Far from being ‘as dull as dishwater’, the referendum debate is fomenting a growing determination to rise to the challenge of nationhood, writes Gerry Hassan
How often have you heard it said: the independence referendum is a non-event and as boring as paint drying?
This has become the uncontested view of part of mainstream Scotland, and many in public life and the media. Last week Newsnight Scotland anchor Gordon Brewer stated as fact that the whole thing was “dull as dishwater”, while others pronounce that it is “turning off voters”, “deadening” and “never-ending”.
It is a cliché, caricature and articulates a world-weary, cynical, Paxmanesque attitude of condescension. It also just happens to be deeply and utterly wrong.
Interestingly, this “it’s all boring” perspective hasn’t learned from the recent past. Two years ago in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election campaign, a chorus of the mainstream media, often the same people as today, called the whole thing predicable and dull.
During that contest some of us, myself included, attempted to present a counter-view, sensing that something profound was going on in that election campaign and that Scotland was changing under our feet. Events proved this view right.
The independence referendum is a major challenge to how Scottish society sees itself, talks, debates and listens. Those who say it isn’t exciting are often those holding positions of influence and power in society or the media. And what they don’t do is contextualise where and how this debate is unfolding and how we got to this point.
Scottish society, public culture and the media have for decades been tightly controlled, hierarchical and with the voices and opinions that speak carefully managed and orchestrated. This was a culture filled with no-go areas and taboos. There was a near- endless list of subjects which weren’t meant to be raised in polite society or family gatherings. These ranged from sectarianism to sexism, racism and anything to do with sexuality and gay rights.
Now the referendum comes at a point where much of this has changed. Scotland has experienced its own version of what could be called a quiet revolution where the gridlock and conformity of that past has dramatically eroded.
Not only is Scotland a different country from that of 1955, when the Tory Party and Kirk enjoyed their highest-ever box office appeal, it is also a very different country from that of 1979. Then, a majority of people lived in council housing while trade union membership covered more than half the workforce.
The independence referendum is a product of that changed society, and it is acting as a catalyst transforming it further. For all the limitations of the SNP’s version of independence, even to many of its supporters this debate is normalising the very idea of independence.
By this I mean two things. One shift is that all sensible political opinion now accepts that Scotland would be a viable, successful independent country: the debate having shifted from the “could we” to the “should we”. The other is that what independence entails is the subject of all sorts of public debate: Trident, social justice, welfare benefits, currency, and the role of the Treasury and Bank of England post-independence.
This is a seismic shift from the Scotland of only a few years ago, when the likes of every Tory or Labour politician would patronise Scotland with the “too wee, too poor, too cold, and just too plain Scottish” to stand on its own two feet and embrace self-government.
A second change is that this debate is slowly democratising parts of Scottish public life as that institutional power and authority slowly weakens.
Most importantly, power is shifting in society and culturally. For decades, Scots people knew the reach of omnipotent authority from the Kirk to the Labour council. There was a tangible feeling that if you looked the wrong way in public you would be told off with “the Scottish tut”.
A growing group of people are now saying “I have authority.” They feel they don’t need to wait for permission from institutional opinion, and instead have the confidence to stick their heads above the parapet.
There seems to be a generational aspect to this as a significant group of twentysomethings become politically active and literate in groups such as National Collective and the Radical Independence Conference. There is also a gender shift happening in a society which is still in too many places male-dominated and where male- only zones of debate are still too commonplace.
Much of this is happening under the radar from official Scotland without them seeing or recognising it. But what this entails is a reconfiguration of the notion of who has and what is power, and it seems that part of society is shifting from the traditional idea of hard, formal power to a more fluid, open, soft notion of power. There are limitations in this emerging Scotland: its financial resources are often small and fragile, and institutional Scotland’s power while weakening is still much stronger. But what this unleashing of energy, hope and optimism is saying is, we want to have a say in a debate which is about what kind of Scotland we live in.
This is profoundly challenging the simple, lazy habit of parts of the media from just portraying this debate as an “official” Yes versus No, as presented in the recent shouting match on Scotland Tonight between Nicola Sturgeon and Anas Sarwar.
Something is stirring in part of Scotland. This is the slow ebbing of official power and with it such related ideas as “civic Scotland”, which gave such impetus to anti-Tory Scotland in the 1980s. It is being superseded by a “third Scotland”, one less institutional, more diverse, creative and disputatious.
This “third Scotland” does not want to be fed a pre-prepared debate between an abstract Yes or No. Instead, it is looking to debate and discuss the kind of society we live in, challenge the status quo and galvanise imagination. This is far away from “dull as dishwater” cynicism, as slowly and fundamentally Scotland is changing in ways we are only beginning to fully understand.