“Yesmas” comes but once a lifetime and 18.09.2014 felt like Yesmas eve for thousands of Scots. Although Yesmas day never actually came, fleetingly, for hundreds of thousands of adults, the feeling of hope and excitement they felt as children during the run up to festivals like Christmas was reawakened by the approach of the Scottish independence referendum. In the preceding months they’d started to list the things that could happen with independence… high on the list was getting rid of trident: oh Santa, can we please, please, get rid of those nuclear bombs lurking just miles from our sleeping children’s heads and spend the money on healthcare and education instead?
To understand the excitement it’s important to understand that this Yesmas feeling wasn’t about nationalism. It wasn’t about getting rid of the English. It had nothing to do with Braveheart. The excitement came from people feeling empowered enough to make a difference. To be able to vote for policies that might help build a fairer society - the feeling that individual votes and voices might actually get heard. Scotland has always voted left of centre and tended towards issues focussing on social justice. London centric Westminster was always a world away from the lives of the average Scot, but the welfare reforms and foreign policy of the current Westminster government have alienated the population even further. Bedroom tax, sanctioning the poor, privatising the NHS, all these policies go against the grain for so many Scots, but until the referendum people had felt powerless to do anything about them. Being able to govern ourselves would mean the chance to allocate more money towards childcare, helping those on low incomes, prevent the privatisation of the NHS and, importantly, get rid of trident. The campaign for the yes side became a progressive movement, looking to the Nordic countries as examples on how to structure society. It became about making at least one little corner of the world a fairer, more peaceful and more democratic society.
As George Kerevan said: “The Scottish Labour leadership, abetted by the metropolitan media, wrongly tarred proponents of independence as tartan romantics–or even anti-English bigots. The reality is that, by the end, the Yes campaign had morphed into the beginnings of a genuine populist, anti-austerity movement like the ‘Indignant Citizens’ in Greece or the May 15 Movement in Spain. Put another way, it was class politics - not old-style nationalism - that fired the Yes campaign.”
The year wore on and Yesmas eve approached. The yes movement was a threat to the status quo, to the establishment. Being itself so much part of the establishment the mainstream media was heavily biased towards the no side. The BBC came under especially heavy criticism and a large demonstration was held outside their Scottish headquarters just days before the referendum. Thousands disconnected their televisions and cancelled their TV licences, so deep was the feeling of betrayal from what was once seen as a reliable, unbiased, news source.
By contrast during the run up to the referendum social media and alternative media exploded with information sharing on the yes side. Mainstream news coverage came under close scrutiny and missing information or misrepresented news was widely shared. The yes movement also took place in the real world in a way the No movement didn’t, self-generated yes groups sprang up in local communities, as did yes cafes, gatherings were held, rally’s, one-one conversations on doorsteps… then there were the larger more organised groups like the National Collective and the Radical Independence Campaign. For anyone directly involved or looking to alternative news sources such as Bella Caledonia it looked like a Yes vote was certain.
By May 30 this year, the formal starting point of the referendum campaign, Yes was the biggest grass-roots political movement Scotland had seen. - Paul Hutcheon
Those relying on only the mainstream media were equally sure of a No vote. The poles showed that over 65s by a large majority voted No, while teenagers by a large majority voted yes. The youth of Scotland was clearly behind a yes vote, while the elderly, who on the whole have limited access to social media and the internet and a heavier reliance on mainstream media, were far more cautious. The yes side focused their campaign on hope, hope of a better, fairer future. Young people saw their own futures going down one of two paths: they saw the poverty and inequality around them stretch into the future and only get worse, but they also saw a chance to change at least some of that - to make their futures different, hopefully better. The no campaign by contrast used fear as their main campaign tool. The elderly, relying mainly on mainstream media, were afraid that all they had worked for throughout their lives might vanish if things changed drastically. They were afraid of losing their pensions (although the UK government had guaranteed pensions, this was still one of the many fear stories circulating). They were afraid of losing the pound, despite Alistair Darling himself admitting there was nothing stopping Scotland using the pound if we wanted to. By and large the baby boomers had had it pretty good all their lives, full grants for those going to university, a solid NHS, holidays abroad, jobs for life, owning their own homes, right to buy on council houses… many weren’t fully aware that those starting out in the world today don’t have these advantages. For the baby boomers it now seemed, from what was being reported in the mainstream media, that all the stability they had come to expect was under threat. In reality that stability had long since been eroded and the issues they were afraid of were clearly addressed by the yes campaign, however, because of the lack of balanced reporting and the lack of access to alternative news sources, this information never reached a large proportion of the population. A study reported by the Guardian showed that those undecided voters given access to information, both from the yes and no sides, were more likely to decide on yes after they had read enough information. However, this information was not reaching enough people. Instead messages of fear were broadcast into homes.
The night before Yesmas so many Scots were like children again: unable to sleep with excitement. Speaking to others it was clear many were sure we’d wake up in the morning to a yes vote, an independent Scotland, making our own decisions, goodbye trident, goodbye illegal wars, goodbye food banks and benefits cuts, hello improved childcare, an NHS safe from privatisation, oil revenue in Scottish hands, more equal distribution of wealth… Excitement was in the air, and there was a misconception among some not directly involved that this excitement was some sort of Wallace effect, a two fingers up at England, rallying under a battle cry, but it had nothing to do with that – this was a fairer society issue. Yes voters living in Scotland originated from all over the world, including England. They largely voted yes because they wanted to see a more equal society, one where the welfare of our people was more important than warfare. Parents voted for the future of their children: 1.6 million people voted for change or at least the HOPE of change.
