17 Sep 2014

Yes or no, this social movement is unlikely to go away

“Fifty-one per cent is not enough” – the speaker is a senior Labour politician. An hour later I put the idea again to another Labour strategist: 51 per cent no by the time the votes are counted. Again the response comes: “Not enough”.

Nobody will tell me what they plan to do if the Scottish people vote no by a narrow margin, but the implication is clear.  If, with the help of nearly every newspaper, and after 10 days of “Project Fear” the yes vote is firm in the high 40s, Westminster’s mandate to govern Scotland is highly questionable.

First because of what the markets will see. Yes, markets might turn an independent Scotland’s credit rating to mush. But they may also look at the UK and say – with yes dominant among the young, and a critical EU referendum coming – this is only going one way. All long-term and strategic investment decisions will be taken asking: will this state still exist in 10 years’ time?

Second because, whatever you think of Westminster politicians they are democrats. When David Cameron lost the vote for military action in Syria, there was no EU-style “vote till you get it right”.

In Conservative circles, a high-40s vote would be taken as signalling the need for a rethink bigger than tax variation powers.

And that is because of a third factor Labour strategists find it harder to deal with than the rest.

As Robin McAlpine, director of Common Weal, tells me: “The Scottish working class has broken with the union. All the key issues – poverty, Trident, the NHS – are irrevocably aligned to the idea of independence.”

That may be an exaggeration, but it is true for enough of the Scottish workforce, the marginalised and the poor to matter.

Like many in the yes camp today, Mr McAlpine says yes can win only if an “armada of working class voters” who have never voted troops off the estates tomorrow and votes.

In the no camp, above all a Labour party punch-drunk and bitterly complaining about pressure and intimidation, they cling to the idea that the electorate, roused to the streets, will now surge into the official party system.

“We have to tell them change is coming, and that by voting no they are triggering that change,” says Michael Mara, strategist for Better Together.

So that’s why both sides are hoping for a decisive vote – a five-point difference.

On George Square last night I had a taste of the anger, enthusiasm and at times hostility of the yes grassroots.

If it’s rough, and profane, it’s because that’s what street politics are like when ideologies collide. That’s what it was like when class defined British politics and if it makes a few technocrats upset, get used to it.

Those people on the streets for yes have become something like a social movement. It is unlikely to go away.

Once out of the box, it’s unlikely to subside. If, as the polls predict, no edges it, it will take massive statecraft to keep both Scottish society and the markets calm.

If yes edges it, the Scottish government too will have to respond to the aspirations of this movement – which goes way beyond activists and reaches into many areas that feel abandoned by the system.

I put it to Mr McAlpine: “Don’t you fear this Jacobin-style movement on the streets getting out of control?”

“Oh please, please give me an uncontrollable movement from the streets,” he smiles. “Nothing in history has been achieved without them.”

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