A victory with no victors and losers who refuse to lose

In case you missed it, the No campaign won the independence referendum.

This might come as a surprise, with celebrations of the result ranging all the way from low-key to non-existent. (Save for a few troglodytes in George Square whose ability to drag their knuckles without possession of opposable thumbs was quite a feat.)

Tales of the Union’s demise may have been greatly exaggerated but its survival, as Alex Massie wrote, was met by relief rather than jubilation. It was as if the clunking old family car, hurtling carefree towards a cliff edge with mum, dad, the two kids, Rover, and a commemorative Golden Jubilee tea-towel in the glove box, suddenly caught on its handbrake mere inches from the precipice.

Thursday’s result was just that: A lucky escape for the Union rather than a ringing endorsement. The voters, like the warden in an old Jimmy Cagney movie, announced a stay of execution just as our hoodlum hero was receiving the Last Rites.

In the end, it wasn’t love-bombing or secret NHS cuts or women’s dislike for “that man on the telly” that did for the Yes campaign. It was the economy, stupid. Almost all general elections are fought on the question: “Are you better off today than you were before this lot got in – and would things be worse under the other shower?”

By opting to fight the referendum as a general election, the Yes campaign walked into a trap of its own devising. If voters could choose independence for everyday economic reasons rather than exalted constitutional principles, they could equally choose to stay in the UK because they feared the financial consequences of a breakaway.

The initial refusal by Alex Salmond to outline a currency Plan B, after all the main UK parties ruled out a sterlingzone, was unnerving to voters worried about the pound in their pocket, their mortgages, and their savings. When he finally half-relented and started dropping hints about sterlingisation, a risky strategy in the eyes of many, he put a segment of undecided voters beyond his reach.

The interventions of the banks and supermarkets, warning of head offices moved to London and hikes in shopping basket prices, will have shifted undecideds to No and even cleaved some soft Yeses away. The SNP said it was scaremongering. They said it was bullying. They said it was coordinated by Downing Street. But none of that mattered to voters whose primary concerns were not political skulduggery but feeding their family and paying the bills. Nor did it sway those Scots who had worked hard, bought their house, saved a bit and didn’t want to gamble it all on a vision of a better Scotland that couldn’t even guarantee a stable currency.

But before Yes campaigners lament, in that more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone of a prating Kirk minister, that No voters chose self-interest over self-government, they should reflect that this is exactly what their campaign invited the electorate to do. You can’t fault the public for meeting your low expectations.

Since Thursday, there has been a wave of generational antagonism as older voters found themselves blamed for the result. The staunchly Unionist demographic had sold its grandchildren down the river, some Yes activists claimed. Others charged that the future had been robbed by the past and that financially comfortable pensioners had turned their backs on the young, the unemployed, and those dependent on food banks.

The basis for these claims is a post-referendum survey from Lord Ashcroft showing that 16- and 17-year-olds and those aged between 18 and 24 tended to vote Yes while those over 55 overwhelmingly voted No. However, the samples used for younger voters are unhelpfully small and leave us pronouncing on the electoral behaviour of two sizeable demographics based on the responses of just 14 people in one category (16-17) and 84 in the other (18-24).

This line is also petty, and vacuous in its attempt to blame defeat on a cold-hearted caste of selfish grannies, like some hideous cross between the Golden Girls and Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney. (I don’t know what circles some of these pro-independence campaigners travel in but I know few pensioners who are rolling in it and determined to keep their grandchildren in grinding penury.)

The sinister implication of much of this rhetoric is that the votes of the elderly ought to count for less than those of the young and hale and hearty. This is an unpleasant turn in our politics and one that we would do well to abandon as a hot-tempered response to a painful defeat.

The new battle cry of Yes campaigners is: “We are the 45%”. This might more exactly, if less stirringly, be expressed as “We are the 44.7%” or, to strip away the poetry entirely, “We are the roughly 30% hardcore supporters plus a further 15% who were convinced to vote for independence but who aren’t necessarily prepared to make it their life’s work to secure a Yes vote”.

The past few days have seen a dramatic upsurge in membership for the pro-independence parties, particularly the SNP which has gained 25,000 new members since Thursday, with the Scottish Greens gaining at least 3000 and the SSP an increase of 1600. This suggests some very difficult times ahead for Scottish Labour – a party that doesn’t have its sorrows to seek but always makes the effort – and points to a third term in government for the Nationalists.

However, the decision of thousands of apparently hitherto unaligned Yes voters to join the SNP, while good news for the party, poses a number of problems for the pro-independence movement as a whole. If what was a diverse and independent-minded (in all senses of the term) family of idealists finds itself increasingly dominated by the SNP, it risks becoming a manageable tool of party high command rather than an organic and creative community.

Those who got involved with Yes politics only after they were convinced of its distance from Nationalism could drift away. Electors who backed a No vote out of distaste for the SNP could with some justification feel vindicated. It is still possible to support independence without being a Nationalist but that a chunk of the non-aligned Yes movement has so readily thrown its lot in with the SNP makes this case a more difficult sell going forward.

The air is electric with excited talk of a grand coalition between the Yes parties or a push to set a date for the next referendum. The next referendum? After three long, draining years, most Scots want to put the vote behind them and get on with their lives. Save a constitutional earthquake like a vote to leave the EU, they will have little patience for any party that wants to open the question up again in the next decade or two.

As the Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu counselled, “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” The SNP must bide its time in pushing for another plebiscite and what remains of the broader Yes movement must give it leeway to do so. If we know one thing after this referendum, we know this: There is no majority in Scotland for independence.

That might change if the voters feel they have been short-changed on more powers for the Scottish Parliament. If the Unionist parties don’t want to be back here again in ten years’ time, they must make good on their campaign promises of further devolution. If they are smart, they will go further and take the Union closer to a federal system, giving Scotland vast new scopes of autonomy while keeping the UK together.

Here is a chance to vindicate their campaign rhetoric about Scotland having “the best of both worlds”. This eleventh-hour reprieve from the voters is an opportunity to design and entrench a new Union for generations to come. It Unionists spurn it, they may not get another.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Kay Roxby by Creative Commons 2.0.

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