Devo-Max was a perfect example of rotten Westminster politics
The referendum is over, and the no’s have won. With Cameron and Miliband trying to decide exactly what the no’s have won, now is a good time to very briefly take stock and think a little about what has happened over the last few weeks since that poll that put Yes in front, before ploughing on and trying to make the most out of any constitutional crisis.
This was a campaign of multiple dichotomies – not just between independence and the union but between idealists and pragmatists, between interventionism and internationalism, between different identities, between two radically different concepts of nationalism. But I think very significantly there was also a dichotomy between two very distinct styles of political activity.
The yes side, particularly the left wing of the yes side, was characterised by a highly participative style of politics. There were public meetings every night up and down the country where members of the public weren’t just spoken at, but where they instead actively took part. Radical Independence held two enormous conferences bringing together thousands of activists who otherwise would have never sat in the same room, and groups were invited to run workshops and capture discussion. RIC in Edinburgh held fortnightly planning meetings so everyone could decide on the future of the campaign. Yes stalls and events across the country were characterised by ‘wish trees’ – washing lines that the public adorned with their hopes for how an independent Scotland could be different. Yes voters were transformed relatively easily into yes campaigners through their signing of the declaration, and that shows! Yes campaigners far outnumbered no campaigners at every turn. Yes Scotland itself was run in an incredibly decentralised way – local campaigns were organised locally with material support from the centre. And that’s not even to mention the hundreds of autonomously organised campaign groups from National Collective through to English Scots for Yes and People With Third Nipples For Yes (probably). Ordinary people drove the campaign, and ordinary people drove the narrative of the campaign. If Alex Salmond had for some reason wanted to stop the campaign, he couldn’t have done it.
Although it may not have been conscious, this was a reaction to Westminster politics. The no campaign was run not at all unlike a parliamentary election campaign. It was driven and controlled largely from the centre and as a result there was a much reduced number of campaigners out on the streets. I got 5 leaflets through my door from the no campaign during the past 2 years, and three of them were from mailshots. At my flat we got 3 yes canvassers and none from no. Better Together were hiring people to do tasks which volunteers were queueing up to do for Yes Scotland. The no campaign consisted largely of orchestrated media set pieces. Week after week, news stories were put into a friendly media, and a lot of them were simply announcements by ministers, or by businesses closely linked to the Westminster establishment. This was a technocratic campaign largely conducted from the top, using connections in the media to get a polished message out. It was run in exactly the same way politics is run in Westminster.
It wasn’t always this way. Political parties used to create the demographics which voted for them, they convinced people that they were right, they politicised people, they were the parliamentary representation of political movements, connected to real people. But the last time a political party did any of these things effectively at Westminster was probably when Thatcher brought in Right to Buy and created a generation of people whose material interests were tied up with hers. Now people are treated like diners at a terrible buffet, forced to choose between options they don’t like which barely differ from one another, and with little opportunity to make anything new themselves. It’s exactly this alienation that Jimmy Reid spoke of in his famous rectorial address, an alienation which led to the referendum in the first place.
Devo-max was the ultimate example of translating the failed Westminster model of politics onto Scotland. Facing a choice between the option of staying within the union or becoming independent, the three unionist parties examined the polls and all dove into the middle ground, they all triangulated. (The SNP did it too, leading to three of what I consider the major weaknesses of the Yes Campaign’s strategy – their proposal to keep the monarchy and the pound, and to maintain their membership of NATO.) Devo-Max was a particularly half-arsed proposal, vaguely defined, poorly thought through, proposed in a way which meant no one could scrutinise it and, as we’ve seen since the result of the referendum, not even agreed upon by the leaders of the major parties, never mind their MP’s. Even its name is terrible, a new-fangled hyphenated contraction where ‘Home Rule’ would have done just fine. No doubt it was concocted in a focus group.
Treating the electorate in this way, like consumers rather than participants, is the model of politics which brought about UKIP, the Alternative Vote referendum and Labour’s proposal for £6k fees. Now it’s forced the Westminster parties to promise something they can’t deliver, and once again alienate a huge proportion of people in Scotland.