Alex Massie: Streets apart in referendum debate

Alex Massie, pictured during his walk from Lenzie to Shettleston. Picture: John Devlin
Alex Massie, pictured during his walk from Lenzie to Shettleston. Picture: John Devlin
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Alex Massie takes a walk from a leafy suburb to a deprived estate and discovers why both Yes and No are struggling to present coherent visions

If the referendum campaign, long and noisy as it has been, has taught us anything it is likely to be that your Scotland is not my Scotland. And vice versa. The warring tribes of Nationalist and Unionist, Yes voter and No voter, agree only that they disagree on everything. There is no common ground, no difference to be split. You are Yes or you are No. Being an undecided voter is like being a Glaswegian with no firm opinions on football. Or like being a Partick Thistle fan trapped between two equally hostile tribes.

There are many Scotlands and in trying to reach them all it’s perhaps unsurprising that the rival campaigns – Yes Scotland and Better Together – often seem to be talking past each other. “I just want the facts,” exhausted voters plead. It sounds such a simple, reasonable request. Except there are no facts, merely interpretations. There is no ­algorithm that can tell you to vote Yes or No, no website into which you can feed your policy preferences and receive a recommendation to vote for independence or for the Union. It is up to you and you are on your own.

Will we be better together or richer apart? It is a question without an ­answer. Is this an argument about economics or identity? It depends who you ask. Depends, too, who you are: British or Scottish, rich or poor, old or young, male or female, urban or rural. No wonder there is so little common ground, so few bets that may be hedged. So much confusion.

The Treasury in London releases a report claiming a “Union dividend” of £1,400 per Scot, per year; the Scottish Government responds with statistics suggesting this is nonsense. On the contrary, you will be £1,000 better off with independence. They can’t both be right; it’s more probable each is wrong. The only answer to the question “Where is Scotland going?” is “We won’t know ­until we get there.”

But there are journeys that can be made, and I made one last week. It is a small thing to travel from Lenzie to Shettleston. Only a journey of half a dozen miles and a lifetime. A trip from one Scotland to another. The people in these places share a Glasgow postcode but, materially speaking, little else.

Consider the children. Thirty per cent of children attending Shettleston’s ­Eastbank Academy are eligible for free school meals. Truancy rates are three times the national average. Only 13 per cent of pupils will have passed five Highers by the end of sixth year; only 7 per cent secure at least one Advanced Higher. A lifetime of disadvantage begins ­early. It commands a price that will be paid in joblessness, poor health and an early grave. Despite recent improvements, male life-expectancy in Shettleston remains 68.

By contrast, in affluent, suburban ­Lenzie – so affluent and so suburban it is compulsory to note it is “leafy” – only 6 per cent of pupils qualify for free meals at school and 25 per cent earn five Highers in fifth year. One in three, twice the national average, will pass at least one Advanced Higher. Life-expectancy at birth here is 82.

In one place a delicatessen advertises artisan bread and “prosecco on draft”, in the other Mindy’s Mini-Mart alerts residents to a new shipment of Buckfast, now available in cans. It’s tempting to conclude that Lenzie is a place that doesn’t need politics and Shettleston a community that desperately does. One is soaked in the sleepiness that comes from prosperity; the other in a sullen quiet that reeks of hopelessness. “A lot of people around here will vote for independence,” one Shettleston local tells me, “but it won’t make any difference.”

“This campaign will be won or lost in the housing schemes,” says Yes luminary Jim Sillars, and Shettleston shows why. There are more closed than open shops on the high street and, despite new housing and much local endeavour, a sense of heavy fatalism hangs in the air. Barely half of Shettleston’s registered ­voters bothered to vote at the last Westminster election.

Perhaps the referendum will be different. It might have to be for Yes to prevail. “We’re expecting a higher turnout in the most deprived areas,” a Yes Scotland strategist says. “It’s not so much about persuading active Labour voters to vote Yes as about getting their neighbours [who don’t usually vote] to vote this time. If we can’t get them out, we can’t win this.”

But – and here is the dilemma for Yes campaigners – a laser-like focus on those Scots with the least to lose from independence is worth little if it comes at the expense of those with most. Those in places such as Lenzie. The prospect of higher taxes worries affluent voters. The wealthier you are the more probable it is you are voting No and the richest Scots are those most likely to wonder if Scotland is rich enough for independence.

“The affordability hurdle is still our biggest obstacle,” admits a senior Yes campaign source. “Our job is to reassure people that we can do this.”

There are many people, Yes Scotland believes, who want to vote for independence but haven’t yet completed the journey from worried sceptic to confirmed believer.

They need permission to do so; they need to be given the “facts”. “They want to vote for it and it’s almost a relief for them when they find out they can.”

The Yes campaign remains adamant that Scotland’s referendum cannot be compared to a normal political campaign; adamant too that international examples drawn from other referendums and the prediction of a late swing towards the status quo do not apply in Scotland’s case. The polls, senior sources insist, dramatically understate the number of undecided voters.

