Peter Jones: Referendum debate strikes gold

Stocks of superlatives having long been exhausted by Glasgow 2014’s outstanding success, I am not going to even try unearthing more.

Scottish sport stars such as paralympic sprinter Libby Clegg, who won gold in the Games, are said to owe much of their success to UK lottery funding. Picture: PA
Scottish sport stars such as paralympic sprinter Libby Clegg, who won gold in the Games, are said to owe much of their success to UK lottery funding. Picture: PA

I do think, however, that the Commonwealth Games will affect the independence referendum. Moreover, all the best centre-lane positions are there for the Yes campaign to claim in the final dash for gold medal in this political marathon.

Most commentators reckon that sporting success or failure has little effect on political events. After all, to paraphrase one sage loosely, if political ups and downs followed the national team’s performance on the football field, Scotland would have long ago lost all interest in devolution, never mind independence.

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But this is equating banana skins with passion fruit. The Scottish football team and its (mostly) dismal showings are a familiarly regular occurrence; the Commonwealth Games are an unusual one-off occasion that Scotland gets a chance at hosting rarely.

The staging of the Games and the performance of Team Scotland at them are also two quite different things. If Scotland’s athletes had done moderately well, the facilities and the welcome provided for athletes and spectators alike would still have been a noteworthy success.

This is where some of the early Yes rhetoric could pay off. The No campaign, they complained, believed Scotland was “too poor, too wee, and too stupid” to be independent. Actually, I haven’t seen any evidence that any significant No campaigner said anything of the sort. But that doesn’t matter. The Yes campaign can now assert that the success of Glasgow 2014 defies the “too poor, too wee, too stupid” rubric which, I suspect, many voters inclined to vote No may well think. Certainly, many Yes campaigners reckon it is what the No campaign is all about.

So, and this is just as important, having set up this straw man, to have this big counter-claim knock-down is a significant morale boost to the foot-sloggers and door-knockers who will be told that they too can defy the opinion polls to pull off an astonishing political triumph.

Let’s recall that Glasgow 2014 had about 4,500 competitors from 71 countries, representing about one third of the world’s population. More than 1 million tickets were sold for 17 different sports and there may have been as many as 1.5 billion TV viewers internationally.

This was a significant world event. Glasgow put it on for the bargain price of £575 million, almost one third of the cost of the 2010 Games in Delhi – not a great staging success. And the accolades for Glasgow have poured in from all corners.

Thus, I think, the Yes campaign will portray it as confounding the nay-sayers and doom-mongers, despite there not having been any folk predicting disaster for the Games as far as I can recall. The success of Team Scotland in winning 53 medals, 19 of them gold, feeds into that rhetoric.

Just as the country provided the stage, it could be argued by the Yes campaign that Glasgow 2014 shows how Scottish sportsmen and women can compete and win on that international stage. It is easy to translate that into an argument that independence will enable many more Scots to compete and win internationally in their own areas of work and interest, whether that’s industry or conservation. Specious it may be, but it sounds good.

And that leads on to a third point. One of the Games’ slogans – people make Glasgow – could be just as applicable to independence: people make Scotland. Again, there is little doubt that the energy and enthusiasm of not just the 15,000-strong volunteer force, but also the city’s people and businesses were a big factor in the Games’ success.

Thus the Yes campaign can argue that an independent Scotland will be a big success because the Scottish people, not the doubting economists, bankers, businessfolk, etc, will make it so.

There’s lots of other good Yes news to be extracted. Scotland promoted social progressiveness with John Barrowman’s gay kiss in the opening ceremony and boosted disability rights with the integration of para sports into the main Games. And for those who think independence rests on hatred of the English, there was zero evidence of that in Glasgow, quite the opposite in fact, showing how the home nations can compete in harmony.

Against this, what could the No campaign claim? The obvious point is that Glasgow 2014 occurred within the Union. There is absolutely no evidence to support any claim that the rest of the UK prevented it from being an even bigger success or that it dragged it down and hampered it, which is what the SNP routinely says about most aspects of Scotland’s existence within the UK.

Indeed, Glasgow 2014 built on London 2012. The idea of raising Hampden’s surface by putting the athletics surface on very advanced stilts was borrowed from the London 2012 equestrian arena. The army of volunteers was drawn on London’s example and Lord Coe, the Olympics orchestrator, gave huge unpaid assistance to Lord Smith of Kelvin, chair of the Glasgow organising committee. Indeed, all of the home nations surpassed in Glasgow. England topped the medal table for the first time in 28 years, Wales secured nine more medals than the target of 27, and Northern Ireland had the biggest medal haul since 1986. The common factor has to be the inspiration provided by London 2012.

Scottish success also owes much to UK facilities and UK lottery funding. For example, 15 of the Scottish athletics squad have trained at British Athletics’ national centre at Loughborough University, including gold medallist Libby Clegg and silver medallist Lynsey Sharp.

Will either case have any resonance? Opinion polls that say the Games won’t affect how people vote are premature because the campaigns have yet to put the arguments. And whether they convince people one way or the other depends on how important voters think they are in comparison with the big independence uncertainties over currency, EU membership, jobs and prosperity.

Just how significant the Games’ effect might be we will start to learn tonight when Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling meet in debate. I’ll be astonished if Mr Salmond doesn’t try to capitalise on them. And I rather think that Mr Darling will need better responses than I have been able to conjure up.