Better Together’s top-down campaign ignored and isolated voters engaged beyond party politics, writes Lesley Riddoch
WITH four days until the referendum vote, two things unite Yes and No campaigners. Amazement that a Sunday Telegraph poll has Yes ahead by a whopping eight points and astonishment so many Scots reacted to a week of non-stop disaster predictions by moving towards independence.
Of course, Yes campaigners have been hopeful the polls would move their way. But hope can sometimes feel like a thin, naïve thing, especially in the cauld blast of unbelievable scare stories generated by a rattled Establishment last week.
Perversely though, the contrasting nature of bitter No claims and calm Yes rebuttals seems to have been the clincher for many swithering Scots.
Yes based its entire strategy on the truth of William McIlvanney’s observation; “The national saying of the Scots isn’t, ‘Wha’ daur mess wi’ me’, it’s ‘That’s no fair.’” The hope always was that Scots witnessing the British establishment in full, ferocious flow would see the rationally argued case for independence as fairer and more in keeping with long held views of how democracy should work. But though Yes campaigners were hoping, campaigning, persuading and becoming the change they want to see, they could not force that flow of trust towards independence. It had to happen spontaneously.
And it has happened.
Anyone in a town or city centre this weekend could see and feel what many desk-bound commentators, academics, newspaper editors, BBC bosses and decision-making professionals have failed to experience and therefore failed to reflect or even consider – excitement.
From Perth where crowds parted in the High Street to let Dougie Maclean pass singing Caledonia with a backing choir of surprised shoppers, to the flashmob that filled George Square with dancing Yes campaigners last week. From Bearsden where a single brave mum and her daughter sat on a wooden bench beside a main road with balloons and a giant Yes sign turned towards the oncoming traffic, to Yes campaigners in Edinburgh who turned up to welcome members of the marching Orange Order to their town – there have been uplifting, life-affirming, positive events aplenty. Outpourings of good- will, and creative sunny optimism from Scots that would never have been expected by Scots. Events and moments folk would give their eye teeth to witness in a life too often filled with duty and politically correct pessimism at best and gut-rotting benefit-cut-induced despair at worst.
This is what has actually been happening out in the airts and pairts of real Scotland.
Meanwhile, in the corridors of power it’s generally been business as usual. The referendum has been just another irritating interlude – like a bout of democratic shingles whose discomfort must simply be endured until it retreats again. For a while.
It is this very attitude that has stopped No-leaning organisations from understanding the behaviour and thinking of modern Scots.
The presumption behind some media coverage is revealing. I’ve been called by several BBC outlets looking to discuss families being torn apart by the referendum. Of course families have found the vote difficult – but who assumed independent-minded family members in 2014 would toe a party line laid down (presumably) by dads? Would the modern family agree on the best music, the tastiest meal or the best way to spend the weekend? The days of women automatically voting the same way as bidey-ins and husbands are gone. The days of teenagers thinking like 40- and 50-year-old parents never arrived. “Harmony” in the past too often meant women toeing the line and youngsters failing to question old ideas. Mercifully that conception of the good nuclear family is simply a figure of fun these days.
Along with old-fashioned media preoccupations there have also been glaring omissions in the subjects considered relevant within the referendum debate. I heard a Radio Scotland trail promising that Gary Robertson’s programmes around Scotland would cover all the important issues for Scots – currency, banks, energy, oil, pensions and health. But there was no mention of democracy, elitism, austerity, corruption, sovereignty and trust – even though these may be the main reasons half of Scots look set to vote Yes. The BBC’s limited palette of “important subjects” has created bias (perhaps unwittingly) and a dynamic whereby Yes speakers are always on the back foot in debates. Actually though, that’s where another typically Scottish response has kicked in – no-one likes to see bullies target an underdog.
Leaders of the No campaign have believed they were speaking with authority, gravitas and urgency but been perceived by voters as over-reliant on sneers, mockery, wagging fingers, doom-laden tones and self-important grandiosity. This doesn’t chime with Scottish values and that’s been evident in some of the blandest statements.
According to Ed Miliband (repeatedly), Scots want what’s best for themselves and their families. True. But Scots are conscious of another dimension beyond the front door. Scots also want what’s best for other people, for strangers, for that wider society Margaret Thatcher could neither see nor value. Scots understand that more “choice” and slightly more disposable income inside the family unit doesn’t buy the democratic Good Life.
It doesn’t buy social solidarity, inclusion and excellent public services. It doesn’t tackle the resentment, despair and ill health of those desperate for a chance to be part of society.
It doesn’t even lengthen lives for the individually wealthy. It can’t buy trust or hope, or a peaceful society. Scots know a sound democracy is built on a three-legged stool – with benefits to self, family and wider society.
Every Better Together speech which fails to explain how the Union can mend the tattered fabric of our society, every use of authority in place of persuasion, every “balanced” news programme packed with tired, easily disproved “warnings” that are neither newsworthy nor even interesting – every stale part of the Establishment autopilot has become a vote loser.
Of course I am biased and these are generalisations. What is factually clear is that Scots have a near century-long record of voting for something different to the judgmental, divided, top-down, quasi-feudal, market-driven society Britain has become.
“No-one should have cake until everyone has bread,” said Norwegian prime minister Einar Gerhardsen, summing up the spirit of that country as it tackled reconstruction after the war.
It’s the same philosophy that has been driving the wider Yes movement for two years and has finally struck a chord with voters who are not Scottish nationalists.
How popular – we will soon see.