The videos online that appear to show malpractice have been largely debunked (see Doug Daniel’s piece on Wings Over Scotland for this), the apocryphal bag of ‘Yes’ votes found on a dump in Glasgow has a lot of questions attached to its veracity, the rumour of a bag going missing from Dumbarton a few weeks before the count, the non-numbered ballot papers…sure. The establishment would be capable of organizing something large-scale, and would be incentivised to do so, but it seems that anything like that would have to be done long before anything arrived at the count – and, even so, it does not seem to take into account the numbers involved, in terms of making an actual difference to the final result. Many of us felt that – although we would have taken one vote as enough to secure a win, in the face of the deluge of corporate media opposition that we had to deal with – in order to avoid any real threat of Westminster disputing or discounting the result (they had, after all, flouted enough terms of the Edinburgh Agreement and ignored the recommendations of the Electoral Commission already) or refusing to be bound by it, that we would really have had to win by more than 5%. The MoD were certainly keen to propose the annexation of Faslane earlier in the campaign – and it is hard to be confident that some similar intervention might not have occurred after a ‘Yes’ vote, with the (no matter how historical) precedent of the tanks being sent into Glasgow in January 1919. So – although I am not ruling out that there may have been malpractice, or that we might find something out in future years – there is a commendably strong urge in the ‘Yes’ movement to just get past the result, not dwell on it, and take things forward.

But surely in accepting the result, there is a concomitant disillusionment with the Yes leadership after a ‘No’, reflected in a fall-off in their esteem? In a previous post (see A Binary Mess of a Decision: Salmond’s Trust & The Social Media War) I referred to a poll conducted in August 2013 that examined how much the public (regardless of whether or not they agreed with the individuals concerned) felt that a variety of Referendum-related leaders were acting in the best interests of Scotland. Last week (two weeks after the Referendum), a poll was conducted asking how much the individuals were trusted to stand up for Scotland’s interests. In both polls, a net trust index was produced, and although the wording is different, the thrust is very similar, and I thought it might be interesting to compare the figures to see what kind of hit was taken in the trust ratings of those same individuals after the loss of the Referendum. The figures from last August are repeated in brackets after the figures from a fortnight ago:
On the Yes side: Alex Salmond +18(+15), Nicola Sturgeon +21(+12), Patrick Harvie -1(-14)
On the No side: Willie Rennie -28(-13), Ruth Davidson -20(-18), Johann Lamont -5(-19), David Cameron -41(-42)

From the Yes perspective, being on ‘the losing side’ hardly seems to have done them any harm (even allowing for a 3% margin of error) with Nicola and Patrick rising and Alex staying the same (if not improving). Again, it is worth noting that this is a SNP leadership now midway through its second term in government, so should be at a nadir, rather than still rising in popular trust. In contrast, the leaders on the No side have not done quite so well, Willie Rennie falling heavily, the two Conservative leaders with no significant change. Johann Lamont’s rise is noteworthy, although she was perhaps the least visible of all those figures as part of the last months of the No campaign. (It is also worth noting, albeit without comparative data from last year, that of the other signatories to ‘The Vow’, Ed Miliband was on -38, and Nick Clegg was on -58.)

So, fair enough, party political membership and trust ratings are increasing, most emphatically for the Yes side. But how else is this persistence manifesting? One of those 350 different Yes campaign groups mentioned above, Women for Indy, met in Perth last week for a thousand person energised meeting about the way forward. This seems to be one of the first of a series of meetings of such component groups (including Radical Independence and National Collective), and these are an essential focus for that energy to drive the way forward.

And it is essential to have such outlets – not just to harness the energy and prevent it from dissipating, but also to stop it from transforming into frustration. A major post-referendum concern of mine (although I tried hard not to express it before polling day) was the risk of civil disobedience in the wake of what was likely to be a small (if they won) ‘No’ majority. In that sense, with over 45% of the 85% turnout voting for a complete change of how government is conducted in Scotland, Westminster has a ticking clock before patience runs out on waiting for large-scale change. In fact, one can go a little further: one post-Referendum poll reported that around 25% of ‘No’ voters said that ‘The Vow’ printed on the front page of the Daily Record was what swayed them to cast their vote the way that they did, so that is more than a majority of the electorate (even including those registered, that did not vote) expressing their desire for large-scale change. Remembering that (after what Blair Jenkins referred to as the last ‘Project Fear Fortnight’, where everything but the kitchen sink was thrown at ‘Yes’ via a compliant media) there was still more than 45% of the vote that said “we do not believe you”, that is a big hill for Westminster to climb, if they truly want to ‘save the Union’ (whatever that means anymore) and not risk it destabilising. There is a limit to which this patience will endure, and after which frustration will grow and seek other outlets. In that sense, if Westminster continues to vacillate for six months up to the general election, then I would be truly astonished if mass protests or other civil disobedience were to be avoided. And when I say mass protests, this is not in the sense of the boorish intimidating behaviour of some loyalist FaceBook group arriving in Glasgow’s George Square to try to pick a fight with peaceful family groups of Yes supporters playing guitars (as happened on the day of the result, reminding everyone of the darker side of the Union), but the possibility of something far more.

