It’s that day again! The 18th of September has rolled around again in the relentless way that anniversaries tend to do. It is now a firmly established tradition that, on and about this day each year, we are regaled with reminiscences of the 2014 independence referendum and prompted to revisit our own memories of that time. Countless articles will be written each trying to extract some meaning from the anniversary – or to impose some meaning on it.
That’s approximately 200 million heartbeats for the average person. Or a single parliamentary term. If you’ve been married for five years then you will almost certainly not be giving each other symbolic gifts made of wood. The English language has five vowels and human beings have five senses. If astrology is your thing, the number five is lucky for Gemini and Virgo. But if you really were lucky astrology would never have become your thing. In numerology there are five core numbers. If you’re into numerology then you may be well-placed to count your blessings that you dodged the astrology bullet. The earthworm has five hearts. I have no idea how many times they beat, individually or in aggregate, in the space of five years.
It’s amazing what you find out when you’re looking for a novel hook on which to hang an article. Something to provide context. Something to lend significance. Something to help capture and express my personal feelings on this notable day.
David Bowie is always good for a bit of inspiration. Better him than Orwell or Arwood or Bradbury or any of the other dystopian writers to whom my mind tends to turn when I look around me at the world. And there just happens to be a Bowie song called Five Years! Obviously, that can’t be mere coincidence. Ask any astrologer or numerologist.
In his Ziggy Stardust persona, having just learned of Earth’s imminent demise, Bowie laments, “Five years, that’s all we’ve got!”. So much for escaping dystopian visions! But the phrase does resonate on this fifth anniversary of the 2014 independence referendum. Because that’s pretty much what I was saying in the aftermath of that event.
To be totally accurate, I wasn’t actually saying we had five years to rectify the tragic mistake that Scotland made on Thursday 18 September 2014. It’s just the way it turned out. My early ‘calculations’ had to be adjusted to take account of intervening events and developments so that it ended up being five years. Allow me a bit of latitude here, please. Taken as a whole, my message over the past five years has been, “Five years! That’s all we’ve got!”.
In September 2014 I argued that the earliest possible date for a new referendum was September 2018. By 2016, following the EU referendum, I was arguing that September 2018 should be assumed to be the latest date for a new constitutional plebiscite. The subsequent extensions to the Article 50 transition period pushed that date back a year to September 2019. So, five years. That’s all we had. And now we’ve had it.
Scotland’s independence movement has had five years in which to regroup after the setback of the 2014 referendum. Five years to reorganise. Five years in which to evaluate the previous campaign. Five years in which to formulate and hone a strategy for the next campaign. Five years of opportunity. What do we have to show for it?
Essentially, we have nothing to show for it. Things have happened. People looking for silver linings can point to those things and feel good about the situation. But little has changed. The things that have happened don’t all join up into something that qualifies as significant change. In terms of the independence campaign, we are now where we were, not five years ago, but nearer ten. The major issue then was the demand for a referendum versus the British state’s arrogant and obdurate denial of our right to have that referendum. What has changed? The First Minister continues to issue almost daily appeals for the powers to hold a ‘legal’ referendum. Other than the increasingly vicious contempt with which these entreaties are met, what has changed? In this regard, the last five years might as well not have happened.
Six and a half years ago we had a date for a referendum. Now, we don’t even have that!
The Yes movement has not been idle for those five years. I have watched it mature into a movement with massively more power and potential that was the case going into the 2014 campaign. But that power is wasted because the movement is rudderless. The potential is being squandered because it has no outlet other than marches and rallies and a proliferation of ancillary projects. In all of that five years, no meaningful progress has been made in forging the vital link between the Yes movement and the SNP. It would be easy to descend into the ‘blame game’ on this point. And to some extent we have no choice but to go there. Understanding why something has failed is a prerequisite of rectifying it. But, for present purposes, it is sufficient to note that we’ve had five years to do this and we have made no discernible progress.
In the course of that five years the SNP has gone from being effectively absent from the independence campaign to being so utterly preoccupied with Brexit as to make that period of absence look like meaningful engagement. While much of the left in Scottish politics has, with some justification, been criticised for being ‘in’ the independence campaign but not ‘of’ it, the SNP is ineluctably ‘of’ it but not ‘in’ it. It is the party of independence – of that there can be no doubt. But it seems not to have been an active participant ‘in’ the independence campaign since 2014. When I think back over the past five years, my overall impression is of the SNP being on the fringes, I hear what Nicola Sturgeon and other SNP politicians say. But I can’t help feeling that their words are reaching me having had to penetrate a bubble. And I can’t figure out whether it is they who are inside the bubble, or me.
It’s been five years. I expected more. Like everybody else I know in the Yes movement, five years ago I was filled with hope and enthusiasm and determination and confidence and the absolute certainty that Scotland’s cause would prevail. Five years on, there are more and more days when those feelings come to me only as pale ghosts.
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