Allan Massie: Referendum day a date with apathy

THE independence vote is something many people would simply like to get over and done with, writes Allan Massie

Scotland heads to the polls in the referendum later this year. Picture: TSPL

For members of the SNP, 2014 is the year they have been dreaming of, and in many cases working for, ever since they committed themselves to the cause of Scottish independence. For many of the rest of us, it’s a bore inflicted on us by political zealots. Scotland’s date with destiny is a day many Scots just want to see behind them. A few months ago, engaging in a standard piece of research, I asked a young taxi driver what he thought of it all. “Don’t see the point of it,” he said, and a lot of people would say “me neither”.

It’s very hard to gauge the level of interest. The turn-out for the 1997 devolution referendum and for the four Scottish Parliament elections since (1999, 2003, 2007, 2011) was at best mediocre; on no occasion did it suggest interest in politics ran high. In 2011, the SNP and Alex Salmond achieved what the electoral system was supposed to have made impossible: an overall majority at Holyrood. This was a triumph for the party and for its leader personally. Yet just over 50 per cent of the electorate voted. An awful lot of people thought the election insufficiently important to bother about.

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One assumes that the number voting on 18 September will be higher, but how much higher? Both sides have agreed to abide by the result, but a low poll would be unsatisfactory, whoever wins.

A cursory glance any day of the week at the letters pages of this newspaper might seem to indicate a high level of interest. We regularly carry three or four letters – often more – in which the argument for or against independence is made, sometimes powerfully.

However, if you were to read the page every day for a month, you might revise the impression formed over the first few days, for you couldn’t fail to notice that there are many more letters on the subject than there are correspondents. The same people keep the argument going day after day.

Now, it may be that the regulars’ letters are so good that they squeeze out other ones – but it is unlikely that the editor of the page is running a closed shop. I suspect fresh contributors would be welcomed, but they don’t seem to present themselves. Moreover, The Scotsman is not unique in this respect. The case is the same with other newspapers, including my local weekly.

Of course, there are many people who have firm political opinions but never think of writing a letter to a newspaper, just as there are many with strong views who would never take part in a march or demonstration. Political activists are always a minority – a small one indeed – and any judgment based on their activities is formed on the evidence of an unrepresentative sample. Yet even with the reservation that many with firm views prefer to keep their opinion to themselves, we should recognise that politics plays a very small part in most people’s lives. This is hard for activists to understand, and often hard for political journalists to remember, but it is nevertheless a fact. Interest in politics comes a long way after family, work, sport, the arts, shopping and leisure activities. People tend to follow Candide’s advice and cultivate their own garden rather than bothering about the state of the nation.

This widespread indifference poses more of a problem for the “Better Together” or “No” camp than it does for the Nationalists. They are committed to their cause, but many Unionists just want to be left alone and wish the politicians would shut up. It’s hard to muster noisy enthusiasm for the status quo; it’s simply the house where you have been living more or less contentedly for years, even for all your life so far, something you take for granted. Accordingly for many – and not only for worried businessmen – the referendum campaign is a tiresome distraction they could happily do without.

As we get closer to the referendum, the Nationalists will crank up enthusiasm. There will be marches for independence and they will be well attended. Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon will make their case lucidly and intelligently and will perform well in TV debates. And I’m not sure that any of this will make much difference. I suspect that most people have already made their decision as to how they will vote.

Admittedly, one hears of people saying they want more clarification before they make up their minds, but I suspect they are comparatively few in number. For most it is an instinctive rather than intellectual thing. They are for or against independence because that’s the sort of people they are. Sensible unionists recognise that Scotland could be a reasonably successful independent state, but nevertheless say “No” to the proposition, and no amount of persuasion will change their mind. Likewise, no argument in defence of the Union will cause a committed nationalist to lose faith in the desirability of independence.

For Alex Salmond and his fellow Yes campaigners, the problem is to persuade the half-hearted, those who tend to say, “aye, it would be grand, but I’m no’ sure”. Unless they can do this they are doomed, for all the available evidence suggests that there aren’t enough of the already committed true believers to win a majority.

For Alistair Darling and his No team, the problem is to get the vote out, as opinion polls consistently suggest that there is a natural majority in favour of the Union. Evidence from Westminster elections supports this: the SNP has always said that winning a bare majority of Scottish seats in a general election would be regarded as a mandate to negotiate independence. That they have never come anywhere near achieving such a result suggests that there is no widespread burning desire for independence, no great national impetus towards that goal.

Which is why so many Scots just wish we could leap to 18 September and be done with the debate for years. Like my young taxi driver, they don’t see the point of it all.