The ‘Once in a Generation’ Game: 12 Referenda for ‘No’ Monkeys

A reviewer took me to task recently, over my use of the word ‘generation’: in the paper that I had submitted, I was comparing two historically separated figures variously engaged with Enlightenment science, and had said that there was a generation between them. A furious note was scribbled on the manuscript when it came back from review: ‘a generation is 25 years’. I had to confess that I had never before heard anyone say that there was a specific mathematical figure for how many years a ‘generation’ constituted, and thus considered myself duly enlightened.

‘Generations’ are topical right now: there has recently been an upswell in what is colloquially referred to as the ‘YoonStream’ (the Unionist social media bubble), regarding the recurrence of an independence referendum. The prospect of a second independence referendum is taken as perhaps the equivalent of the notorious ‘Vow’ made by the Westminster parties a few days before the 2014 vote, wherein large-scale, wide-ranging new powers would come to Scotland’s Parliament if we only voted ‘No’ to independence. It would be (Scotland was told) the same as Home Rule, the abiding aim of the de facto Labour Party’s founder, Keir Hardie – effectively a federal UK. (If any of this sounds familiar, that is because a couple of Saturdays ago you might have heard similar promises by Gordon Brown, the same architect as last time. What is interesting is that he was wheeled out in the final week of the campaign in 2014, as the polls showed Yes was ahead – perhaps his early appearance now, before the campaign has even started, is a similar reflection of recent polling showing that ‘Yes’ is again ahead…although it may equally have been an attempt to divert attention away from Nicola Sturgeon’s keynote SNP spring party conference speech to former ‘No’ voters, on the same day.) This ‘Vow’ naturally failed to materialise once the No vote had been secured – but the ‘vow’ equivalent that Yes is accused of, is that there was a ‘promise’ that this referendum was a ‘once in a generation’ or once in a lifetime event – ergo there should be decades before there was even the possibility of it happening again.

However, the whole premise is rot, relying as it does on the wilful misrepresentation of comments made by Alex Salmond in the run-up to the vote on 18th September 2014.

I remember seeing the reports in 2014, with him being asked about the referendum by somewhat hostile journalists, in terms of the frequency of such things. Alex swerved the question neatly, choosing to emphasise the rarity of having the chance to have such a vote for independence. “It is a once in a generation opportunity”, he replied. I understood exactly what he meant: it was a warning. He did not want anyone to be relaxed that this plebiscite might commonly recur in the future, that it was a question that could easily be regularly revisited, so no pressure to go with it this time. He did not want such an impression to spread, making the electorate complacent and feel that they could casually vote ‘No’ (or not vote at all) without serious consideration, as there would be ‘another independence referendum along soon’, like a number 11 bus. There had been no vote – or even token gesture of consultation – on the Act of Union in 1707 (to be fair, the closest that regular non-land-owning people had to free expression back then was the series of riots that took place in virtually every Scottish town and city in protest at the idea of the Union coming in to being), or at any point in the ensuing three centuries plus. So to say that the opportunity to have such a say was rare (or even once every twenty five years) is a significant understatement.

It seems fairly safe to say that a major reason for the 2014 plebiscite being agreed to by Westminster was that David Cameron was confident that he could use it to destroy the SNP as a political force.