On the morning of the 20th August countless adults got up at 4am like they had when they were 6 years old on Christmas morning. Many had stayed up all night. They scrolled with anticipation through the results feeds or watched the results roll in on TV, but quickly all that hope drained away and was stamped into the mud. Hearts sank into the pits of stomachs. Santa hadn’t come. Scotland had voted no. We would remain guardians to weapons of mass destruction. Child poverty would continue to rise. All the hope that had built up over the weeks and months leading up to the referendum evaporated and thousands of grown adults wept. Change for the better is never guaranteed, but with this vote there was a real sense of hope that some change towards social justice would come. Various promises had been made days before the referendum, but there was no guarantee that those promises would be kept, many assumed they would not. So they wept for those that would continue to go hungry because of benefits sanctions, for those that would be bombed in foreign countries in the name of Scotland and for their children and the future they might have had. Imagine waking up on Christmas morning, aged 6, Santa has been and gone but instead of bringing toys he’s left muddy footprints all over the rug, eaten all the mince pies and taken the Christmas tree away with him. And the holiday is cancelled and you have to go to School instead. And it’s cabbage soup for dinner. And your parents have arranged a sleepover with the school bully. That’s how it felt. Crushed. That build-up of hope: gone.
Comparing this feeling to 6 year olds Christmas might seem to belittle it, but remember when you were 6 how one event could consume you with excitement? To adults it might seem like a little thing, but to you it was huge. It was your world, your passion for that short time. That feeling is almost completely unique to childhood, and as adults we are seldom consumed with hope in this way. But this time so many adults had allowed themselves to be swept along by one event. To hope like children that the world might be a slightly better, fairer, place when they woke; made new the way the world is made fresh when snow falls in the night on Christmas Eve, leaving a blank slate for us to draw on. There was no snow, only tears, rain, and increased inequality stretching into the future… Some I spoke to on that grey morning had let their imaginations run riot, starting to imagine that now we would be headed towards a dystopian future with a privatised police force and NHS in a federal state where human rights were eroded… 1984 perpetual war meets Judge Dredd. They were sure more oil would be “discovered” within a month, that those pre-referendum promises for increased devolution would be broken. It’s sad to say that on many counts they appear to have already been quite close to the mark in their predictions.
Independence wouldn’t necessarily have brought only good things, but it would have brought change, and change can bring hope. Hope is a great motivator; however fear is greater. For 55% change was a fearful thing. For 45% it was a chance. A chance for maybe, maybe something better, a chance we didn’t want to see slip by. It all seemed over. Social media exploded with updates like “the unicorn has died”, “Scotland bottled it”. The yes campaigners felt crushed.
But as the yes voters slowly emerged from their fog of negativity it became obvious something amazing had actually happened. 1.6 million Scottish residents had dreamed of change and tried to make it happen. Peacefully - with adult, civilised, debate. They had been energised and united by the idea of a fairer, progressive society, of being nice to each other and looking after each other. They had become politically engaged where once political apathy reigned. Hope had sprung up from the streets of Dundee and the rain drenched chip shop doorways of Glasgow. Once rekindled that childhood ability to dream and hope can move mountains in the hearts of adults. September 19th brought rioting in George Square, this was not a yes and no clash – unionists had seized the opportunity of a no vote and the scenes were not at all representative of average yes or no voters, most of whom had engaged each other peacefully in reasoned debate. September the 20th however brought a ray of hope. A man who ran a food bank and had voted yes in the hope that we could reverse welfare reform in Scotland was talking to the public, telling them about the plight of those that relied on his food bank. Benefits sanctions are forcing many families to go hungry. One woman working for a food bank recounted how a single mother had come into the food bank with her two daughters. It was Tuesday and they hadn’t eaten since Thursday because she was on benefits and had been sanctioned. One of the girls ripped open a can of beans and started eating it with her fingers right there and then, she was so hungry. Stories like these are all too common and as the man spoke in George Square people started to drift away and return with shopping bags filled with food. Over the weekend George Square was flooded with donations. It was the first step, and a small step, but the symbolism could not be ignored. As a society we care about each other and so many of us will now no longer let resignation and apathy steamroller the vulnerable, doing whatever we can, even in a small way to make our world fairer.
Independent or not I believe enough people have become politically motivated to make change happen in Scotland, to continue working towards building a fairer, more equal and more peaceful society. Importantly the majority of Scotland’s youth is behind progressive change, and they are Scotland’s future. The hope of change had made so many believe, for a little while at least, that they could actually change the world around them - that they themselves had the power to make things better. Once ignited that hope is not easy to let go of and thousands of Scottish residents have become politically aware enough to continue pushing for change, to not let apathy and resignation regain control. Yesmas spirit came to Scotland and we dared to hope. Let’s never stop dreaming, never stop hoping for something better. Every bag of food donated to a food bank is a step in the right direction. Let’s look after each other and make every day Yesmas eve in 2015.