STOATING along Lochee High Street at lunchtime: William, a tall lad of 28, peely-wally and full of swally, an unemployed labourer who moves with manic jerkiness suggestive of energy which cannot find an outlet, like a power cable severed from its earth.
William is heading home, having been out all night drinking; spotting a journalist, he stops to ask what’s going on. Hearing it’s a story about Scottish independence, his eyes light up as best they can. It turns out he registered to vote just yesterday.
“Ninety per cent of my pals have never had a job,” he says, “and they won’t vote. They think it’s the same old story. I wouldn’t vote in a general election because it’s not going to make any difference to me who gets in. But the referendum is different.”
William is voting No. He’s a patriot who had Freedom For Scotland tattooed on his right arm after he saw Braveheart, but he’s worried about what independence will mean for the economy. Faslane, Rosyth, they’ll go for starters, he thinks, and then loads of others will be on the dole, like him and his friends.
In his voting intentions, William appears unusual here in Dundee, which has been dubbed Yes City. But he is typical of the general picture – men and women out of work or on low incomes who are energised by the referendum in a way they never were by party politics which they regard as self-serving and unlikely to put a single further penny in their pocket. William and others like him are part of the so-called “missing million” – Scots, many of them from deprived areas and living in poverty, who are either not registered to vote or simply do not bother.
There is a belief among pro-independence strategists that this often overlooked and underrepresented strata of society – in particular, middle-aged men who are unemployed or among the working poor – holds the key to victory. Persuade sufficient numbers to make the effort to vote, the thinking goes, and it could mean a win for Yes. They are thus campaigning hard, focusing on Scotland’s housing estates.
The other side seems to have given up this group, at least in Dundee. One prominent Labour figure admits word has gone out to the canvassers – there’s no point chapping the door of anyone of a certain age and social class, factors indicated by the name and address on the electoral roll: “Harry McGregor, living on his own in one of the schemes, is going to vote for independence. That’s the strongest demographic for Yes. Alex Salmond speaks to them about how their life’s not better.”
Does he really? My impression is that they have made their decision not because of the eloquence of any politician, but out of anger, despair and a desire to buck the status quo both personal and political. Call it National Lottery politics: there’s a comfort in the feeling, no matter how temporary and illusory, that the correct choice can change our lives. For those who spend their days denying themselves and their children things they want and need, how pleasant, for once, to be able to say Yes.
I meet Michelle Kimond and her mother Isabel outside the Jobcentre on the corner of Cowgate and Kirk Lane. Michelle, 42, claims carer’s allowance and disability living allowance on behalf of the three of her five children who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She takes methadone as a substitute for her painkiller addiction, but feeling that “it seeps right into your bones” she is detoxing and hopes soon to be free. She is also taking driving lessons. Coming off methadone, learning to drive, a recent divorce – all these aimed at giving her kids a better life. She has in her pocket £103 of winning scratchcards saved “to treat my mum on a rainy day”.
Isabel, 61, started work in the jute mills when she was in her mid-teens and then, for many years, put in long shifts as a cleaner. She has just come to the end of a six-month period during which her benefit payments were sanctioned because, she says, she only applied for 13 of an agreed 14 jobs within a fortnight; she has been living on less than £20 a week. Michelle has paid for her mother’s gas and electricity, and kept her fed, but she’s struggling, too. “I’ve no option but to use the food banks,” she says. “There’s loads of people in our area in our position: they have to wonder what’s the most important, heating or food. If it came to it, I would steal food for my kids. It would be a last resort, but I wouldn’t see them starving.”
It’s worth reporting all this because it explains how Michelle and Isabel are voting. They are sick and tired, literally so, of life as it is. In particular, they are worried about the coalition’s welfare reforms, and feel that Labour is failing to protect them. Michelle knows all about dependency – benefits, drugs, food banks, a bad marriage – and thus independence has a strong psychological appeal. “So,” she says, “it’s Yes aw the way.”
Michelle has just filled in a voter registration form at a stall manned by volunteers from the Dundee Against Welfare Sanctions (DAWS) and Radical Independence campaigns. Many visiting the Jobcentre to sign on, stop and complete the form. Over 100 people a day have registered here to vote, and most seem to favour independence. Tony McAteer is typical. He’s 52 and used to be a maintenance manager, but hasn’t worked since 2003 when his teenage son was murdered.
“My world collapsed and I’ve been unemployed since,” he says. Life on benefits is hard and getting harder. “If we’re Better Together then why aren’t we better? I’m not saying that if it turns out on 19 September that the vote’s Yes then life’s going to be different, but it’s got to be better than the shit we’re sitting in now.”
This is what you hear everywhere on the streets and in the pubs of Dundee’s most deprived areas, where everyone is fluent in the acronymic argot of modern poverty: ESA, DLA, ADHD, COPD, all of which stand for sorrow. A Yes vote here is a defiant act; visceral not cerebral, bound up with widespread anger about immigrants taking jobs and some anti-English feeling. Phyllis Hendrie, 51, is manager of The Sporting Lounge, a bar in Lochee. Her customers are, nominally, joiners, brickies, scaffolders, but they have no work, and she speaks for them when she says: “It’s oor country and we want it back.”
Those in such circumstances who intend to vote No are, according to DAWS campaigners, “turkeys voting for Christmas”. People sometimes prefer not to be on the electoral register as a means of avoiding council tax and debt. That so many are signing up shows they feel the referendum is meaningful. I even meet a homeless man, 40-year-old Douglas Stoddart, who is keen to register; he, however, is worried about the currency and would prefer that the coins he is given while begging on the streets of Dundee are sterling.
Over in Stobswell, a run-down area of tenements, there are pro-independence posters on display in many windows and Andrew Burns, tattooist at the Carpe Diem studio on Albert Street is offering free Yes tattoos all day on 15 September. He thinks he’s going to be busy. And should it turn out to be a No vote, well, he offers a laser removal service, too.
“Can I get one on my bum?” asks Gillian Neilson, a passing Yes supporter in a Che Guevara T-shirt. “You should see that guy down there,” she laughs. “His car’s covered in No signs.”
Indeed it is. Douglas Thain, 58, drives a VW Golf with Better Together flags flying proudly from the bonnet and plastic Saltires strung around the roof. He stacks shelves in a supermarket on low wages, but is glad of the job. He spent a decade on the dole. He’s voting No because he feels independence would put the SNP in power for years and they are not a party that truly cares about poverty.
A Labour man, his car is a statement of intent and a gesture of solidarity with Jim Murphy, hit by an egg on the campaign trail. As he drives around in this Nopemobile, folk toot their horns and give him the thumbs up. The silent majority are on his side, he feels, but he understands their silence. “There’s a fear in the city. That’s why there’s no posters up. People are frightened because they hear of cars getting scored, windows getting smashed; they hear of people being threatened.” As we’re talking, punters smoking outside The Lyon Bar across the street begin to jeer. “F***ing wanker!” one woman calls. “We’re voting Yes!”
Thain’s not having this. He was raised in the schemes and isn’t one to back down. He’s halfway across the road, shouting back, but when a man appears with an ice-bucket, intent on tipping it over him, he gets in his car and drives off, flags flapping.
This isn’t, perhaps, the best final impression of how the referendum campaign is being conducted in Dundee, but it does give a sense of the passion felt here. Yes City? Aye, right. The truth is more complex. But, unquestionably, for those living life on the breadline, the prospect of independence offers a crumb or two of comfort.