A Yes Voter’s Autopsy of a Nation

By G. Moore

Firstly, and to remove any doubt, I voted yes for Scotland to become an independent country. It is now fair to say that the resultant no vote has left a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach that has both damaged the pride I feel for my own nation and sadly left me to view the democratic decisions of many of my fellow citizens with a degree of complete and utter incredulity. I have no wish to start dishing out facts and figures or to make a futile case for Scottish independence. Others have tried that and failed.

On the 18th of September, the day of the momentous vote, I walked though the streets of Edinburgh and past the Scottish parliament at Holyrood, witnessing a palpable electricity and excitement amidst an overwhelmingly visible and dominant congregation of Yes campaigners. It was impossible not be caught up in the now apparent delusion that the Scottish Parliament was to become a true fulcrum by which the Scottish people would be served.

I and many others are no doubt asking themselves: “How could I have been so wrong?”. The mention of the “Silent Majority” in the media, the polls and the No campaign in the weeks and months preceding the voting was, I had assumed, reminiscent of Nixon’s speech in 1969 when he, in disregard of huge and visible protests, used the “great silent majority” as an ethereal justification for the ongoing involvement in the Vietnam war. The continual polling during these weeks did indeed hint that this group existed, yet my own belief system bourne from 30+ years on Scottish soil and my continual absorption of almost all movements and commentary on social media (Yes was almost twice as active) meant I could not reconcile this as being a realistic and existent voting demographic.

I was forced to admit I had it all wrong. In the early morning of the 19th, the votes had been counted and the “No” contingent had triumphed with 55% of the vote. The state of disappointment is likely to take some time to abate, but amid soul searching and reflection, I had an overwhelming desire to comprehend the dynamics that unfolded. The “Silent Majority” did indeed exist, though I can’t help but feel the term doesn’t quite attribute itself to what has manifested. I offer the more suitable “Affluent Preservationists”, a demographic made up of those who were either in the later stages of their careers or the right side of retirement who, after a working career within the UK, had been fortunate enough to assess their lot and the real or perceived risk to their lot, and determine that they were already independent within the UK. Such independence is less related to governance and more related to their comfortable financial situation, positioned within their own frame of reference in relation to Scottish Independence, the uncertainty of which even the most ardent Yes voter was acutely aware, was, for them, just not worth it. So they were “silent” while the SNP and the Yes campaign expressed their progressive and socially sympathetic ideologies. They were “silent” while knowing that those of us – the 45% – would not sit passively by to watch the future of our country be sacrificed to ensure the risk-averse preservation of wealth at the expense of the most vulnerable of Scottish society. I genuinely hope such a silence offers the opportunity to experience the gnaws and pangs of guilt I feel each time I walk past a trolley of donations destined for the local foodbank.

John Kenneth Galbraith’s excellent 1958 book The Affluent Society comes to mind. There are few books that can genuinely realign one’s outlook on society, but his commentary of the “family picnic” in the automatic car travelling along littered roads in a state of disrepair surrounded by advertising billboards on the way to camp in public park that was a polluted danger to public health did just that. The analogy forced me to adjust my belief system to appreciate wealth as something that exists out-with one’s own bank balance. This was something which, on the face of it, is apparently alien to the “Affluent Preservationists”. Adam Smith, the much lauded Scottish father of economics, once stated that “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable”, yet the draconian austerity policies of Westmister were somehow able to sell the “Better Together” mantra. Was “Better Together” really more of a “You’re OK, ain’t ya” mantra? I suspect in many was it was.

What cost the Scottish people their independence was no doubt that the current predicament of the “Affluent Preservationists”, being that, on the surface at least, for them things were not too bad. The psychologists Tversky and Kahneman would have seen this outcome more so than even the most experienced economists. Their theory of “Loss Aversion” empirically demonstrates that the emotional trauma of losses is twice as powerful as any gains one might come to expect. The “Better Together” camp leveraged this perception of loss to great efficacy. The currency issue was one such fertile battle ground: as well as your wealth and pensions being at risk, the warning was further compounded to the extent whereby the very unit by which you use to measure that wealth would be unavailable in a post independence landscape. Such anxieties were, in hindsight, almost entirely impossible for the Yes campaign to sufficiently assuage.

