Independence is the route to a better Scotland, but we must learn from 2014

by Maggie Chapman | 18 September 2019

I was honoured to be asked to write the foreward to Jack Foster's book, Catch 2014: why 'Yes' lost the referendum. On the 5th anniversary of that referendum, I've been thinking about 2014, and the time since. Jack's book is still one of the most coherent analyses of what went right and wrong with our campaign and what we need to do differently to win our independence at the next time of asking. I'd encourage anyone interested in Scottish politics to read the book, but as a spoiler, here's the foreward I wrote.

In Catch-2014, Jack Foster argues that the Yes movement was “the most open, progressive, internationalist movement that Scotland has ever seen”. I agree. The run up to the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum saw some of the most invigorating, ambitious and hopeful political activism many of us had ever experienced. 

I first met Jack in and around the independence campaign: I became familiar with his work as a journalist who sought to promote alternative media and open up the space for different voices to be heard, different stories to be told. His involvement in projects such as Scotland Yet, Dateline Scotland, and, post-referendum, NewsShaft, solidified his reputation, in my and others’ opinion, as a diligent, thoughtful and empathetic political journalist, with a knack for cutting through the crap that is so often spewed out onto our airwaves and into our print media. And yet, as he so eloquently details in Chapter 3, and elsewhere in Catch-2014, such analysis and insight is seldom valued by the Scottish media, nevermind the political class, as a whole.

And this is one of the reasons why Catch-2014 is an important book. I hope people who voted no in 2014 will read this book. I hope the most ardent Unionists will read this book. I hope those who have always been and will always be Independence supporters will read this book. Because there are lessons for all of us to learn from what happened in the run up to and in the immediate aftermath of 18 September 2014. 

Reading it reminded me how angry I am - and should be - at our current political state: democracy desperately in need of reinvigoration and politics calling out for diversity of representation and participation. But reading it also reminded me of the vital role that hope and optimism should play in our politics. It is easy to forget this, especially in the face of defeat and loss. 

Most, if not all, political campaigns are characterised, to some degree, by loss: loss as a consequence of not winning enough votes; loss as in the grief of defeat; loss as one’s dreams of something different - something better - are shattered. And all sides (because it was not just Yes and No, no matter what we might have been told to believe) of the 2014 vote lost something as the results of the referendum began to trickle and then rush in in the early hours of Friday 19 September 2014. 

Catch-2014 uses the lens of the loss faced by the Yes campaign to analyse the roles the media, corporate power, political parties and the institutions of the state played in the 45% to 55% vote share for Yes and No. No won the vote but lost the campaign. Yes won the campaign but lost the vote. This enduring feature of the 2014 campaign underpins what many of us think: Scottish Independence is inevitable, but the timing of this remains uncertain and contested.

The scene setting of Chapter 1, ‘The Belly of the Beast’, rightly credits the SNP for creating the opportunity for the Referendum, whether or not it was ready for it. The system by which we elect the Scottish Parliament has been known to produce some weird and wacky outcomes, from the rainbow parliament with its Green, Socialist and independent groups in 2003, to the SNP majority government - something that was never meant to happen - in 2011. The introductory analysis also highlights two important features of Scottish politics. Firstly, it is clear from Iain Gray’s 2010 comments about the Scottish Labour Party being more than a party - being a movement - that Scottish Labour had both identified the role they should be playing in Scotland, but also that the party was incapable of understanding how to do this. It seems, eight years on, that this is still a difficult lesson to learn. And secondly, in a similar vein, Jack very clearly outlines the very real damage that the partisan approach to the Yes campaign has done to what was, and is, a pluralist movement. Again, a lesson we would all do well to remember.

Jack extends this theme of political turf abandoned and opportunities foregone in Chapter 2, “Surrendering the Narrative”. Better Together, the ‘No’ campaign, took and maintained control of the parameters of the debate. The Yes campaign was swamped by challenges and questions that Jack identifies as complete red herrings. The irony is certainly not lost on me that the mess that is Brexit in 2018 might have been avoided had Westminster’s Conservative Government learnt this lesson prior to the European Referendum of 2016. But that’s for another book.

What Jack lays out, starkly, in this chapter is the inevitability of defeat when vision and ambition are squashed. Yes Scotland’s ‘status quo but better’ future, around currency, around energy, around pensions, and so much more, was not exciting. The vision and radical agenda of the Radical Independence Campaign, Green Yes, and others, were what excited people, and started to lift support for independence above the 30% mark.

The role played by the media cannot be underestimated, as discussed in Chapter 3, The Fourth Estate. Not because the media was necessarily biased or against Yes (although Jack acutely identifies the damage done by the media in demonising online Yes campaigners), but because it is clear that the Scottish media failed (and I think still does fail) to do its job properly: that is, to reflect the country it is there to inform. Just as very little media reflected what 45% of Scotland thought, so the grassroots and community activities and groups that make up so much of our social interactions and lives were pretty much uniformly ignored. No matter what your thoughts on independence, this should concern us all. Our journalism needs a very big shake up if the media of the future is to do the job required of it effectively.

We live in a capitalist world. It is small wonder, then, that the wealthy tend have more power. Not only was this power reflected in the way the media reported and analysed Scottish politics at the time, it was also manifested in the way in which big business wielded influence for the status quo. Money Talks, Chapter 4, describes how corporate interests swayed opinion, with next to no challenge from those that should have done better.

Having touched on it earlier, Chapter 5, The Ghost at the Feast, discusses the gaping hole in Scottish politics left by a moribund Scottish Labour Party, both prior to and following referendum day. But Jack does so sympathetically, and perhaps more fairly than many of us who wished Scottish Labour would be an opposition force that challenged and improved the Scottish Government would have done.

The next two chapters, Better Together and the “Grey” Vote, and The Forces of Nationalism, speak, I think, to two poorly understood, under-analysed, and yet crucial features of Scottish - and British - politics. Identifying the intergenerational divisions, around willingness to leap into the unknown, around engaging with alternative media, and so on, should have led to a different approach in the EU Referendum campaigns. And the comparison of the very different treatments given to British and Scottish nationalisms should give all of us cause to stop and think how we talk about what is normal, and how we understand boundaries and borders. At a time when young people face worse prospects than their parents for the first time in modern history, and when the fascistic elements of the far right are rearing their heads across Europe, we cannot afford NOT to take these two issues very seriously.

“Project Fear” won the battle for the No campaign. In The Fear Factor, Chapter 8, Jack discusses just how fear was and can be used as the most powerful of mobilising forces. Again, this is something that should concern all of us with an interest in Scotland’s future, regardless of its constitutional state. Where fear is used to cow, disable, and disempower, democracy cannot flourish.

This is perhaps, for me, the overriding message of Catch-2014: regardless of our constitutional future, debate, discussion, the teasing out and working through of new ideas, is vital for our democracy. People everywhere in the UK - not just in Scotland - are suffering at the hands of the broken institutions of the British state. We desperately need to recapture the energy and enthusiasm for political engagement that was a feature of the Yes campaign. We need to create a media that works for us. We need to learn how to challenge corporate power constructively and robustly. Catch-2014 brilliantly illustrates these points. And it lays down the challenge to all of us: whatever our political campaigning activity in the future, we must be better at understanding the errors, failings and weaknesses of the past. Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat it.

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