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The US Democrats Should Learn The Lessons Of Scotland's Indy Ref

07/11/2016 11:20
Gary Cameron / Reuters

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 the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, devoted much of their time to campaigning against independence. Darling fronted the cross party Better Together movement. 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 pretty 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 altering the Scottish settlement. He indicated with vague words that he was kicking Brown's famous "Vow' into the long grass, where it has remained.

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.

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