MUCH attention in the independence referendum campaign has understandably focused on the actions of a small minority of campaigners, usually online, who think fit to hurl vile personal abuse at those they disagree with.
While this deserves attention, condemnation and vigilance, it may be deflecting attention from a wider problem in Scottish society as a whole. Our ICM opinion poll today is the first attempt to gauge the effect the referendum on the social fabric of Scottish life. And the picture it paints is not an encouraging one.
Two out of every five Scots report that their family is divided on whether Scotland should be independent. One in five has had a row with friends or family. And two out of five believe Scotland will be left badly divided after 18 September. If this is what people are reporting now, with more than three months to go, what will the picture be in the final days of the campaign? More than one in three Scots say they have had no conversations at all with friends or family about the referendum. Strategists on both sides of the independence issue agree that many hundreds of thousands of Scots have not yet begun to pay attention to the campaign. People lead busy lives, or have other problems on their mind, or are simply not interested. And yet a turnout of more than 80 per cent is routinely predicted. Once this proportion of Scots becomes engaged, how will their differences manifest themselves in how we conduct ourselves in our families and in our workplaces and in the places we socialise – be it the pub, the nightclub, the gym, the neighbour’s summer barbecue, the five-a-side football pitch, or the bowling club? The numbers reporting rows and disagreements, and predicting a nation divided, can be expected to rise as polling day approaches. Should we be concerned about this? There will be some who say no, that this division in our society is superficial, and will quickly pass. Would that it were so, but it would perhaps be unwise to assume this will be the case. To do so is too risky. If Scotland is indeed a divided nation after the referendum, with a substantial minority feeling they have no personal stake in its future, then the potential and possibility of our country will not be realised, to the social and economic detriment of us all.
The relentless logic of the political campaigns does not help – each one has a vested interest in portraying a victory for their opponents as a disaster for Scotland. Having persuaded their supporters this is the case, will it really be so easy to demobilise them, and persuade them to let bygones be bygones, and encourage them to engage positively in a scenario they were previously encouraged to disdain? Having marched them up to the top of the hill, can our political leaders easily march them down again?
We are in unknown territory here, and we must be vigilant. True, there have been referendums in the past on substantial constitutional change, and these too provoked passionate debate, and yet the fabric of Scottish society remained intact in the aftermath (although politicians even today are often reminded about how they voted in 1997 or – if they are old enough – in 1979). But this time the stakes are higher. Devolution, however important, was the transfer of power within a unitary state. Independence is very different, and stirs much deeper passions, on both sides. As has been discussed, it is likely to involve many more people than those who habitually get involved in politics.
It is in no-one’s interest to win the referendum and have as the prize a Scotland at war with itself. As this newspaper has said before, we have to emerge from this test as one nation, not two tribes. Regardless of which side wins, we have to face the consequences, good or ill, as Scotland United.
We can all enjoy Bannockburn
LATER this month thousands of people will converge on Bannockburn to mark the 700th anniversary of the battle that has for centuries been a defining moment of nationhood. As Dani Garavelli reports in her insightful preview in this paper today, the commemoration has become swept up in the modern-day battle between opposing sides in the referendum on independence, ranked alongside the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, and the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, as events that might bend public opinion towards a Yes or a No vote come 18 September.
There is little point getting wound up about this. None of these events exists in a self-referential bubble entirely on its own terms. Each of them has to exist in today’s world and today’s cacophony of political debate, and people are entitled to draw from them whatever lessons they wish. Indeed each of these events will add its own distinctive lens through which to view our past, our present and our future. This is a good thing and should not be resisted or resented. The idea that a particular Scottish voter may be swayed by the fly-past of a Spitfire, or a fluttering of a saltire above the gold medal podium at Hampden Park, is not at all outlandish. Moments such as these may well crystallise a general predilection towards one side or the other in the referendum. The idea that it is only sober perusal of oil revenues and European Union membership criteria that will decide how people vote is fatuous. We are hearts and minds and fears and emotions, sometimes brave, sometimes timid, with gut reactions about identity and solidarity that can sometimes be a surprise even unto ourselves. So it may well be the case that Bannockburn inculcates in a voter a renewed sense of Scotland’s ancient destiny as a proudly independent nation. Just as it may leave the next voter with a renewed appreciation of a UK where such ancient hatreds can be put aside in favour of common endeavour.
Once we have accepted this, we are free to enjoy an event like the Bannockburn anniversary in whatever way we choose – as an opportunity to pore over maps and history books, as a campaigning opportunity, as a way of marking an important milestone in the life of the nation, or as simply a fun day out with the kids.