Conditional Yes and Conditional No: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Unconditionally Love ‘The Vow’…

‘The Vow’ put together by Gordon Brown and promulgated by the Daily Record in the 48 hours prior to the Referendum allegedly was responsible for 25% of No voters casting their vote the way that they did. This intangible ‘guarantee’ would seem therefore to have made the election result a ‘Conditional No’, according to some observers (although see George’s comments in yesterday’s post for a perfectly valid alternative interpretation). A condition which – if not fulfilled – legitimises a rerun of the Referendum in extremely short order, given that the leaders that made it will have signed up for new promises and priorities by the time of the general election in May next year. In other words, the terms and conditions of their vow will have expired.

So is there an inherent hypocrisy in Yes campaigners arguing that a ‘No’ vote’ was a conditional one? I mean, could you not argue that a Yes vote would have been ‘conditional’ as well? I guess the main difference is the nature of what each side was ‘offering’…if that is not too strong a word. The No campaign was very much predicated on not offering anything at all – that everything was fine and dandy in the garden, and that any ‘wee things’ that needed changing could easily – oh, SO easily – be done within a continuing Union. Project Fear delivered what it promised to – a deterrent to change, without arguing a positive reason to not change. That only changed within the last week of the campaign, when a blustered pretense at extended devolution (shamefully packaged by the BBC’s Jackie Bird as ‘DevoMax’) emerged at the last minute – supposedly subscribed to by all parties. This became the ‘condition’ – voting No had ceased to be about the mythical retention of any status quo, and now was muddied with a promise to fundamentally reform the existing arrangement for the betterment of Scotland.

In contrast, ‘Yes’ were always keen to avoid promises beyond the most conservative (with a small ‘c’) – an end to Trident and protecting the NHS as a public service. Everything else was about what would be possible, what could be done – and a series of very different visions emerged from the different political parties that were a part of ‘Yes’. Noone argued that there would be any land of milk and honey at the end of a Yes vote (although No were keen to use the phrase as though people from Yes at some point had said that) – indeed ‘it will be hard work’ was the most common phrase about what would be entailed by making such a decision for change. Bluntly, as we would be taking responsibility for our own actions, we would be creating that new nation ourselves, therefore responsible for it. In that sense we would not be able to blame the SNP or anyone else in that context. As multiple groups agreeing on little beyond ‘we should be independent’, it is more difficult to assert a ‘conditional’ Yes vote that could be ‘defaulted’ on, beyond a new administration in an independent Scotland making moves to retain Trident or privatise the health service – which would have been so directly antithetical to the core of a Yes vote, that it would stand as a betrayal.

In this regard, No had a distinct advantage. Having insisted that there be no extended devolution option on the ballot paper, they were not obliged to define an offer at any stage in the campaign, let alone 2 days before the vote (sigh – so much for the purdah period…). Therefore they have to do very little now in order to have ‘claimed’ to deliver what they said they would – because the substance of their statements was so vacuous, that they could claim to have delivered them with a minimum of action…even if the bulk of the No-voting electorate might have understood that they were voting for something very much more substantial when they gave their conditional vote. Or – as Ian Bell more succinctly puts it in today’s Sunday Herald – “By promising more while failing to say what more might mean, they promised nothing.” The waters were nicely muddied, it appears, by Gordon Brown attempting to upstage his nemesis Alistair Darling at the eleventh hour, through posing as a representative for all three main parties, and supposedly getting them to agree to ‘effectively federalism’. Pity Nick, Dave and Ed didn’t get that memo, Gordon – as they seem to feel strangely unbound by your superbly brokered deal.

One final thought. It was noted that by the time of the vote, not only had support for independence risen when placed next to ‘no change’, but support for DevoMax had also fallen as the preferred option over the period of the campaign. This would seem to indicate a falling trend in support for extended devolution during the campaign, with those that began as its supporters, not just embracing independence as the closest thing to DevoMax that was on offer, but actually starting to reject DevoMax in favour of independence as a better way of delivering what they wanted. It remains to be seen whether, in a post-Referendum Scotland with expectations greatly raised by Brown’s verbiage and hyperbole, that trend continues over the next 6 months – or beyond.


“The party leaders puzzle as to why their support slips away to a new bunch of parties. Maybe one way they can reverse this is to try a more forthright approach, and to start with they could say: ‘If the Scottish are so daft as to believe our vow, maybe that proves they’re not fit to run their own country anyway, the idiots.’” (Mark Steel in The Independent, 17/10/2014)

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