‘Democracy isn’t working.’
– Tony Blair, 2015
I admit the sneaking feeling, just now and then, that those who govern us think we’re the problem. That in today’s ‘complex world’ (today’s world is always complex to today’s politicians because they are part of it) only seasoned political professionals know what must be done to keep the world turning correctly.
To that end, the wise MP knows winning is everything. Winning gives ‘the clear mandate of the people’, even if the people had no clear idea of what they were voting for – other than the hope for something different – and even if the margin of the win is small. Fearmongering and/or fairy-tales may be used freely because that’s just how things are these days. And objection after the fact from those who feel they have been duped is ‘being a bad loser’. Sincerity is so yesterday. Just win.
That the pattern of Tony Blair’s Things-Can-Only-Get-Better giant wins of the late 90s/early 00s have been adopted by the right is no surprise. That a quantity of Labour MPs think their own personal reboot would be a good idea too is, however, crazy. The present Labour Party is so widely despised and in terrible disarray largely because of the flagrant dismissal of the will of the people, expressed in the biggest protest march in history of the world, in the run up to the Iraq War. The notional power of just-win, however, will not leave them alone. Just-win ideology was also the most obvious reason why Westminster did not understand the depth of Scottish support for the SNP during the Independence Referendum of 2014 – a dry-run referendum which so nearly brought about the end of the Union between England and Scotland through miscalculation (and still might, given Scotland’s overwhelming vote to remain within the EU this year).
In that first referendum of 2014, the seriousness of intent by the SNP in driving the debate, and ensuring voters understood was a crucial part of how the Scottish Government set up its stall. Pains were taken to deliver free, accurate information (from fat books to pamphlets to local-level meetings), while the excitement of local opinion actively being sought out by the government – not something Westminster had sought much in the past 300 years – resulted in a rash of rallies, tours, public concerts, theatrical and literary discussion panels, q and a nights in pubs and cafes and a good deal more, much of it set up by ordinary people themselves. The ‘No’ campaign trod a more traditional path (no singing and jokes to speak of, and talking-at rather than talking-to or -with), which resulted in their campaign coming across as uninspiring, old-fashioned or, like ‘No’ spokesperson Jim Murphy, boring and unloved.
Then came Project Fear the First, the brainchild of Alasdair Darling, one daft story at a time. Edinburgh Zoo’s pandas would be ‘taken away’, we’d get no Doctor Who or Strictly Come Dancing on BBC Scotland if we misbehaved and so on – jokes, apparently. Then the overloaded warnings: England would exact a penalty if we broke away; loss of valuable trade deals and tourism; a refusal to ‘share’ currency; along with the disapproval of the Pope, Barack Obama and more or less everybody else. Only when the polls showed a ‘Yes’ lead, however, did Project Fear turn into ‘Love Bombs’: Gordon Brown flew in on a magic carpet to save us from ourselves, smiling like a Thomas the Tank Engine; Ed Miliband, confused by every accent he encountered, arrived to teach Scottish Labour some smoother moves; 100 Westminster MPs blinked in the watery morning light off a train at Glasgow Central, come to see us for no reason that was ever explained; and of course, ‘The Vow’ – a cobbled-together effort etched in a silly Medieval font on the front cover of a prominent Scottish newspaper, promising puppies and sweeties and the gratitude of English celebrities if we would only pull back from the brink.
It was contemptible and it was laughable. But it worked. That’s the thing – it worked. Maybe older voters in particular were keen to grasp a last-ditch save for the sake of sentiment. Maybe Project Fear, dabbling as it did in half-truths as well as outright lies, was genuinely frightening. Maybe the inrush of Westminster MPs and David Cameron himself had moved some, however little they understood our domestic issues. Maybe the Love-Bombs were – good heavens – genuine. Given the disenchantment of Scots who subsequently said they felt they had been gulled, the disappointments of short-change or limitations on ‘promises’, the outrageously insulting behaviour of certain Westminster coteries to the largely inexperienced yet wholly sincere, and the influx of new Scottish MPs to the south that resulted from all this, it seems insane now – but it worked. Long-standing bonds work in mysterious ways. What broke the Scottish camel’s back was this flimsy, this sentimental. And despite the result we all, including those who had never registered to vote before and voted for the first time in hope, picked ourselves up and hoped for the best.
What we got was Referendum the Second, here and there recognisable as a variation on the theme of Referendum the First, this time on EU Membership. This time, the preparation was abysmal. Westminster’s notionally pro-EU campaign did not remotely prepare the electorate for the issues (not so much as a single Love Bomb for those disaffected by years of austerity) but instead fuelled their campaign bus solely with Project Fear the Second, leaving Team Brexit to fuel theirs with unsubtle innuendo (‘mass-immigration’ to the ‘breaking point’) and the jolly teamwork of Gove and Johnson, who were enjoying a dry run for a future leadership contest. Farage-style matey pints in the pub (‘We’re just like you!’) and the noble assertion that we’d all had ‘enough of experts’ filled in the gaps.
