Joyce McMillan: All of a-Twitter over referendum

Spontaneous grassroots online political debate has sprung up with the independence referendum campaigns. Picture: Getty
Spontaneous grassroots online political debate has sprung up with the independence referendum campaigns. Picture: Getty
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Social media is making the campaigning of traditional parties look old-fashioned and lumbering, writes Joyce McMillan

It was just after 10:30 on Monday night when the message appeared on my Twitter feed, from an old and thoughtful Edinburgh friend. The second referendum debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling had just finished and among political commentators the excitement was intense, as they identified who had won and who had lost. My friend’s message, though, was concise and to the point. “Now let’s get on with the grassroots debate,” she said. “Men in suits go home. Let the people decide.”

If there is one abiding characteristic of Scotland’s ever more complex and fascinating referendum campaign, it is this feeling that something has changed, in the conventional balance of debate; that events that used to be seen as central – like Monday evening’s television set-piece – are somehow less significant than they were, while other forms of campaigning gather increasing momentum.

Back in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected US president with the help of a groundbreaking e-mail campaign, observers were quick to argue that elections would never be quite the same again; the idea was that direct campaigning was moving off the streets and on to the laptop or phone screen.

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With this Scottish referendum campaign, though, politics seems to have moved on again, and in decades to come, this period in Scottish history may well find itself being studied with equal fervour as an example of how serious democratic politics might look in the age of mass scepticism about mainstream political parties and ever-increasing use of social media.

It’s not that we’re seeing anything so simple as a straight transfer of campaigning energy from one medium to another. For all the mockery directed at it, this week’s “patronising lady” television advertisement from Better Together – showing an imagined “ordinary housewife” deciding on a No vote over a mug of tea – will reach dozens of times more people than any of the entertaining responses to it circulating on Twitter; only 1.5 per cent of the population of Scotland has an active Twitter account.

Yet we are still clearly in new political territory, when a broadcast like this one can be challenged within minutes by a hilarious five-minute alternative Twitter drama about the same character penned by one of the nation’s leading playwrights.

What is striking is how closely that new, spontaneous, online political debate is linked to the re-emergence of some very traditional forms of campaigning indeed – the mass doorstep canvas, the town meeting, the evening of poetry and song, or even the straightforward personal conversations about how people intend to vote, and why.

A year ago, people across Scotland were avoiding the referendum topic, for fear of the divisions it might cause. Yet now – at parties, in meetings, in the pub, or even, so I’m told, on the last bus to Peebles – debate is breaking out; and it’s usually polite, well-informed, and resolute in its view that whatever the result, people will still be able to work together for a better future.

“I was in the Tyneside Tavern tonight,” wrote the musician Fish this week, from East Lothian. “And I can’t ever remember when there was a discussion at the bar on politics that was so open and non-abusive. Despite all the emotions, there is a huge wake-up going on, and this can only be positive.”

While conventional top-down politics – the leaders’ debate, the party political broadcast, the letter to the newspapers from groups of business leaders – is still hugely influential, its once unquestioned dominance is gradually being squeezed from both sides; both by new media and social networks that are funnier, quicker, more ingenious and more creative – “be the media you want to see”, goes the slogan – and by grassroots community activity based on strong traditional human contact, often inspired and organised through those new media.

So, as we approach referendum day, two things become increasingly clear. The first is that in an age when deference is dead, the traditional top-down political style often looks old-fashioned, lumbering, patronising and over-dependent on conventional assumptions about authority and credibility. Alex Salmond may be the leader of the SNP, but he can no longer really speak for the huge, diverse and unruly Yes campaign this long referendum process has spawned, any more than Alistair Darling can speak for the Scottish working-class people who once used to, so reliably, vote Labour.

The second is that because Britain’s two leading political parties have become too firmly wedded to that top-down, manipulative, soundbite-and-image-driven form of politics, real political energy is now inexorably draining from them.

Alex Salmond may have an unruly new Yes movement springing up around his party, but at least the SNP’s army of activists are deeply involved in it; both Labour and the Conservatives are losing grassroots membership, and increasingly look like representatives of the wealthy donors who support them, rather than of the people who elect them.

Yesterday, as the Conservative MP Douglas Carswell defected to Ukip, one commentator remarked that what made this loss worrying for the Tories was that Carswell is a right-wing Tory thinker who “lives in the present, not the past”.

Although the idea of the deeply nostalgic and reactionary Ukip as a party of the present and the future may seem strange from a Scottish perspective, Ukip is benefiting, like the SNP, from the growing sense that both the Labour and Conservative parties have rested too long on their Westminster laurels, supped with too many wealthy lobbyists and neglected the rich and deep layer of popular grassroots support that political parties need for long-term survival.

In the huge flowering of new and old forms of political activity that has accompanied the Scottish referendum process, Britain’s two traditional parties of government have played almost no creative part.

And although those parties retain, for now, their iron grip on Westminster politics, that grip grows less convincing by the day, as Scotland’s long, noisy, compelling and ever more inventive referendum debate offers a glimpse of a political future they barely recognise and which may – in the end – consign them to the oblivion that always awaits the complacent, the moribund and those who refuse to embrace the new.