George Kerevan: Public the winner in open debate

The referendum is helping to re-engage people with politics once more, which can only be a good thing, writes George Kerevan
Meetings such as this one in Berwick-upon-Tweed are drawing big audiences keen to have their say. Picture: Kimberley PowellMeetings such as this one in Berwick-upon-Tweed are drawing big audiences keen to have their say. Picture: Kimberley Powell
Meetings such as this one in Berwick-upon-Tweed are drawing big audiences keen to have their say. Picture: Kimberley Powell

It’s Wednesday night in Glasgow and I’m at Waterstones’ vast bookshop in Sauchiehall Street to debate independence with Alan Cochrane, Scottish editor of the Daily Telegraph. Alan and I have co-authored a book arguing both sides of the indy question – he No, me Yes – in a spirited attempt to provide undecided readers with intellectual ammunition to make up their minds.

For the past few months, we have ventured forth from the safety of our word processors to sample the state of the independence discussion at first hand. One wag from a Scottish think-tank (we have his name) posted on-line: “Great moments in time: George Kerevan and Alan Cochrane…like Pacino and De Niro on screen together!”

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Our trip has been an eye-opener. Everywhere you go, folk are attending meetings like ours in Glasgow, in large numbers. Fellow journalists who’ve been recruited to speak or referee at similar events attest to this upsurge in grass-roots democracy. Well-attended debates are taking place in town halls, and churches across the land. Bookshops are a prime venue: they have decent coffee and seats that don’t wobble.

Meanwhile, back at Waterstones, the manager says 98 people have arrived for the discussion. He’s very pleased by the numbers.

I don’t put it down to my charisma or Cochrane’s bad jokes. People want to discuss the referendum because it affects their lives and future. The referendum is not like a general election, where you can afford to abstain on the grounds that politicians are all the same; 18 September will decide what country you live in – not a decision to leave up to others. One can sense this understanding in every public audience.

The appointed hour arrives at the bookshop, but an apologetic Cochrane is still in Edinburgh. US president Barack Obama has declared he would prefer that the UK stayed “united”. (Curiously, he does not apologise for the Declaration of Independence, as someone in the audience remarks.) Understandably, Alan has to stay and cover the breaking story.

Waterstones’ manager offers to restage the debate at a later date if folk feel short-changed by the White House kidnapping Cochrane. They opt to stay (though a second discussion is being scheduled). Again, this is not down to me, but to the fact they want to talk about the pros and cons of independence.

The audience is very mixed politically, which is usual. True, it is probably weighted to the Yes side, but there are vocal No supporters, a strong contingent of undecideds, plus a generous helping of enthusiastic eccentrics. There are even a couple of Ukip supporters, which is brave in Glasgow.

Significantly, the audience hears Ukip in polite silence. This is not because anyone agrees with them (they make that clear), but because there is an urge to let everyone have their say, given the momentous nature of the decision to be made.

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These public meetings are less about hearing words of wisdom from supposed authority figures and more about the public themselves sharing and discussing with each other. I went to my first public political meeting (as a teenager) in Drumchapel, during the 1966 general election, when Harold Wilson was battling to increase Labour’s tiny majority. I was the only person in the audience. I think the candidate wanted to go home, but the obnoxiously precocious Kerevan peppered him with questions. Public meetings were the stuff of election campaigns till the 1970s.

As was the art of heckling the opposition, which made politics entertaining. I’ve watched a supremely relaxed Harold Wilson swat hecklers with ease. On one occasion, he was pontificating about public expenditure plans when a youthful protester shouted: “What about Vietnam?” Without breaking stride, Wilson replied: “The Labour government has no plans to increase public expenditure in Vietnam.” Heckler: “Rubbish!” Wilson: “I’ll come to your special interest in a minute, sir.” Can’t see Ed pulling that off.

Public meetings ended when politicians retreated behind their teleprompters and began speaking platitudes in case they had to commit themselves. That began the public’s loss of faith in politicians and in politics. We now have a façade of democracy behind which a new power elite has emerged. The public knows it is being manipulated and has tuned out.

One thing I find from referendum public meetings is a growing frustration with the print media. Newspapers are universally derided for being too overtly partisan and slanting front-page stories. Of course the arrival of the internet and social media has allowed for some revival of the democratic commons. Unfortunately, the weakness of internet politics is that it is largely the committed speaking to their own side. How can people engage in debate that changes ideas and opinions? Scots have found their own answer spontaneously: they go to meetings and talk to each other.

My debate at Waterstones would have gone on all evening had we not had to let the staff have a life. I introduce, but people really want the chance (politely) to have their personal say or ask each other questions. It was more like a town hall meeting than anything else. I could see positions changing and decisions being made.

After the discussion comes the book signing. Many folk have already bought it and came for the debate itself. A lady asks if she can buy my half of the book but not Alan’s. I’m not sure if she’s joking. In fact, at each of our gigs someone from one political camp or the other makes this same remark. (PS: I’ve forgiven the Daily Telegraph reviewer of the book for singularly failing to mention the fact Alan had a co-author, or that the Yes side even gets a mention. I figure that traditional Telegraph readers won’t buy it if they think a Nat is involved.)

The public meeting, long considered to have been killed off by television, has returned. I predict this resurgence – not the internet – will change the face of Scottish democracy for the better, no matter who triumphs on 18 September.