One wonders whether the current economic and political conditions for independence were not dire enough and did not affect enough of the populous to produce sufficient motivation for people to see the “risk” as one which was worth taking. Salmond himself stated just over one month ago that Scotland would be the “Wealthiest Country in the World to declare Independence”. Paradoxically, he probably laid bare his biggest obstacle when making the case for a Yes vote. In all of the four areas where a Yes vote was dominant, one telling statistic was their significantly higher unemployment rates compared to that of the Scottish average. Even those within the Yes areas fortunate to be in a position of employment would still have much more exposure to the effects of poverty and unemployment, leaving many of those with an acute sense that things needed to change.

It is somewhat of a quandary as to whether the socially progressive achievements of devolution despite increasing austerity and funding pressure worked in some way to the advantage of the “Better Together” campaign. In no way am I advocating this or even condoning it, but had the 65 and over age group (70-75% No) had direct exposure to the bedroom tax, prescriptions charged at £8+ per line item, no free bus travel or free care, would they have voted the same way? I suspect we might have seen a different outcome. I also appreciate that while those policies were achieved through devolution, the Yes campaign could have done far more to convince that specific demographic that those services would have been far more likely to be retained in an independent Scottish nation. This tack would have gone contrary to predominately optimistic campaigning that “Team Yes” had undertaken but it might have gone some way to counter the strong pull of “loss aversion” that the Better Together camp had entrenched within that specific psyche. In many respects, the “Better Together” camp never really established a point of reference against which one could measure the concept of Better. Was “Better” meaning that we would be better than being separate, or was it looking forward and stating that things are going to be better together? For Scotland within the UK, the current austerity programme has been extended out to 2018 and will in all likelihood offer little possibility for things becoming better any time soon. Despite promises (“The Vow”) of additional powers, it is difficult to see how the devolved Scottish government can maintain what is currently being delivered let alone improve on it. Time will tell.

Looking to the future, I have no idea whether the chance of independence will ever be available to the people of Scotland again. Salmond himself presented it as a “once in a generation” opportunity. A generation by all accounts is typically seen to be that of a thirty year timespan. Thirty years from today, I will be skirting the age demographic that silently and comprehensively rejected Scottish independence. I can’t help but contemplate the famous quote by David Lloyd George: “A young man who isn’t a socialist hasn’t got a heart; an old man who is a socialist hasn’t got a head.” If the opportunity once again presents itself, it will be interesting to see if the ideologies of those youthful Yes voters hold strong. In the meantime, I can’t help but feel that the real loss for the Yes voters was not that of the referendum, but something much more abstract; something that, although we cant hold it or measure it, is now gone.

  • RBar

    An interesting term – the “affluent preservationists” – and may ring true for some. However, you suggest “had the 65 and over age group (70-75% No) had direct exposure to the
    bedroom tax, prescriptions charged at £8+ per line item, no free bus
    travel or free care, would they have voted the same way?” I would suggest that the 65+ age group will remember most better than the youngsters, and if family are moving out are more likely to be exposed to bedroom tax if in social housing. I and many friends have recently reached 65, for the most part are superannuated so not too badly off, and were overwhelmingly for YES (but recognize many of our “comfortable” contemporaries were NO). However, just who has gathered these figures on who voted for what, from where, and are they reliable or propaganda (for and by whom with what intent?).

  • SC1

    I don’t think we will be waiting anywhere near 30 years for another referendum.
    The vote was too close.

    Internal polls showed YES ahead with a week to go.
    The huge publicity given to significant new powers obviously had an effect.
    Devo-Max or federalism was talked about everywhere.

    Plenty of people are going to be let down if Scotland gets fobbed off with minimal new powers.
    Just over 5%.. 1 in 20.. has to change their vote, and Scotland will be independent.

    If Devo-Max comes to nothing, then the false promises will be in everyone’s mind if we get a second bit at the cherry.