Another week, another set of sensational newspaper headlines claiming the independence referendum is impacting negatively on Scottish society.
Last week the Kirk’s incoming moderator suggested Scotland might need a reconciliation process after 18 September to heal family divisions. This weekend, two new threads have been woven into this “Help ma Boab” narrative.
Firstly, English folk living in Scotland fear recrimination if their vote visibly tilts the referendum towards a No result. Secondly, the Queen is worried.
Yesterday, a letter to the Kirk’s General Assembly was quoted in which the Queen says: “In this important year of referendum, we pray that, whatever the outcome, people of faith and … goodwill will work together for the social good of Scotland. We recognise too the important role that the Church can play in holding the people of Scotland together, in healing divisions and in safeguarding the interests of the most vulnerable.”
So far, so unremarkable – unless we’re about to be told the Queen also fears the poor are being damaged by the independence campaign. Alex Salmond heartily endorsed the Queen’s remarks and I suspect that will be on the end of that.
But the other negative theme is potentially more damaging.
Using the headline “English army scents victory” and a picture of Mel Braveheart Gibson face-painted with a St George’s Cross, a Sunday newspaper uncovered an ethnic gap in voting intentions. A Panelbase poll reveals that independence is now the most popular choice amongst Scots-born voters, (44 per cent Yes and 42 per cent No). But the weight of 400,000 English-born voters (27 per cent Yes and 66 per cent No) could counteract that slender majority and result in an overall No vote in September.
Quite why those behind the poll opted to enquire about the ethnicity of some respondents isn’t clear, but if anyone feared a climate of mutual accusation, fear and loathing as a result of the Panelbase poll, it has signally failed to materialise – for several reasons.
Place of birth alone reveals little about national allegiance or likely voting behaviour. Despite my Northern Irish twang I was born in Wolverhampton and am therefore part of the newly discovered “English-born” cohort. But three years in a pram in the Black Country probably shaped me less than ten years in Belfast where my expat Scottish parents read the Scots Magazine and Sunday Post, watched the White Heather Club on TV, took long holidays to visit Scottish grandparents and attended more Burns Suppers than they ever did “across the water” in Glasgow.
I could have been born in Timbuktu and still emerged with one clear impression from my upbringing – Scotland was home sweet home. I suppose if my parents had come from England, not Wick and Banffshire, that might have been different. But the point is that birthplace alone – the poll’s yardstick of difference – tells us very little.
Accent proves even less. Health journalist Pennie Taylor prompted a minor flurry on Radio Scotland’s Headlines programme after remarking that more people had queried her ethnic origins since the referendum campaign began. For the record, Pennie was born in Mumbai (then Bombay) to a Musselburgh dad and a mum from the Scottish Borders. The family lived in England when they returned to the UK (hence her accent) before Pennie chose to make Scotland her home, living in Glasgow’s Maryhill area for more than two decades.
But a very few listeners – reacting on social media – couldn’t accept Pennie’s own account and suggested she must be making a fuss about nothing or just plain wrong.
This was bad form.
I saw not one single tweet suggesting English voters should be pressurised to vote Yes as a response to the Panelbase survey – but I did witness a minor outbreak of discourtesy towards an intelligent woman relating an experience that simply didn’t fit the official Yes narrative.
If some people report a heightened and negative awareness of background and accent during the last few months then that’s what they have felt. Not only is it impossible to “rearrange” or correct their memory, perception or lived experience, it’s disrespectful – and totally counterproductive.
Some SNP voters and Yes Campaign members may have opted to toe an imagined party line during the referendum debate, but the rest of us haven’t – even those who intend to vote Yes. A thousand flowers must blossom during the potentially polarising period of the referendum debate because independence without diversity simply isn’t worth the candle. “My way or the highway” outlooks are all too common in Scottish society and have to change. Now – not later. The way people are heard and treated today creates either confidence or doubt about the future.
It’s simply not natural for everyone to have the same experience or the same opinion about the same thing. Nor is diversity a greater threat to happiness, group cohesion – or even a Yes vote – than a dour conformity. Mutual respect is probably the single most important thing to someone living in Scotland with an English accent. So let’s have that – in spades.
Don’t get me wrong. The Scottish independence debate has been refreshingly free of ethnic baggage and without this weekend poll singling out English-born respondents, I doubt we’d even be discussing the “ethnic vote”. But Yes supporters can’t control the mainstream media – they can only control their own response.
If No-leaning newspapers suggest English-born voters have a pivotal role in the referendum, those folk may feel singled out and judged, may discuss the few negative experiences that occur, find small worries reinforced, start to behave like a cohort for “protection” and ultimately vote No – vindicating yesterday’s divisive poll.
There’s only one way to stop this circuitous and self-fulfilling process and it’s not angry condemnation of the mainstream media. By all means write letters, highlight inconsistencies and tackle distortions and lies. But remember one thing: needing to be right all the time is far less impressive to most people than being ready to offer acceptance, respect and inclusion for all opinions – in this battered “old” Scotland as well as the shiny “new” one.
Successful campaigners don’t win wars or debating points – they win hearts and minds. The overwhelming majority of Yes campaigners have got the message. Intolerance is the only enemy in this referendum campaign – not ethnic division.