If the Democrats win the US election convincingly, they should learn the lessons of the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014.
It seems to me now, looking back, that the Brexit campaign was lost on the morning of September 19, 2014. That was the morning of victory for the side which fought to keep Scotland within the UK. It was the morning when triumphant Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne walked onto the steps of Downing Street – and stabbed the Labour Party who had fought alongside them in the back.
The ‘No’ campaign was fought and won largely by the Labour Party. The Tories, who had little support in Scotland, largely stayed out of it. The party political speech that Cameron gave that morning with an eye on the next General Election was the start of the unravelling of the coalition that could have swung the ‘Remain’ vote.
The SNP and the Labour Party are like the Romulus and Remus of Scottish politics, locked in a fierce rivalry like the mythical brothers struggling over Rome. For almost two years approaching the referendum on Independence, Scottish public life was dominated by the independence referendum. During that time, the big beasts of Scottish politics, people like Alistair Darling, devoted much of their time to campaigning against independence. He and others put their party interests aside in order to travel up and down the country talking at town halls, energising volunteers, canvassing. Over the course of the campaign they became more and more seen as apologists for their political opponents in power in Westminster, who were associated with unpopular austerity. The label that was given to them by the SNP “Red Tory” was repeated endlessly. It stuck.
There were some in the Labour Party such as former Prime Minister Gordon Brown who had been concerned that this would happen and had argued for a separate Labour Party campaign against independence. But this didn’t happen.
In the last weeks, the polls showed the “Yes” campaign surging ahead. At one point it looked as if they could win it. The SNP-led campaign had become associated not with the petty nativism of Brexiteers but with a move towards creating a more progressive country. They were able to argue that Scotland had not been well-governed by London, that it needed more of the levers of power in its own hands to build a better future for all citizens.
In the dying moment of the campaign, Gordon Brown became associated with a cross-party last-ditch pledge to bring wavering voters to the “No” side. Known as “the Vow” it was a promise to deliver “devo max’ which would make Scotland more like a state in the federal USA . This pledge and the barnstorming speech that Brown delivered in the eve of the vote were important factors in the solid “No’ that was turned in at the ballot box on September 18.
Also in the last months, the Labour Party provided feet on the ground both Scottish and English; activists from England poured across the border, worked the phones, knocked doors.
At the Labour party conference which happened just after this a friend told me that everyone was exhausted, by the effort they had made but also chastened and worried by the reception they had found on the doorsteps, by the “red Tory’ insult and by the anger the voters had expressed towards the Labour Party, doors slammed in their faces in places they had been sure of solid support over generations,
That was when leader Ed Miliband stumbled in his speech and didn’t deliver parts of the text that had been handed to journalists. At this gloomy conference, the Labour party began to count the bridges they had burned, tale stock of the political capital they had expended, of the extent to which they had suffered politically because of their decision to put party before country and to keep Scotland in the UK. Slowly it sank in how little recognition they were going to get for it. It was sad. A lot of good people worked hard, put their country first and got burned for it. When the Tories came back to ask for more for more, because they needed a strong Labour Party to get out the Remain vote in parts of the country where they had no traction, there was virtually no answer.
That morning on September 19, Osborne and Cameron stepped out and instead of delivering a speech that was aimed at unifying a fractured country, or reaching out to their opponents, or even recognising the personal sacrifice that Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling and many other had made by putting their own personal political capital into the service of Better Together, Cameron put the boot into Brown. He made a speech in which he said basically, now we have won the referendum, it is time to think about English Votes for English laws. This was code for diminishing the role of Scots MPs in the Mother of Parliaments, and a first indicator of the awakening of English nationalism that has become such a divisive force in British politics.
In Scotland that morning, the old war horse Alex Salmond’s head went up. He wrote in his memoir that he couldn’t believe the opportunity Cameron had just handed him. For Salmond, the referendum was just one skirmish in a long war.
Recently, reading Craig Oliver’s book on the inside story of the Brexit campaign “Unleashing Demons”, I had to throw it away a couple of times. At one point in the campaign, they are reaching out to Gordon Brown as if this whole thing never happened as if they never stabbed him in the back. It was as if someone were to borrow their neighbor’s savings, spent them, and then a year later insouciantly asked to borrow some money again. The political capital that he had went up in smoke that day.
If Hillary Clinton wins on November 8, it will be in no small part thanks to the moderate Republicans who have decided to put country before party and to support her. It would be wrong to underestimate what this will have cost them, in such a divided country, in terms of personal relationships and party loyalties. November 9 will be a moment to recognise the courage that has taken, not to hang them out to dry. And America’s alt right is unlikely to give up the fight.
