Did you know the Scottish referendum result was fixed? That far from rejecting independence, the Scottish people, who pride themselves on being ‘canny’, are actually the unwitting victims of a diabolical plot by the media and the political establishment to rob them of a beautiful, liberated Scotland? This is what I have just been told by a favourite Facebook friend of mine. He told me he “refuses” to believe the result. He reckons that his ballot was deliberately put “in the wrong pile”. He said it was “the biggest stitch up in history”. Alarmingly, a chorus of his Facebook friends echoed him, while adding paranoid thoughts of their own. They were being completely sincere.
Under normal circumstances this man is not one for conspiracy theories. But, of course, we are not dealing with normal circumstances. Like some of the other people I know on the nationalist side, he had taken to the cause of Scottish independence with the fury of a religious convert. Like them, he has been obsessively posting articles and memes about it for nearly two years and, like them, he shows no sign of stopping despite having been convincingly defeated by a majority of his fellow Scots. Like them, he is fanatical to the point of intolerance, ready to believe anything that comes from his own side, while believing only the very worst of his opponents.
The contrast with the No voters I know couldn’t be stronger. While they posted about the referendum, they were in no sense a campaigning and proselytising bunch. They had strong views, but they were nowhere near as intense about them. Now that the referendum is over, they have simply gotten on with their lives. A couple have confessed to me that they found this long, hot summer of campaigning an ordeal which they are in no hurry to repeat. They therefore find it a bit perturbing that some on the nationalist side still don’t seem to have noticed they lost.
I had seen this propensity for paranoid fixation on the nationalist side long before the vote. A few Yessers told me that England would (queue scary music) “punish” Scotland if it voted No. The form these ‘punishments’ would take was never specified, of course. It was left to the dark parts of our imaginations to fill in the details. One told me that pro-independence Facebook posts were going missing, as if those dastardly unionists had finally gotten to Mark Zukerberg. Many were incensed by perceived media – especially BBC – bias, and had picked up the annoying habit of yelling “lies!” every time a reporter asked a question they didn’t like. They were, to a man, convinced that the NHS in Scotland was in imminent danger of being privatised; bizarrely ignoring the fact that healthcare in Scotland is already fully devolved, so the coalition government couldn’t privatise it even if they wanted to. I saw one Facebook status – entirely capitalised, natch – urging Yes voters to take their own pens into the polling booth, as they only had pencils and “NO ONE’S GONNA BE RUBBING OUT MY VOTE!” I even had a hard time convincing one man that England wasn’t going to invade Scotland in the event of a Yes vote. This is how mad it got.
All this was in keeping, really, with a campaign that was, by the end, high on sensibility and low on sense. While it is true there was a great deal of exaggerated doom-mongering on the Union side, I also saw some really quite utopian fantasies coming from the nationalists. There was an article doing the rounds, for example, that argued an independent Scotland could become, not just prosperous on its own, but the richest country in the world, as if being a member of the world’s sixth largest economy was the thing holding Scotland back from untold riches. Independence became, for the most committed, a panacea for the world’s ills. Don’t like the Tories? Begone! Hate poverty? Banished! Love Scotland? We can be anything you want us to be!
As Alex Massie put it before the vote: “A lot of people are voting on the basis of a deeply cynical and meretricious set of promises that simply cannot, not even when assisted by great dollops of wishful thinking, be delivered. It is not possible to spend more, borrow less and tax the same.” They were being sold a fantasy Scotland, in other words, and I am still shocked at the extent to which so many normally levelheaded Scots fell for it.
The flip side of this giddy utopianism was a marked tendency towards paranoia and demonisation. Though I was pleased to see Scotland reject independence, I was also slightly dreading a No result because I know several Scots who had made this cause their life. I knew they would be crushed. I knew they would struggle to accept the result. I expected them to lash out at their fellow Scots for rejecting the dream. I expected sour grapes and excuse making. What I didn’t expect was a retreat into realms of comforting delusion.
Lest you think I just happen to know a particularly cranky bunch of Scots, it is worth pointing out that a YouGov poll in September found fully 25% of the electorate believed MI5 was working in cahoots with the UK government to keep Scotland in the Union. The same poll found 19% of Scots believing the vote would be rigged. Given this background of hysterical distrust, I ought not to have been quite so surprised that conspiracy theories have become, for some, the preferred salve to ease the weeping sores of defeat.
Alex Salmond set the tone for post-vote paranoia, with his talk of the Scottish electorate being “gulled” and “tricked” into voting No. Petitions asserting the vote was rigged and calling for a recount followed the result almost immediately. These have garnered over 100,000 signatories. A series of rallies have now been organised to pressure the government into a rerun. At these rallies talk of dark doings is apparently ubiquitous. Conspiracies abound. Some are even suggesting the Scottish government unilaterally secede from the Union anyway, regardless of the feelings of their fellow countrymen, so zealous have they become in the pursuit of their cause.
Like most conspiracy theories, though, this one suffers from a yawning credibility gap. The ‘evidence’ for this gigantic fraud consists of the usual series of unsubstantiated claims made in YouTube videos and anecdotes of the sort my Facebook friend offered.
The problems are obvious to anyone not emotionally invested in the idea of an independent Scotland. In order to have swung a 10% lead for the No side, some 400,000 votes would have to be tampered with, something that would, at the very least, have involved hundreds if not thousands of people, who would all have to be relied on to keep their mouths shut. They would have had to be tampered with, moreover, in full view of both the Electoral Commission, whose job it is to monitor such things, and the prying eyes of the media – not just the ‘lying’ and ‘biased’ British media, who I suppose must be in on it as well – but the world’s media. Seeing as our government struggles to hide its darkest secrets from computer hackers, I fail to see how they could possibly manage to pull off a conspiracy of this magnitude without more than just disappointed Yes voters noticing.
Nor is the result, when you think about it, all that surprising. In fact it was in line with what the vast majority of polls predicted it would be – a win for No. Far from being fishy, then, what the result actually tells us is that the polls which had the Yes camp ahead were probably outliers.
What these conspiracies are really doing, I would suggest, is constructing a narrative that explains away failure. My Facebook friend, for example, was utterly convinced that Scotland was going to vote Yes, and by quite a large margin too. He knew it in his bones. What a shock, then, when his bones turned out to be so catastrophically off the mark. At first he was angry. Now he has gone into denial. Perhaps the cognitive dissonance proved too much. He felt he was going to win, and when reality failed him, he adjusted reality to fit his feelings, rather than the other way around.
In his fine book about conspiracy theories, David Aaronovitch noted “a pattern in which overarching theories are formulated by the politically defeated.” These counter narratives become a kind of ‘history for losers’. The appeal of such theories is plain: “If it can be proved that there has been a conspiracy which has transformed politics and society, then their defeat is not the fault of their own inherent weakness or unpopularity, let alone their mistakes; it is due to the almost demonic ruthlessness of their enemy.”
If you believe your fellow Scots were frightened and brainwashed into voting No like hapless children, you avoid having to confront the awkward fact that other people may have had perfectly compelling reasons for voting the way they did. If you believe the vote was rigged, on the other hand, you needn’t even go that far. Because you didn’t lose – you were robbed.
No one likes to lose. Democracy – real democracy – involves painful compromise. It means having to reconcile yourself to the will of the people, especially hard to do when the people disagree with you, perhaps, but making the effort is an essential part of political maturity. There is something inescapably infantilising about retreating into fairy tales when the world refuses to obey you.