Even so, a disproportionate number of those voters will have to break in favour of Yes if independence is to be secured. On that, if little else, the campaigns agree. “The polls are 60-40 [in favour of No] but a lot of the time when people say they are voting No they’re really ­saying they haven’t made up their mind,” says a Yes insider.

Elsewhere, talk of momentum is greeted with puzzlement. “The big story of the campaign is that nothing has happened,” says a leading Conservative. “Everyone gets terribly excited by small wrinkles in the polls but the bigger picture hasn’t changed very much at all.”

Psephologists agree. “If things continue as they are it is going to be a No vote,” says YouGov’s Anthony Wells. “If there was a slight trend towards Yes earlier in the year, it’s not happening quickly enough to make a difference.” All the campaign has done is make partisans on each side of the great divide more ­certain they are right.

The referendum is also a struggle between two very different styles of campaigning. Both sides, of course, rely on polling and focus groups but they have taken very different approaches to winning. Yes Scotland knows that to win hearts it must first win minds; Better ­Together doesn’t much care about your heart, it’s your mind it wants. The Yes campaign has rallied the troops for a ground war; Better Together prefers to focus its energy on an air war. One ­campaign relies upon infantry, the other on heavy bombers.

“We will get our people out,” says one senior Yes strategist, estimating a “2-3 per cent” turnout advantage amongst even heavily committed voters. “The Yes machine is demonstrably better. That will be important in the final weeks.” The nationalists are strong amongst middle-aged men but admit there’s more work to be done to convince more sceptical women and English-born ­voters.

Unionist strategists agree that Better Together has not matched the Yes campaign “on the ground”. This, they insist, is deliberate. “We’re running a very ­different campaign that focuses relentlessly on undecided voters. We’re not interested in big meetings in rooms where everyone already agrees.”

Despite that, there’s a palpable sense amongst Unionists that the No campaign needs a bit more flair, a bit more energy, a bit more pizzazz. “We need to remind people that it’s not uncool to be part of the No campaign,” one insider ­admits.

“We speak for the majority of Scots. We just need to give people the confidence that saying No is a good Scottish thing to do.”

Labour’s “big beasts” are returning to the field of battle. Jim Murphy this week launches a “100 towns in 100 days” campaign tour. John Reid will play his part, too. And so, most of all, will Gordon Brown. The former Prime Minister’s ­re-emergence at a United With Labour rally last week heralded the start of ­Labour’s big push. “The big thing is we’ve discovered you can say No ­proudly. It’s a patriotic No,” says a Labour insider.

And yet there’s still a quiet confidence amongst nationalists that they have endured and survived the worst Unionists can throw at them and emerged from the bombardment, if not unscathed, then at least alive. Questions about the currency? About the European Union? Even about US President Barack Obama’s intervention? None has sunk the nationalists.

And that confidence is matched in the Unionist camp. True, this is mixed, one insider admits, with “paranoia” as ­Unionists try to second-guess the Yes campaign’s next move, but increasingly they wonder if there’s any secret nationalist weapon still waiting to be deployed.

“If we lose it’s because people have decided to make their choices based on something other than economics,” says a Better Together insider. “If people wake up on 18 September and say ‘Bugger it, let’s give it a bash’, it’s because they’ve decided it’s not about mortgages or jobs.” Their implication is clear: a Yes vote might happen but it would be ­irrational.

“The Unionist parties are trying to kill us off now because they’re worried about the last three weeks of the campaign,” says a Yes Scotland source. In the end, he says, the Yes campaign will frame the question simply: “A vote for Scotland or a vote against Scotland? A vote even against the concept of Scotland.” The ­argument will be made in three steps, which Yes strategist Stephen Noon usefully outlined in this newspaper earlier this year: we can do this; we should do this; we must do this.

Unionists say we don’t have to choose at all. Scotland can enjoy the Best of Both Worlds – a reassuring slogan heavily approved of by focus groups. “The Yes campaign is prepared to say anything, no matter how ludicrous, to win,” says a leading Better Together figure. “We’re saying you don’t need to take this risk.”

The road from suburban East Dunbartonshire to Glasgow’s east end takes you from one Scotland to another. From a Scotland that travels in BMWs to one that goes by bus. From a land that, Yes Scotland will argue, shows how Scotland can easily afford independence to a place demonstrating its necessity. But in both places – and in all parts in-between – the referendum is a finely wrought ­calculation of risk and reward. Each campaign balances reassurance with fear; both suggest there can be glittering prizes for all. A happy Scotland where everyone wins and no-one loses.

“Best of Both Worlds” may be intuitively appealing but settling for a bit of this and a bit of that is not necessarily more satisfying than demanding a whole loaf. For that matter, “Yes We Can” is not the same as “Yes We Must” and “Better Together” does not mean “Dreadful Apart”. There will be no shortage of rhetorical sleight-of-hand this long summer. No wonder intuition and instinct are likely to prove more reliable guides than slippery “facts” in a campaign that’s as much about your feelings as it is a struggle for your thoughts.

One hundred days. A micro-second in the life and history of a nation, but 100 days that will, at last and at least, decide which nation this Scotland – these many Scotlands – will be. Yes, No, Don’t Know: the choosing time is upon us. «

Twitter: @alexmassie