Lesley Riddoch: No need to fan imaginary flames

It’s not worth talking about reconciliation after the referendum – what’s needed is real debate now, writes Lesley Riddoch

Lottery winners and Yes campaign donors Chris and Colin Weir have called for an end to smears. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Pleas for reconciliation made headlines this weekend. Not over warring Ukraine, the continuing bloodbath in Syria or the terrible plight of grieving parents in Nigeria. No, the plea for reconciliation was made for post-referendum Scotland by the Kirk’s Moderator Designate and the shadow foreign secretary.

Scotland on Sunday reported that Douglas Alexander will mark the 20th anniversary of John Smith’s death today with a speech inviting the SNP to help create a new era of devolution in a cross-party constitutional convention if Scots reject independence in September.

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Meanwhile, the incoming Moderator, the Rev John Chalmers, has told newspapers: “In the coming months, there is a danger the referendum will set people against each other, in their own community, their own street – even their own family.” Accordingly, he has invited political leaders from all sides of the referendum campaign to a Church of Scotland reconciliation service three days after the vote in St Giles’ Cathedral aimed at healing divisions and building the future together. Apparently, all parties have already agreed to attend.

The timing of these pleas is apparently coincidental and the content fairly unremarkable – after all, who wouldn’t want to establish common cause after a period of democratic dissent? But that makes the banner headlines even stranger. Motherhood and apple pie rarely make news. So why are all these pious words – with which most parties broadly agree – commanding front page headlines now?

Is there really widespread worry that big trouble sits on the other side of the referendum result – and is it justified? Would a special church service or national convention of the great and good calm any warring factions that do develop? Does either civic leader present a coherent vision of likely problems or practical solutions for post-referendum Scotland?

To be fair, it’s fairly obvious why fears have arisen.

Last week Chris and Colin Weir – the Ayrshire couple who donated millions from their EuroMillions lottery win to the Yes campaign – called for an end to “smears” and “personal attacks.” The newly established No Borders organisation complained about “virulent” and “nasty” online attacks “whipped up” by Nationalist websites. And every day, columns like this one attract heated, hostile and personal comments online.

The fear seems to be that the tiny minority of angry people creating current unpleasantness will be further inflamed by defeat. As Douglas Alexander puts it, referendum losers will inevitably be disappointed when “deeply personal feelings and hopes about themselves and their nation [are] dashed by the result.” Will that tip them into some kind of cyber guerrilla war against the victors?

It’s true that the referendum campaign is fairly evenly matched, the result will probably hang on a knife-edge and that hopes are therefore high on both sides. But there’s no evidence that disappointment will prompt aggressive acts of vindictiveness against members of the opposing side after 18 September.

Let’s try to keep this in proportion – even if some senior Scots have some trouble doing that. The overwhelming experience of the last disputatious year has been peaceful. Countries around the globe regard the mutually agreed referendum process in Scotland as a positive template for resolving internal disputes over sovereignty. Of course there are individual incidences of nastiness. But enough to warrant plans for national reconciliation four months ahead of the vote?

Having grown up in Belfast during the “Troubles” and founded a charity training African women who lived through unimaginable violence and cruelty, I’d hesitate to talk about “reconciliation” for Scotland. That process has been deployed to deal with the kind of social breakdown that follows death, rape, abduction and physical assault or centuries of housing segregation and racial or religious discrimination. Are we really equating modern Scotland with Soweto? Of course not. Mind you, in everyday language reconciliation can also be shorn of apocalyptic overtones to simply mean “the restoration of friendly relations.” Who wouldn’t say amen to that – but why then the headlines?

For centuries, Scots have been portrayed as brawling, angry, violent people whose simmering resentments are nursed over decades, even centuries “tae keep them warm”. As a result, many “civilised” Scots fear any demonstration of anger or emotion as if it confirmed the existence of that pugnacious and mythical alter ego. Less Project Fear than Project Alienation – this fear of the Scots’ dark side has been skilfully stoked up and hinted at for centuries.

The result is an over-weaning fear of disorder in a country whose people have long demonstrated an admirable adherence to democratic rather than violent means of resolving disputes. As the writer William McIlvanney observed at the Ullapool Book Festival this weekend, the Scottish slogan is not ‘wha daur meddle wi me’ but ‘wait a minute, that’s no’ fair’. The great achievement of Glaswegians living through deprivation and cruelty in the last century was that they “stayed human in the worst possible circumstances”. What makes us think the Scottish instinct for fairness isn’t sufficiently well embedded in the Scottish psyche to control any more destructive emotions today?

Scots are no more modern embodiments of Frankenstein than we are devoid of strong feelings about living in an enfeebled democracy we have long feared to challenge. The referendum campaign has indeed opened Pandora’s Box and Scots are questioning everything from “Edinburgh rule” to land scarcity. What of it? Why run from the challenge – why not engage?

The best way to guarantee a positive emotional climate in post-referendum Scotland is to build it now – not in four months’ time – in every town and village hall across Scotland, not in privileged assemblies of the Great and Good.

But that can only happen if both sides are willing to debate. And increasingly debates are being cancelled or abandoned because Better Together won’t supply speakers. Now of course as a Yes supporter, I would say that. But travelling around Scotland I hear the same complaint.

Douglas Alexander is well placed to encourage joint working after the referendum by asking Better Together to supply joint working now. There is a massive democratic demand for genuine local debates across Scotland and a heady mix of strong but manageable emotions.

Better for everyone to engage with that reality now than fan the flames about imaginary problems after September.