With 100 days to go until the referendum, Lesley Riddoch looks at how the Yes camp is making headway at grass roots level
What will tilt the polls to a Yes victory on 18 September? Very possibly nothing. By which I mean no single thing. And that’s not the same as admitting defeat. It’s questioning the whole orthodoxy about the way people behave.
According to the latest polls it’s neck and neck. A weekend poll for the Financial Times found 40 per cent support for Yes and 47 per cent for No. Once “don’t knows” were removed Yes was sitting at 46 per cent. Not level pegging – but not bad. Of course this sample was small, taken before the orchestrated Perfect Diplomatic Storm of anti-independence remarks by US president Barack Obama and the Swedish and Danish foreign ministers. We can assume any state whose leadership does not erupt with fear about Scottish independence in the coming week either backs a Yes vote or knows silence is golden.
But for every highly choreographed diplomatic coup by the No campaign there is an unprompted gaffe – like the Treasury’s decision to use Lego characters to illustrate 12 ways to spend its promised £1,400 union bonus, including 280 hotdogs at the Edinburgh Festival or fish and chips for ten weeks. Or Sir Nicholas MacPherson’s weekend revelation that an independent Scotland might turn out all right after “mis-briefing” one key statistic in his last advice to David Cameron last year. Whatever.
The opinion of the great and good is one thing – and Better Together rely on it heavily.
The activism of local people is something else and has become the great imponderable of this referendum campaign.
Turnout in September will probably exceed 80 per cent – that’s a gamechanger. The “settled will” of Scotland has previously been based on a near total absence of voters from working class, unemployed or deprived neighbourhoods. They are more likely to turn out this time, urged on by a spirited mass canvassing campaign around the big schemes and housing estates of the Central Belt by the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC). A national mass canvas on 22 June will include the Gorbals, Larkhall, Stonehouse and Linwood as well as leafier suburbs, small towns and island communities. This matters.
The pro-independence movement has two tiers. The official campaign with badges, buckles, slogans and luminaries like Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon is most noticed and monitored by the media. But the unofficial campaign is breaking out everywhere – certainly the most vigorous, genuinely Scotland-wide outpouring of local energy I’ve ever witnessed. It has few single, large, reportable events. It has few keynote contributions, white papers, salaried politicians, electoral threats or carrot-like promises to dangle.
It is beneath the radar – where all real social transformations begin and remain. And since none of the conventional media in our top-down, status-conscious nation has its antennae tuned to the grassroots, this dimension is being missed completely. Ironically, the official cold shoulder has rather helped the folk behind local Yes groups, the Radical Independence Convention, National Collective, Bella Caledonia, Wings over Scotland and others.
In a strange but very Presbyterian way, the absence of conventional support has probably been the making of these groups. Realising the cavalry ain’t coming, they’ve resorted successfully to voluntary help, crowdsourcing and old-fashioned fundraising helped by the occasional big donation.
There isn’t the slightest whiff of dependency about them nor cringe nor crippling self-doubt. These varied Yes groups have organised relentlessly for over a year without bussed-in help, press coverage, permission to talk in most schools or council-run premises, funds, big names, poll support or even – sometimes – the official sanction of the central Yes campaign. They have simply got on with turning the tide. All this activity has made local groups a microcosm of the self-actualising change they want for the nation. At long last in Scotland, a grassroots campaign is walking the walk, not just talking the talk.
Now I grant you, this may yet be insufficient to stem the tide of negativity breathed every day from most of the official media. But with sufficient exposure to the infectious enthusiasm of positive young Scots appearing all over Scotland during the next 100 days, even unresponsive Scots may feel a Sunshine on Leith moment stirring.
Of course, the cumulative effect of scaremongering about an independent Scotland is to induce fear. We live in fearful times. Virtually every pillar of society has been found wanting. Those who want a return to the “good old days” when citizenship demanded no more than compliance crave certainty. But others have realised the British model of top-down governance and trickle-down economics has failed and we must move on.
If the rest of this island won’t, Scotland must.
Millions of column inches will be written between now and 18 September, but I suspect a different kind of evidence is finally coming into play. What kind of people are stacking up on either side? I’m not saying one side is universally huggable and the other universally repellent. Not at all. And of course I’m biased.
But in my experience, community-based pro-independence campaigners are by and large optimists, self-starters and linchpins. They may not be big money men, headteachers or middle managers. They are not the great and good. What of it? Who do we really believe these days? Who inspires us – or have we let inspiration become a luxury extra, icing on the cake rather the daily bread and butter of a meaningful existence? Scots may have convinced themselves the nation is not ready for independence and stability is found dancing to the tune of an increasingly grim, dog-eat-dog UK which may soon be out of the EU and part-run by Ukip. They may prefer to trust a British political class which has stopped at nothing to extinguish hope in Scotland and portray the nation as a basket case set for decline, creeping senility and dependency.
That insidious message – which feeds the Scots’ own worst fears – might have worked. Who knows? You can no more tell a nation to pucker up than tell a fearful, depressed person to cheer up.
But messages are rarely effective. Actions and personal standards are.
If you believe “might is right” you will probably vote No. If the conduct of the mighty and powerful in British society has left you without hope or confidence, you might be persuadable. If you know there is another way to run a country, you will probably vote Yes.