IN 500 days, Scots will go to the polls to decide this country’s future. It will be an extraordinary and highly charged moment.
The eyes of the world will be on us as we make a historic decision on whether Scotland should be an independent country or whether it should continue to be one of the nations within the United Kingdom. Barring wars and disasters it will be, on the day, the world’s biggest news story. Five hundred days out, it is perhaps fitting that we pause for a second and consider the momentousness of the choice we will make in the weeks and months ahead, and agree some ground rules.
This referendum with its Yes-No, black-white, binary choice has the potential to be far more socially divisive than most forms of politics we are used to in this country. In a Holyrood or Westminster election, for example, there is a multiplicity of views and motivations, and these party political contests often exercise barely half the electorate. The referendum will be different. The lesson from similar contests internationally is that turnout could be in excess of 80 per cent. Hundreds of thousands of people who usually care nothing about politics – and may have a less than subtle appreciation of its basic courtesies and civilities – will be engaged in this contest. The high stakes, the heightened emotions, the passions on both sides, may manifest themselves in ways that could be deeply damaging, and leave a scar.
We are already seeing – from a small minority of those people who are enthusiastically debating the referendum online – a malevolence of enmity that we have rarely seen in Scottish politics, and only then in a highly localised form at certain highly-charged by-elections, for example. One very real possibility is that the referendum risks having the character of US politics at its worst: two sides, and two contrasting cultural outlooks, finely balanced, each contemptuous of the other and each at the other’s throat. For all our sakes, we must avoid this. We must do all we can to prevent the referendum taking on some of the grotesque characteristics of a civil war.
To avoid that, some basic rules are necessary. The first, and arguably the most important, is to agree on a simple fact – that no matter how people vote on 18 September, 2014, the Scotland that emerges from this contest has to be capable of uniting around whatever challenges follow. In the post-2014 period, regardless of the result, we must be one nation, not two tribes. For this to happen, we have to ensure that our natural disputatiousness – a national characteristic that at its best manifests itself in rigorous intellectual curiosity and at its worst in saloon bar brawls – is under control.
This is more important than mere manners. As Stephen Noon, the Yes Scotland strategist, points out this weekend in a well-judged blog posting that we report on our news pages, high-profile lapses into viciousness and abuse could do real damage to the side of the debate from which they emanate. Noon perspicaciously points out that the Yes campaign, which has optimism as a key strand of its DNA, is particularly vulnerable to damage caused by misguided supporters prepared to take the low road to independence. It must be acknowledged that much of the criticism has so far focused on so-called cybernats on the pro-independence side, but as our columnist Andrew Wilson points out, the pro-UK side has also stumbled into the gutter on occasion. We are better than this, and we must now prove it.
Not everyone is a fan of the bagpipes. But an aversion to Scotland’s national instrument – one that is emblematic of our country and instantly recognised worldwide – is usually the result of hearing the pipes poorly played. In this regard, they are no different from any other instrument – there is nothing worse than the sound of a scratchy violin or a rasping trumpet, but in the hands of a Nicola Benedetti or a Louis Armstrong these instruments are things of beauty and wonder. Played well, the pipes can be high art, with the ability to evoke extremes of emotion from joy to sorrow. They have a rightful place at the heart of our country’s musical landscape.
Which is why our story today about the scarcity of tutors for traditional music in Scotland is a genuine concern. Pipe music is part of our shared heritage. It would be a positive step if more young people at least had an option of learning to play the pipes, and play them properly. Last year this newspaper’s Let The Children Play campaign – which is pushing for free musical instrument tuition in Scottish schools – scored a famous victory by winning the establishment of a £1 million fund from the Scottish Government to buy new musical instruments for Scottish schools. We would urge the distributors of that money to consider a respectable amount to be spent on bagpipes.