On this anniversary of the referendum I’ve been thinking back to 2011 when the SNP won their first majority Scottish Government and the vote on our future became an inevitability. I remember feeling pretty disengaged and sceptical that the SNP could secure a Yes vote. Support was around 25-30% and most of the arguments one way or another seemed to be about oil and tax revenues.
I wasn’t exactly disconnected from politics – many of my closest mates were Green and we shared a lot of similar views on the world and incessant political pub chat. But I expected that most of the run-up to the vote would be men in suits on TV shouting at each other and slinging “facts” back and forth. That’s how politics was done.
Yet in just 18 months, the biggest political movement of my lifetime had emerged, drawing together people from different political parties and none and reaching people who’d never voted in their lives.
So what changed?
For me the wake up call came in 2012 with the launch of Yes Scotland. I’d joined the Greens just a couple of months earlier and whilst my own political engagement had ratcheted up a notch after campaigning in the local government elections, the launch party still looked like politics as usual. A wall of white men in suits talking about how Scotland could be wealthier if we went it alone.
Like many others, I began to realise just how much was at stake but just how little the SNP and the mainstream Yes campaign were letting us in on the action. In the Scottish Green Party we started to talk about launching our own distinctive campaign for a Yes vote – one based on principles of democracy, not nationalism. Green Yes emerged and showed that independence wasn’t just for the SNP.
At that first RIC conference I spoke in front of the few hundred gathered in Glasgow – the first bit of public speaking I did in the referendum. Looking round the room at nods and smiles and hearing applause for some pretty normal things, suddenly it dawned on me that what I was saying resonated with this room full of comrades. It wasn’t just a handful of us radicals who wanted an alternative to the pro-monarchy, pound-sharing, oil guzzling SNP vision where everything would somehow be the same but different under independence.
Campaigning on the streets with RIC and Green Yes; holding street stalls and canvassing with Yes Edinburgh North and Leith; speaking with and for Women for Independence and discovering my own culture with National Collective, soon there was an unshakeable feeling that a movement had emerged. On the 18th of September 2014, we may have lost the vote but we found our voice.
That movement will today be full of mixed emotions. Deep sorrow, anger, regret and pride. But let’s take a minute to look at how far we’ve already come together and how much we’ve achieved.
Immediately after the results, membership of the Greens and SNP more than quadrupled. The SSP also saw membership soar. From the ranks of Yes campaigners, the political parties put forward candidates for the Westminster election, resulting in 56 out of 59 seats going to the SNP. Suddenly the people we knew and had campaigned with side by side were off representing us in London – not just some distant politicians in stuffy grey suits saying the same rehearsed line, but folk we knew, folk like us.
In media too, Common Space, Bella Caledonia, NewsShaft and Independence Live have changed the way we see ourselves and each other, delivering news about us, by us and for us. As we said on Referendum TV last summer, we’re learning that we can’t just hate the media, we have to become it.
The closing of the gaps between politicians and the people they represent; and between the media and all of us is a significant win for everyone who campaigned in the referendum. That realisation that sure, we didn’t win, but we can still influence the course of our own lives is a truly powerful thing.
Our task now has to be to ensure that the folk who ventured to the polling booth a year ago today, many for the first time, will keep voting and keep faith in their own power to change Scotland. A year ago, a movement found its voice. Let’s keep using it.