For now, Westminster is on notice – they have bought themselves some months of time in order to cobble together something that goes a significant way to meeting the aspirations for large-scale change of the electorate. But the attitudes of that electorate seem to have hardened over the past year of the debate – it appears that they want more than they did at the start. A recent poll in the Sunday Herald asked what further powers Scotland wanted devolved, and I have included the figures for a comparable poll asking the same questions last year (see previous post, Not taking ‘No’ for an answer: When all tomorrow’s jams seem bitter together, what way forward for ‘No’?), in brackets: 71% (52%) want control over all tax revenues, 68% (53%) control over oil and gas revenues, 68% want state pensions devolved (the most comparable response to last year’s poll is that 60% wanted control of welfare devolved).

Westminster will be thankful that expressions of support for political change are manifesting in ways other than civil disobedience since the vote (although that would probably serve their ends in discrediting the Yes movement). Apart from the regular demonstrations outside Holyrood (fast becoming what Donald Dewar would have referred to as the ‘new nationalist shibboleth’), there have been a variety of other signs of a determination to continue. Most widely reported has been the trebling of political memberships for ‘Yes’ parties: impressive though this is for all three parties (while the No parties harrumph in an irritated fashion and whine that their memberships have ‘increased, too’), the rise in the Scottish National Party’s membership from 25,000 to over 76,000 members in less than two weeks since the Referendum result (and still rising) is the most breathtaking of all – especially as the SNP were already larger than all the Scottish memberships of the Westminster parties combined.

This is not a sign of people licking their wounds, this is people saying ‘next time, I need to be doing MORE to make this really happen’. Bayoneting the wounded, Mr Davidson? “Gonnae need some more bayonets, ‘big man’.”

There has also been a coalescing of online media projects from the Yes side – for example Bateman Broadcasting coupling with NewsNet Scotland. In this regard, I ‘noted with interest’ the enthusiasm for devolving media to the Scottish Government as picked up in the poll results published in the Sunday Herald at the weekend: that 54% would like to see that devolution does seem to put some meat on the otherwise apocryphal stories of people increasingly cancelling their TV licences, and perhaps acts as some kind of indicator of the disillusionment of so many thousands of people that were driven online in search of information during (and perhaps after?) the campaign.

With 36 out of 37 newspapers opposed to independence (the one that supported independence having doubled its readership in the process), and people such as former BBC Scotland presenter Derek Bateman and Professor John Robertson (a fascinating hour long interview with him on RefTV the other night – part of the new regular online media – find it on YouTube) arguing that the BBC are institutionally but not systematically biased, it is perhaps understandable that the BBC (and other regular media) are not speaking with a voice that reflects a majority of the Scottish people, and so those people are looking elsewhere. BBC Radio Scotland experienced an 8.9% loss of its audience in the 3 months running up to the Referendum. (Incidentally, the BBC may not be systematically biased, but I wonder how many press releases from both campaigns went untouched by outlets such as them. The scale of omission of news stories for both sides would, I think, be fascinating to see the hard numbers for.)

Professor Robertson commented during the interview that the success of the capitalist western democracies was that the people believe that their media are telling them the truth, whereas in Soviet Russia it was widely known by the public to be lies, and therefore ignored. Thus the media has greater traction in these western democracies – and therefore the wake-up call is a long and painful one, with a wrenching that is involved in accepting that we may have been repeatedly lied to by an information source we have trusted since childhood. The trouble is for Yes, that people can rarely be led to that most odious conclusion, without having already at least formulated their own suspicions – they have to take that journey, and come to that conclusion, by themselves, otherwise they will resist such calls and interpret them as solely from the tinfoil hat brigade. Again, it is worth invoking that tired old relationship metaphor that featured so often in the independence debate, where you suddenly wake up and realise that your partner seems to have been systematically lying to you for many years: if there is even the slightest possibility, no matter how preposterous or outlandish, that you could be wrong, you will cling to it until the very last moment.

Because the alternative is just too horrible to contemplate.

We have two to three years until a possible rerun on the referendum. The key to getting a different result will lie in both Westminster’s response to the result of September 18th, and the increased engagement of people with independent media.

 

“The debate will go on in the sense there is a large number of wounded still to be bayoneted” (Ian Davidson, MP for Glasgow West and Chair of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, October 2013)
“…all that will be required is mopping up and bayoneting of the wounded.” (Ian Davidson, MP for Glasgow West and Chair of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, May 2014)

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