The ghost of Brexit hangs over the US election as it nears its close. Political pundits, newspaper columnists, even entertainers like the TV chef Anthony Bourdain regularly bring it up.
A New York Times columnist John Cassidy wrote recently that in Britain the ‘Leave’ campaign put virtually nothing into the box on their side, leaving it occupied only by the Union Jack and voters’ fantasies. Brexit voters didn’t feel they were voting for specific people or policies. America’s saving grace may be, he argues, that people are voting not just to make America great again or for the flag, but also for Donald J Trump.
In the same paper, an insightful essay “Behind 2016’s Turmoil, a Crisis of White Identity” by Amanda Taub put the Brexit vote, like Trump’s popularity, down to a loss of status for white natives. The main predictor of voting for ‘Leave’ was, she notes, a low level of education rather than of income and this tends to be true too of Donald Trump’s supporters.
She links both movements to a decline in status and opportunities for the skilled working class in both countries. And on immigration, she argues that rather than the degree of ethnic mix within an area, which in many ‘Leave’ areas of the UK was low, it is the pace of change that causes concern.
Alan Dershowitz, author of “Electile Dysfunction: A Guide for the Unaroused Voter” told CNN audiences this week that like Brexit, Trump’s populism meant his vote is likely to be underestimated by the polls. Clinton’s lead, he warned, could be narrower than predicted. Trump agrees, promising Tuesday will be “Brexit times ten”.
The Washington Post found a resonance between Trump’s warnings of electoral fraud and similar claims made by the “Leave” campaign – Brexit voters, warned to bring pens instead of pencils in case their votes were rubbed out and changed, on occasion apparently lobbed them at the civic-minded senior citizens who staff Britain’s polling stations.
Filmmaker Michael Moore unveiled a new film, Michael Moore in TrumpLand, shot in front of a live audience in Wilmington in October, a rather rambling paen of praise to Hillary Clinton in which he confesses to being a little in love with her. He mocks Donald Trump, and has Mexican audience members penned in behind a cardboard wall. One of the biggest laughs from the audience is for Moore’s lines on Brexit. He casts the vote in terms of the angry voters seeing a chance to get back ‘at the establishment’. But now, he roars, as the audience chortles with Schadenfreude, they find that “if you vote to leave Europe you actually have to to leave Europe”. “And four million of them have signed a petition calling for another referendum.”
Favourite Sunday night viewing here is the traveling chef Anthony Bourdain. He is a silver-haired bohemian with an easy charm and an ability to eat or drink pretty much everything that is put in front of him with every evidence of delight. Each episode features a shaky-camera montage of him getting drunk with his hosts in different parts of the globe, sometimes for days.
His show from a trip to London just after the Brexit vote first aired in mid-October. In a trailer for it, which I saw on CNN several times, where Bourdain is interviewed by the network’s other silver-haired charmer Anderson Cooper, Bourdain is asked if London greeted the Brexit vote with “a stiff upper lip.’ He shakes his head: “No, it was ankle-deep in tears and vomit”.
The Brexit vote, he explains at the start of the show, was swung by “the rubes, the country people… the people who felt out of step with an increasingly non-white London”. In between meals of bone marrow, pig’s trotters and fish and chips, Bourdain sinks a few pints with musician Jamie Hince who says of the Brexit vote: “It almost makes me not believe in democracy any more. They go on about a central government in Brussels and say we don’t have anything in common with people from Bulgaria or Romania. Well I don’t have anything in common with people from Sunderland or Wales.” He suggests as an extension of the referendum principle getting old people in one part of the UK to take care of the budget and in another to sort out foreign policy.
NIgella Lawson cooks Bourdain a hangover breakfast and chef Margot Henderson wails of Brexit; “It’s so selfish.” She doesn’t blame the people, she adds, who have been lied to.
At the close of the show, in a clear appeal to voters heading to the polls in the US to be warned by the UK’s experience, Bourdain sums up:
These are frightening times for many. The world is changing and there is no stopping those changes. But in such times there are always two ways to go. We can run and hide, build walls, cower in fear, point the finger at our neighbours, and look, as frightened people often do, for someone to blame.
Or we can stand up and try, at least try to build a better world. Instead of looking for a man on a horse to save us or for walls to keep us apart, we can look to our better angels.
Images: Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Flickr