There was no largesse here, or great love of democracy – he felt he could use it against his political opponents (in much the same way that he disastrously initiated the EU referendum purely to resolve the Conservative Party ascendancy) to his own ends. If Cameron had not seen an opportunity for himself, then that referendum would most likely have been denied – of course, not by being as foolhardy as to say ‘no’, but probably under the guise of ‘now not being the right time’, as Theresa May tried last week: hitting it into the long grass, as the political golfing metaphor goes. In short, it was a fluke of Conservative arrogance and caprice that the first independence referendum happened – Salmond was never, ever in any way shape or form saying ‘fair dos, if you win this, we will not ever mention it again’ – he was saying ‘they have never been so daft as to let the question be asked before, and this will probably be our one shot at it’. You cannot misrepresent the act of encouraging someone to vote because it is a rare chance that may well not come again, as equating to making a promise or vow – such as Cameron, Clegg and Milliband did in that last week of the campaign, in trying to make the referendum seem to be about ‘independence or more powers’, instead of In or Out of the UK. (You can read elsewhere about how that intervention undermined what the referendum was actually asking, as commented on by political scientist Professor Tony Carty, at https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2014/12/12/beyond-conditional-nos-the-ongoing-political-uncertainty-of-what-the-no-vote-actually-meant .) The two simply do not equate – but perhaps it says more about a certain kind of Unionist mindset that they would hear Salmond’s words as those of someone coming cap-in-hand to beg a favour, rather than a warning to the Scottish electorate against being complacent, because the state might well block any future calls for Scottish self-determination in perpetuity. Instead, they prefer to play the Once-in-a-Generation Game.

Of course, the issue of self-determination is not evenly spread throughout time, and becomes more of an issue at times when the colonial or ‘parental’ government becomes more obviously incompetent or unwilling to represent broader interests and concerns. This has the effect of reminding people of the state that they are in, and how brazenly unresponsive it can be to their needs. At other times, this is not so obvious – although having come through the crucible of 2014, the Scottish electorate look more forensically at Westminster’s performance than ever before. As hard as it was to battle through to the end of the September 2014 referendum and see it end in a failure, the more sanguine among us had been considering that it was an exercise in waking ourselves up – ready for the next time. Like Morpheus in the Nebuchadnezzar, unplugging as many individuals from the mainstream media Matrix as we could, so that they looked more critically at the political world around them, and what it really means to be Scotland in Britain. (Given the recent Panelbase media survey, whereby only 32% of Scots expressed confidence in the BBC as a balanced news-provider regarding constitutional issues, I think we can say that we have had some significant success in that regard.) That has meant the awakening of critical political thinking in Scotland – with political parties judged harshly, and rewarded richly, according to how well they stood up to public scrutiny. The political landscape of Scotland has been transformed – and, some might argue, this has had a knock-on effect in England. It also means that the electorate are a lot more questioning of the media that they more passively consumed in the past.

The ‘Yes’ Movement suffered last time from failing to criticise how Scotland faired as a component within the UK, instead focussing on the many possibilities and opportunities that would come with becoming an independent state. (One of Cameron’s purported reasons for refusing to debate Salmond during that campaign, was to avoid turning it into a referendum on Westminster’s ‘custodianship’ of Scotland within the Union.) Ian Bell wrote that he felt the main reason that ‘Yes’ lost, was in its failure to address why one might not wish to be considered British – in truth, Westminster has stage-managed exposure of precisely why one might not wish to be considered that since the result in 2014, running from English Votes for English Laws, the failure of the Smith Commission, the watering down of those insipid proposals, and the implosion of the EU Referendum and the sudden xenophobic leap towards a hard BrExit. And, so, we find ourselves once more looking at a Scottish Independence Referendum – perhaps more as an indication of the need to call Westminster’s performance over the last three years in the wake of 18th September 2014 to account, than anything else.

It is fair to say that the British state has not favoured the Scottish question being asked, and has relied on a series of unlikely-to-be-surmounted obstacles to prevent that from happening. But how ‘precious’ is that long-lasting union, if the countries of the UK are only in it because none of them are allowed to leave? As one commentator noted, it is the difference between parliamentary democracy and political capture – are we really being treated as though we are nothing more than a 19th century colony, in this ‘union of equal partners’?

For example, it is worth noting that, prior to devolution, there was no consideration of a referendum as the mechanism for Scotland attaining independence – all the SNP had to do was secure a majority of the MPs representing Scotland at Westminster, to automatically gain the right to declare independence. That was, of course, seen to be astronomically unlikely…but Westminster could not have foreseen the degree to which people in Scotland would become so utterly disillusioned with first the Conservatives (primarily from Thatcher), then Labour (through Blair in Iraq), and finally the Liberal Democrats (through coalition with Cameron’s aggressive government). Suddenly, the SNP were the only credible party of government left in Scotland. Today, those old Westminster guidelines seem laughable, with 56 out of 59 MPs elected to represent Scotland in Westminster being Scottish National Party members: never mind a simple ‘majority’ of Scottish Westminster seats as a requisite for declaring independence, they were close to getting ALL of the seats. That could easily be taken as a mandate – but the SNP have even more than that to underpin their right to hold a further independence referendum.

