Dinner with my No voting friends

For years, Scots reacted to right wing Westminster policies by saying: “I didn’t vote for that.” If they win on Thursday, No voters won’t have that luxury, writes Peter Arnott.

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One thing that almost all of my friends who tell me they intend to vote No have in common is that they wish that this referendum campaign had never happened. They don’t see the need for it. They think it is needlessly sowing doubt, division and uncertainty at a time when nobody really wanted the debate to happen. They wish the whole damn thing would go away and be forgotten.
I have a certain amount of sympathy with that. I am sure Alex Salmond does too. After all, he didn’t expect the Labour Party in Great Britain and in Scotland to collapse quite so comprehensively as they did in 2010 and 2011, and thus make possible the election of a majority SNP administration at Holyrood that was bound – trapped even – by history and manifesto commitments into calling a referendum that was not at the time of their choosing.
Where I take issue with my friends – who are still my friends I hasten to add – is in their imagining that a No vote somehow cancels the uncertainty and division. That life can ever again be like this never happened. I think that to imagine some kind of “return to normality” is not only deluded, I think it is a positively dangerous complacency about the way things have already, irrevocably changed. And more, how things will change after a No vote, as well as after a Yes.
Part of this change is positive, of course, on line and in the meeting halls and pubs and clubs, the Yes campaign in all of its participatory variety has revealed and unleashed a new and painfully hopeful democratic culture in this country on a scale and of a quality of thought and debate that I never would have expected. I’m sure that my No voting friends don’t really want all that to disappear and be forgotten
It has also raised, less comfortably, the spectre of the crying need for genuine reform of the creaking, rotten edifice of the British State, and has revealed many less than attractive elements of its defensive, secretive, mendacious, culture of self-interested pessimism which I’m sure that all of us, whatever side we’re on, would rather not have seen revealed so pervasively in institutions that once held almost universal affection if not allegiance.
In any case, despite the devout wish of many in the BBC and the Labour Party, to name but two, that this whole question had never been raised,, the status quo, as I’ve said before, may well be on the ballot paper. But it is not on the cards. A wish for a return to normal is a wish for a stability that is already in the past.
You can’t go home when it’s not there anymore. Indeed, I would argue that a No vote will change the terms of that “stability” quite as radically as a Yes vote. A No vote is just as much of a vote for change. It is not only Yes voters who should be called on to look into a crystal ball and imagine a future that is radically “not the same”.
Before my No voting friends dismiss that as a paradox, may I ask them to consider the following.
Every vile piece of Westminster legislation that has attacked the poor and dismantled the Welfare State, every policy that has ensured that it is only the poor who have paid the price of the recession caused by the greed of the rich, every act of economic and social vandalism – it has been the comfortable posture of the well-meaning voters of Scotland that none of these things have been your fault. That you didn’t vote for them.
Well, you won’t be able to say that any more.
Up until September the 18th, we have all been able to hide behind all that being someone else’s fault. Either way the vote goes, Yes or No, that comfortable position has already been shattered. Either we vote to take responsibility for our own economics, our own wealth distribution, our own decisions to make war or peace…or we are voting to mandate away control over all of these matters to Westminster forever.
Either way, we will be responsible.
If a Yes voter has to take on board the moral hazard of whatever happens for good or ill in an independent Scotland, a No voter must equally accept moral responsibility for having given Westminster permanent permission to do whatever it likes forever. No questions asked.
Moral Hazard works both ways.
Whatever austerity measures are coming down the line, all those policies that weren’t your fault before September 18th? After September the 18th, they will be your fault.
No. Sorry.
Every single one of them.
Will be your fault.
This is the trap that history has set you. And I understand your discomfort. I understand your wanting to wish all this away. But you can’t. You’re stuck along with the rest of us.
Except of course, we’re going to be really, really annoying about it. We’re going to make you feel bad. We will be unbearable. Every single day, we’ll be reminding you. When the Tories make a formal or informal pact with UKIP and win the election in 2015, despite having no seats in Scotland? Your fault. When there is a vote to leave the EU and Scotland votes to stay but we have to leave because middle England votes Yes? Your fault.
