Joyce McMillan: Yes campaign not anti-English

The Let's Stay Together video fails to understand why many Scots would vote Yes. Pictured is actor Ross Kemp
The Let's Stay Together video fails to understand why many Scots would vote Yes. Pictured is actor Ross Kemp
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The Yes campaign is not anti-English, it’s about promoting a positive future for Scotland, writes Joyce McMillan

Let’s begin, this week, with three cameo moments from the current referendum campaign.

The first involves a session at the City of London Festival, two weeks ago, at which I and three other speakers tried to lay out some of the issues before a smallish audience of City residents and workers; the scene was a marquee shaped like a bowler hat, in Paternoster Square.

I suggested that many Scots formerly loyal to the Labour Party were being drawn towards a Yes vote, partly, because of increasingly negative attitudes at Westminster to the welfare state, the “sharing” project that was supposed to give the Union meaning in a post-imperial age. A woman in the audience expressed shock that anyone would contemplate ending a 300-year union over such “little policy matters”.

The second involves a story published yesterday in the Daily Telegraph, about English athletes seeking advice on what to do when they are booed by Scottish supporters at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. It is, as yet, a completely imaginary event which they, or the Telegraph, seem to consider almost inevitable, given that the referendum is, in their view, all about “anti-English feeling”.

Last, but not least, there is the Let’s Stay Together video released yesterday by the pro-Union group of the same name, in which a wide range of UK celebrities – some Scottish, some not – declare that the UK is a family of nations, and that they do not want Scotland to “leave”.

Now this is a pleasant video, commendably free of the scaremongering normally associated with the No campaign.

To say that it lacks political content, though, is to understate the case; it is a policy-free zone and, apart from a fleeting reference to the camaraderie of British troops in Afghanistan, features nothing but a vague expression of the feeling that Scotland-as-part-of-Britain is important to the identity of those speaking. One of the speakers even talks about Scotland’s arts festivals, as if these huge international events would suddenly become inaccessible to her after a Yes vote; at which point, it really becomes difficult not to feel insulted by the lameness of the case being put forward.

What all of these responses to the debate have in common is this: a profound failure to listen, and to consider how and why Scotland has arrived at its current point of decision. The audience member in the City of London sees the huge right-ward shift of Westminster politics over the past generation as a “little policy matter”, and fails to understand that, for Scotland, the Union has always been conditional on its ability to deliver real gains, in terms of freedom, opportunity and justice.

The Telegraph story simply assumes that the Yes campaign is about anti-English feeling, when in fact at every official level, its overwhelmingly positive tone in promoting the idea of a progressive and inclusive Scotland provides the most effective antidote I have yet seen to Scotland’s old, whining backbeat of anti-English complaint.

And the Let’s Stay Together film – well, to return briefly to the overused divorce metaphor, it reminds me of a spouse who tries to get his partner to stay by handing her an “I Love You This Much” teddy-bear, while singing loudly and sticking his fingers in his ears whenever she tries to explain that she does not like the lifestyle he has chosen for the family, that she wants to live differently in a different place, and that she has just undergone an intensive course in economics and energy policy, to better understand her options.

Of course none of this extraordinary inability to hear what is going on in Scottish politics means that the No campaign will lose the vote on 18 September; most Scottish voters, after all, receive the bulk of their political information from sources that generally share Better Together’s negative assumptions about the case for a Yes vote.

It does, though, have two important meanings that will continue to reverberate through Scottish politics after 18 September. First, it alerts us to the likelihood that, having failed to hear, or recognise, the real reasons for Scotland’s restlessness even during the referendum campaign, the No camp will certainly pay no attention to them in the aftermath of a referendum victory. At best, we may be offered a few extra tax-raising powers at precisely the moment when the austerity trap bites hardest; at worst, we will slide off the Westminster agenda completely for another decade or two.

And secondly, those who have been involved in the campaign on the ground, and who have glimpsed the mood, range and energy of the ideas generated by the Yes movement, are not likely to forget the political education they have experienced, or the sheer exhilaration of seeing people reach a moment when they are no longer prepared to defer, to remain silent, or to put up with being unheard.

So as 18 September approaches – just two months from today – I would say this to all of Scotland’s traditional power-holders, from the landowners and big commercial interests to the mainstream politicians, local councillors and senior public servants; that you almost certainly have no idea, as yet, of the positive forces that have been unleashed in Scotland by this campaign, of their irreverence, their confidence, their inventiveness, and their determination – whatever the referendum outcome – to work at grass-roots level to unleash more of this county’s magnificent potential.

They are the kinds of forces that are notoriously inconvenient to the powers that be; they want change, localisation, a genuine redistribution of power. And on 19 September, they will still be there. They will be bruised, perhaps, if they do not get the result that most of those involved want. Yet they will still be moved by the kind of vision of a better future that is now lamentably lacking in mainstream UK politics. And they will still be able to draw on the campaigning strength that vision provides; while all the mainstream parties about them sink further into a culture of grey-faced managerialism and sheer political cowardice in the face of the massive and urgent challenges that confront us now, and will only grow sharper, as the century rolls on.