4 Reflections on the #IndyRef Rigging Accusations

by Thomas Swann

3 October 2014

In a perhaps predictable development, many have been calling foul over the results of the Scottish independence referendum, with the most recent claims ranging from quite serious allegations (switching of ballot boxes) to the quite frankly absurd (a shopping bag full of Yes-marked ballots found beside a bin). While the left has met these claims with derision, there does seem to be a high level of support for them and, ultimately, for a recount or even a rerun of the referendum. While easily dismissed by many, the whole question of vote rigging and, more importantly, the strategy of demanding a re-vote does raise some serious points on which those seeking real social change in Scotland and elsewhere should reflect.

1. The referendum (probably) wasn’t rigged…

While the claims of vote rigging now focus on replacing ballot boxes en route from polling stations and the issuing of so-called ‘blank ballot papers’ without serial numbers and barcodes, the arguments are no more convincing than earlier claims of direct tampering and sink even deeper into a conspiracy narrative.

The referendum is over and everyone has parted with their ballot papers (apart from a small number of postal voters who didn’t return theirs) so no one can prove that ballot boxes weren’t switched with No-weighted duplicates and claims about blank ballots are based on memory and can’t be checked.

The fact that there doesn’t seem to have been any independent oversight over the transportation of ballot boxes is of course worrying in general, but this doesn’t amount to a convincing argument that vote rigging took place. Instead, the conspiracy narrative relies on its inability to be disproven. Like the claims of the 9/11 Truth movement and other conspiracy narratives, they exist in a hazy space between motive, character, opportunity and what is actually observable. Because of this, the narrative can continue no matter what.

2. …but it was tampered with in some sense.

The danger with dismissing any conspiracy narrative is that you reinforce an equally unsatisfactory narrative in its place. Jack Bratich, author of Conspiracy Panic, describes this as a way of governing how people think. The question he asks is “What commitment to rationality exists when a narrative is identified as a conspiracy theory? Whose authority is affirmed?” In rejecting the vote rigging claims around the referendum, the aim shouldn’t be to affirm the authority of those directly challenged by the claims – i.e. the British state – by arguing in response that the referendum was fair and democratic.

While it’s unlikely that the referendum was directly rigged, it certainly wasn’t fair and democratic. The mainstream media both in Scotland and the UK as a whole, the British government and capitalists in Scotland were almost completely united in trying to actively influence the referendum in favour of a No vote.

The media, especially the BBC, which is now unmistakable as a state propaganda broadcaster, were biased in their reporting. The British government broke referendum rules to promise policy in return for a No vote, policy they knew would appeal to undecided voters. Business owners and banks in Scotland threatened redundancies, price rises and massive capital flight in the event of a Yes vote. One also shouldn’t rule out MI5 involvement at some level, but while they have been implicated in trying to undermine the independence movement in the past, this hasn’t extended to direct vote rigging in either the 1979 or 1997 devolution referendums.

3. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the law is.

Those claiming that the referendum was rigged by switching ballot boxes and issuing false ballot papers seem to misunderstand what the law is and how it works. There have been calls for a judicial review and appeals made to other legal bodies to intervene.

The mistake this approach makes is that it assumes that the written word of the law is the end of the story and that if it can be demonstrated that there have been breaches of the written law then justice can be sought.

Like everything else in society, the law is about power, in every sense of the word. What counts is how the law is implemented and upheld by those with the authority to decide on what is true and those with the abilities to coerce people into compliance. The scandal of corporate tax evasion illustrates this clearly. Those who don’t own large amounts capital in a country are subject to the word of tax law, those who control capital are able to negotiate around the word of the law.

Even if the referendum result was proven to be invalid according to the word of the law, this line of attack involves appeals to those who are being charged with vote rigging in the first place and there is no reason they would do anything other than simply ignore the word of the law in favour of enforcing their desired outcome.

4. The underdog in a conspiracy narrative never wins.

It’s pretty much a universal truth of conspiracy fiction, and one that often rings true in real life as well, that the underdog – the one investigating and trying to expose the conspiracy – never wins.

In The Parallax View, a classic of the genre, poor Warren Beatty is killed and framed for an assassination. In Blow Out, John Travolta exposes the plot but at the expense of an innocent woman’s life. Almost every John le Carré novel centres on a character who is left in a moral and political wasteland even if he or she makes it out alive. In real life, while Bernstein and Woodward may have uncovered the Watergate scandal and brought down Richard Nixon, this did little to change US policy in the short term and Nixon was ultimately pardoned.

While the future probably doesn’t hold quite as much drama for those pushing the vote rigging line, it certainly doesn’t promise, for the reasons given above, the result they hope. The likely outcome is that we’ll continue to hear from a committed, if isolated and shrinking, group persisting in trying to get a judicial review or a rerun of the referendum for the next ten or fifteen years.

Ultimately, the conspiracy narrative will end as they all do, by being ignored by those in power. Perhaps one of the most telling and realistic endings to a piece of conspiracy fiction is that of the 2010 series Rubicon. The response of one of the chief conspirators, when unmasked, is perfect and could stand in for the predictable response from the British government to the vote rigging claims, even if they are proved: “I’m sure it’ll make for very exciting reading, skulduggery in high places and all that. Do you really think anyone is going to give a shit?”

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