Many English voters were encouraged to elaborate upon their own fears about changing society (the backward-looking Trumpery of Make England Great Again was never far away), and clung to a leave vote (or indeed to UKIP) for the simple reason that there were no parties on either side advocating anything subtle or more considered. Even more shocking was the belief of some leave voters after the die was cast that their sought-after wish could be acted upon within days rather than years, leaving racists moved to harass strangers on buses and in the streets, in pubs and by slipping notes through letter-boxes with invitations to ‘fuck back off to your own country’. But it happened. It happened.
Hearing voices from Yorkshire, Sunderland and a variety of Northern English and Welsh steel-towns, left high and dry again after their vote turned out not to be about putting saved millions into the NHS – despite the giant banner along the side of the Brexit bus – was painful. Some interviewees sounded dazed by their vote having been taken seriously, saying they ‘hadn’t expected it would count’. This impression was no doubt assisted by years of feeling ‘out of sight, out of mind’ of the New Labour and New Conservative governments. ‘Nobody down there ever talks about us in parliament, it’s all too far away; we might as well not exist’, were the words of one woman after the event. The green light to leave the EU, despite the delight of some who ‘wanted England back even if it cost more’, was astonishing all round.
I am in no doubt that many in Scotland – not only in the Central Belt, but also the Highlands, the Islands, the Borders, the wildlife haven of the Cairngorms and beyond — recognised what many in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were experiencing: the outcome was a mess. Scant comfort for those southern voters, however, could be scrapped together in that the mess was one they had brought upon themselves.
In Scotland, the feeling was more a ghastly return to not having been heard: our former invisibility as a nation, one we had been promised would be overturned, was again reinforced – we were a nation whose vote meant nothing at all. So soon after the ‘vow’ we had warily accepted the hope we’d mean something this time around; we didn’t.
Meantime, the only leader who had prepared an interim plan, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, is going about the business of trying to move forward on our behalf. This alone is something many living in Scotland (not all Scottish by birth, but Scottish by choice and residence) can see as hopeful. The old ‘business as usual’ feel of my girlhood, where Scotland’s status is cast as an annoyance and a dumping ground for unusable nuclear weapons, may return. Fortunately, some resistance is already underway.
Of the present anguish of London and its surrounding cities, I have heard next to nothing. What UKIP and Britain First want, we will learn soon enough. What Scotland wants at the time of writing is yet to be carefully worded.
That the fallout will be messy and protracted (anything up to six years has been predicted by one newspaper as the time it will take to unpick the EU bond) we take for granted already, and the possibility of Scotland being taken out of the EU against its wishes is already being discussed in Scotland’s pubs, cafes and domestic spaces with a view to strenuous response.
Perhaps we’re still hopeful. Why not? Our ties to the EU are part of Scottish law and will remain so until (and if) they are subject to direct challenge. Perhaps the Eton cabinet’s dismantling and the omnishambles that results from lack of effective opposition will create an overdue pause for thought? Perhaps an acknowledgement that contempt for truth and contempt for the electorate brought about this present situation will persuade even the most Machiavellian of our politicians to return to the ideal of public service. Maybe I only think this because I am of a generation whose politicians, at least on occasion, held up public service as something to strive for, and would have seen ‘benign dictatorship’ as an outrage. I do not know, but I know what I hope.
Meantime there will be talks and talks after talks. I am as sure as I can be that First Minister Sturgeon will continue to plan ahead and with as much ingenuity as she can summon, for that is her track record. What Westminster ‘allows’ will certainly be interesting. We will watch and listen, wait and see. What the rest of the UK will do seems impossible to predict. Scotland, from personal experience, is very good indeed at ‘wait and see’.
A generation of young people – including the teens who voted in the Scottish Independence Referendum and politicians like Jo Cox, the young MP murdered among all the careless talk, seem completely in touch with the kind of compassionate understanding we need for the future. It should be something untouched by the cold, dead hand of ‘trickle-down economics’, for that idea has been bust for long enough.
One thing is clear: we must call out lies wherever we find them. And call those who make promises to account for every ‘promise’ they make. Bleating is not enough. Trust only what looks like a serious plan. A bona fide plan with a beginning, middle and end, and workings down the margin to prove it. Suggest public service to your MP if they are unfamiliar with the concept. Avoid promises that glitter, handy scapegoats, and smiling crocodiles. It should make all the difference in the world.
Photograph © Patrick Down