Sorry. That’s the way it’s going to be. In fact, I confidently predict that at dinner parties in Scotland in 2016 it will be impossible to find anyone who will admit to having voted No, so complex and disruptive and chaotic will be the consequences, so omnipresent will the border question be in every single dispute about everything. It will feel very bad to have actually voted for all that.
But my sympathy will fail me pretty quickly. Because your No vote or your failure to vote will have signified that it in your view it is better for Scotland to suffer neo-conservative governments it didn’t vote for than to take responsibility for its own affairs. You will have voted for Scotland, politically speaking, to cease to exist. So kind of hell mend you. Sorry.
Now, hold on…is that fair? We can’t be expected to have thought all that through before it happens!
Well…Think about it now. Alex Salmond, though he is deemed to be the source and fount of all evil, is not the only begetter of this referendum. David Cameron agreed to it too. Now why do you think he did that? Because he is a friend to democracy, perhaps? Surely only a very small minority of No voters believe that. No. You know and I know that Cameron agreed to the referendum in order to call Scotland’s bluff. To settle and silence the “Scottish question” for a generation.
(That won’t work, obviously, but that’s an argument for later).
Cameron only did that because he was confident of a No vote, of course. But what have the Tories, and others in the British establishment to gain from a No vote?
I think they know that if we take independence off the table, if we remove, voluntarily, that bargaining chip from future negotiation, then there won’t ever need to be any negotiations ever again. Everything will be in their gift. For a generation. And having voted for that once, we will have thrown away any electoral influence over what happens next.
Everything we have gained since devolution in terms of the painfully slow emergence into democracy we are still undergoing has been predicated on the “or else” of independence. Does anyone in the No Camp seriously expect a prize for loyalty when we remove the best card we’ve got from our hand? One or two of you can expect knighthoods, maybe, but what can the ordinary No voter really expect as a reward? F rom those people?
The Yes camp are constantly being asked about what kind of negotiations we can expect after we “reject” the United Kingdom – on currency, NATO, oil, Trident and the rest? Well, what kind of negotiations do you expect when you’ve said to other side; “whatever you want to do is fine with us”?
There I go again…being divisive…talking about “the other side”.
Well, take a listen to the mutterings of the backbenchers from those English and Welsh constituencies who haven’t had the bargaining position we’ve had, that bargaining position you’re going to vote so happily to throw away, and see how long all those promises to protect the Barnett formula and add meaningful powers to Holyrood last.
David Cameron wasn’t offering us a choice between different forms of democracy. He was offering us the choice between shutting up and fucking off. And fucking off might well have its difficulties, but we should be in no doubt that shutting up is exactly what is demanded of us if we don’t have the guts to fuck off.
A replacement for Trident? You don’t want that? Shut Up. A slashing of consequential health spending as privatisation of the NHS in England and Wales speeds up? You don’t like that either? Shut up.
You voted for it.
Before September the 18th, nice left leaning folk in Scotland chatting about the Welfare State and the decline of local government and the miners and the poll tax and the sale of council housing and the destruction of our industries at dinner parties could say in their comfortable, pre-democratic way:
“Oh well, it’s terrible. But it’s not our fault. We’re not responsible. We didn’t vote for that. “
No more. After Thursday, we in Scotland will be responsible for whatever happens to us. Our choice is whether or not we want democracy to go along with the responsibility.
Right now, thanks to the referendum, however uncomfortably or prematurely, our future is, temporarily, in our own hands. A No vote is not a place to hide from that future. It is just a vote to have no influence over that future after we deliver a mandate to whoever wins in Westminster elections that we can’t influence to do whatever they like with it.
I hope you’re comfortable with that, folks. Because if you win, I promise to devote every waking moment to reminding you what the hell you just did, even if there are none of you at dinner parties in a year’s time who will admit to it any more than you’d admit now to being a Tory.
Everything has changed. Everyone has to face the reality of that. Our only choice on Thursday is: Do we make the way we change subject to democratic control within Scotland, or do we leave the management of that change to whomever somebody else votes for?
Because, my brothers and my sisters, as George Bush once said, democracy, with all of the adult responsibilities that implies, is coming soon to a place near you. For the first time in history, for 15 hours this Thursday, Scotland will be a democratic country, with its people responsible for themselves.
Putting your head in the sand of a No vote won’t make it go away.

First published in Bella Caledonia.



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