May the Fourth Referendum Be With You: Stall Wars, and the Return of the Rebel Alliance

I flew back from working in China over the weekend, getting into Edinburgh Airport early Saturday evening. A day to chill on Sunday (and briefly adjourn to BrewDog), and I was checking if the Stall was back on Monday.

Yes, the Stall – the one on the Meadows for ‘Yes Marchmont’ that I had helped staff throughout August in the run-up to the Referendum last year. I knew that there were plans to get something in place regularly for the run-up to the election, but was unsure how well those plans had been realised. Sure enough I got a response back – it was running in the afternoon, 2 till 4.

So I went back to The Meadows with some trepidation as to what I would find.

The Yes stall was always staffed by a disparate group from different parties. Last year, following the result, there had been talk of parties standing under a Yes Alliance banner in this General Election – but that was before Johann Lamont became the story with her stinging departure as head of Scottish Labour at the end of October, and launched the SNP’s stratospheric rise to switch its 20-odd% position in the polls with Labour’s 40+% in Scotland. (It is somewhat ironic that Lamont’s departure was allegedly precipitated by Murphy – who ironically now holds the poisoned chalice to his own shouting and protesting lips.) At that point, with such a clear leading party, the idea of an alliance seemed less obvious – in particular for the SNP. It was no longer as though they were a minor party in the run-up to Westminster that could help others in a similar position, and vice versa, as proposed by the tactical voting Unionist advocates: suddenly they were the clear and logical primary ‘Yes’ party in every seat in Scotland, to which votes should be lent.

So, in the absence of an a-party ‘Yes’ stall, were the same faces still there?

Reassuringly – ‘Yes’. A couple of Green activists were not only in evidence, but one of them was actually organising the stall…which was 50% SNP, 50% Green/Scottish Socialists/CND. Non-aligned Kay was there, retired ‘Faslane Frances’ from the Western Isles, Paddy – it was good to see. I felt all fingers and thumbs – all those valuable ‘skills’ of responding to individual questions while deploying badges and asking if any children wanted balloons…those assets needed to be renurtured, and it does not look like there will be time to do that. Rain scheduled for Tuesday, meant only Wednesday remained as a stall option before the day.

Amongst the encouraging numbers of visitors regularly coming to take and display material – stickers to adorn a ‘Revolution’ brand bike, a balloon and badge for the kid riding pillion behind its mother – there was an interesting issue that raised itself, perhaps relevant for that initial broader question of the proposed ‘Yes Alliance’ platform for the vote. It was raised by one somewhat aggressive (?)student individual who approached the older women on the table to challenge the presence of ‘Yes’ imagery as an indicator that there was a secret agenda for a second referendum. As his targets began to answer, he interrupted (in classic troll, Murphy-aping style) with other questions – what about the ‘decision for a generation?’ Was that a lie? I started to answer that I did not believe that it was Nicola that had said that, but Alex – and I understood that was the reason why he had resigned after the result, to free up the possibility of as many further referenda as were necessary. The troll looked confused – I don’t think he expected to be challenged about Nicola, let alone have Alex’s resignation presented in that fashion – then an SNP man moved in to start insistently offering him a leaflet, which he kept refusing, until he moved on.

Of course, it isn’t really a ‘second’ referendum – it would be the fourth one on constitutional change in a generation. The first was in 1978 for the Scottish Assembly, the second the 1997 one for the Scottish Parliament, the third was last September on independence. And perhaps that is a more realistic way to look at it.

In the wake of this encounter, it became evident that there had been a couple of similar (if less aggressive) queries earlier that day. We debated, and decided that it might be simpler – if the presence of ‘Yes’ symbolism was being deliberately misconstrued as a sign of a (poorly) hidden agenda – simply not to display such iconography. But this particular species of attack relies on criticism of ‘the neverendum’, that idea of ‘oh how terrible it is’ that the question was ever asked once in over 300 years, just think how it paralyses the Scottish Government while that happens. It is predicated on the idea that any Scottish Government so committed to such a referendum would just be doing that and nothing else…when actually the reverse appears to be true. While the majority government preparing for the Referendum, the SNP were an extremely dynamic government in office, very much showing how Labour and the LibDems should have been doing it in the first years, and effective and efficient in governance and legislation. Perhaps actually being in office to fight for a single imagination-capturing political issue as the main focus of your time in government should actually be obligatory, if not mandatory, because it is a concrete reminder of why you are in office – and it stops holding office being simply power for its own sake, a lesson that Labour have failed to learn during their stewardship of Scotland.

But it did make me reflect on how problematic it might have been, had the SNP not become such an emphatic frontrunner, and the Yes Alliance had indeed been launched for the General Election: it would have been impossible to deflect the accusation of a hidden agenda – although in the immediate wake of September’s result, many of us were admittedly fired up for exactly that – a second independence one straight away. Under Nicola, we keep the powder dry, and restrict the question to manifestoes for Holyrood only – and if support then delivers a system-beating majority for the SNP again, then a second referendum will happen. In contrast, for Westminster, Nicola Sturgeon is now – following her astonishing individual success on the televised leaders’ debates – campaigning credibly as a UK politician, talking about policies for the whole UK as a result of the potential influence of the SNP on a Labour government – not just Scotland. Even the Labour-supporting Sunday Mail and Sunday People delicately came out in support of Nicola at the weekend….That all builds a perception that does much to ameliorate the anti-SNP (arguably anti-Scottish) propaganda distributed south of the border during the Referendum by the press. It also hints at the possibility of SNP-allied candidates standing in England in the future. Previously unthinkable, that is indeed an exciting prospect.

The Fourth Referendum spectre might well have been the negative aspect of the Yes alliance concept, and certainly for where we have got to now – without at all disputing that we would welcome another one as soon as practicable – it would be a distraction. We have other more immediate fish to fry. I took two new campaign badges from the stall, one in ironically UKIP purple saying ‘Hey, where’s my powers?’ The other one was in Labour red – ‘Labour No More’.

I’m keeping that one – with crossed fingers – in hope for Friday morning.

 

“Scotland reloaded appears to be a nation prepared to challenge the establishment in all its guises, to shine a light, to demand and to do different, to call for and create change, seemingly content to create uncertainty in doing so. We are a country suddenly confident in our choices and challenges. Gaun wirsels.” (Kate Higgins, Women for Independence, 20/3/2015)

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