As I write this, the Scottish Parliament is debating the motion to pass a request for a Section 30 Order from Westminster, to make an independence referendum legal and binding. That same Scottish Parliament is governed by the SNP, who were elected explicitly on a manifesto that said that if Scotland voted to stay in the EU but the UK voted to Leave, then this would constitute grounds for a new independence referendum on Scottish independence (especially given that continued membership of the EU was supposedly one of the major reasons to vote ‘No’ in 2014 – although that argument was hotly disputed by ‘Yes’). Although the SNP dropped their absolute majority of the previous Scottish Parliament (which was supposed to be mathematically well-nigh impossible to achieve), the SNP have enough members to pass the motion against united Conservative, Labour and LibDem opposition in Holyrood, and they also have the support of the Scottish Greens for an independent Scotland. The SNP have a clear mandate for an independence referendum from their manifesto for the Scottish Parliament elections last year, which described the specific EU vote circumstances that transpired – never mind what would have been a pre-devolution mandate from their near unanimous occupation of the Scottish benches at Westminster. But as you once more hear the desperate unionist howl of ‘but you PROMISED it was only once in a generation!’, remember that there was never any undertaking to Unionists, by either politicians or by the Scottish people, that there would not be another one – it was a warning to the Scottish electorate that, with the paucity of opportunities during the lifetime of the Union for Scots to assess whether the Union should be dismantled, that another chance might well never come again. Not an undertaking, but an expectation – and who could have expected that the Conservatives would press such a self-destructive button on their relationship with the EU, less than two years after citing it as the main reason for Scotland to stay in the UK?

It is interesting to note that Alex Salmond’s explanation to Andrew Marr (see quote below) of the sort of timescale that he imagined for a political generation is not so far from the literary one mentioned at the start of this article – the gap between the Scottish Assembly vote in 1979 (won on the same 52:48 majority as the UK’s EU referendum, incidentally) and the 1997 vote for the Scottish Parliament with tax-raising powers, is one of 18 years – and between that and the independence referendum, 17 years. This time, the gap will be much smaller, because circumstances have changed catastrophically over an incredibly short timeframe…and it is hard to envisage another change as cataclysmic (Conservatives take UK out of the UN? Offer to join with Russia as an appeasement to Trump for a better trade deal to circumvent US protectionism? Yeah, I know…as unlikely as hard BrExit was 18 months ago) as to once more demonstrate a clear need to reassess the viability of the Union again. But – as much as Westminster might like to pretend that this is all a ‘plot’ of the SNP, or whomever is in charge of the party at any given time (because they always like to personalise it as an individual’s ‘obsession’, rather than the electoral preference of the electorate…although that is arguably far far more true of Theresa May’s premiership than Nicola Sturgeon’s), it is ultimately the people of Scotland that have that power – and who make the choice of when and if any given political party is given a mandate for an independence referendum. And if the people say it shall be so, then so it shall be.

But if the Unionists want it to be once in a generation, then we have quite a backlog of overdue independence referenda to get through – if it is twelve (for each unassessed batch of 25 years since 1707), then by my reckoning that leaves nine still outstanding, after 1979, 1997 and 2014 are taken into account. The sooner Scotland starts on getting through that backlog of referenda, the better.

Either way, it is coming.

 

“If you remember that previous constitutional referendum in Scotland – there was one in 1979 and then the next one was 1997. That’s what I mean by a political generation…In my opinion, and it is just my opinion, this is a once in a generation opportunity for Scotland.” (Alex Salmond to Andrew Marr, 14/9/2014)

 

 

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