Scotland’s independence debate puts Brexit to shame – Laura Waddell

Online trolls – both Unionist and pro-independence – remain an embarrassment, but there are hopeful signs of a greater maturity in the constitutional debate, writes Laura Waddell.

The first Indyref campaign never approached the sinister standard of Brexit with reports of MPs stepping up security and some unable to return home (Picture: John Devlin)

Another independence referendum has always seemed inevitable. Those who don’t want it have made it the focus of their election leafleting ever since; pre-emptive attempts by opposition leaders to dampen demand for a question on Scotland’s constitutional path were always going to be futile, and jumping-the-gun statements by pro-independence figures unwilling to wait for Article 50 to become more clearly defined added little impetus. It has always been when, not if.

But post-Brexit, the prospect of another referendum on Scottish independence feels different than anticipated when we were still reeling from the results of 2014, unaware the UK political landscape would mutate so dramatically. Now there’s a leaner, more direct feel, with rationale for independence inseperable from the tangible goal of retaining EU membership for Scotland, and Sturgeon’s cool-headed figure at its helm. The pro-union threat that Scotland would lose its EU status on departure from the UK gathers dust on archived leaflets, unforgotten.

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A Scottish independence campaign while Brexit looms will become a more urgent one. The 2014 referendum gave necessary space to dreaming, a phase the nation probably benefited from going through. The wish trees were much maligned but captured the wider zeitgeist of possibility, with citizens asking ourselves what we actually wanted for the country we live in. Making anything new requires imagination. Some thoughts need to be big and boundless to shift the parameters as to what’s actually possible at all.

At times the answer to what Yes and No voters alike imagined for Scotland was abstract and sprawling, but it tells us something of how engaged the population became with the binary choice on the ballot, and its depth of meaning. Campaigning bloomed around various themes, and the plurality of small special interest groups with considered and at-times competing visions felt healthy for democratic engagement. This time, however, the post-Brexit ramifications for Scotland’s constitutional question will shape the debate in a different way.

We learned a lot from 2014. There are elements we should keep from Indyref that Brexit lacked. Questioning modern Britain in a substantive way, for one. My knee-jerk reaction as an undecided voter early on in Indyref was one of cynicism; realising that should be applied to the Union too came a little later. Like many others I came to consider Scotland’s position politically and culturally within the UK in a way I hadn’t before.

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The level of detail was another credit to the debate. There were moments of swearing at the TV, legitimate dissatisfaction with the media as well paranoia about bias, and while in recent years we’ve grown weary of artificially polarised media segments blunting complex issues, the nature of fairly covering a question with two options means it made sense to often have a yes and no voter go head to head. The crucial context was regularly hearing from experts on our airwaves in addition – economists, historians, environmentalists and more.

From that, I learned so much about the country I live in and how it operates. Of course, there was sentimentalism, but agriculture, fishing, trade, culture, currency, and history became discussion points in a national conversation. Citizens combed boring documents and pointed fingers at statistics. Brexit in comparison was chillingly devoid of detail, relying on nostalgia-tinged xenophobic fear-mongering from one side, and complacency in the other.

In 2014, Scots became more used to the idea of openly discussing politics. Independence has rarely been the single-issue campaign it seemed. Where a voter falls on it reveals more: sympathies for particular political parties, other issues like Trident, and, most of all, how they feel about the status quo, which is a wide-ranging and complicated subject to broach, often closely linked to deep-seated emotional ties as well as logical and political conclusions.

By the end of the campaign, it was difficult not to overhear earnest discussion at the next table or bus stop, and social media was awash with twibbons and banners. I enjoyed the feeling of meaningful conversation bubbling all around. But to get to that point, it required mustering some courage to break the social taboo of expressing a political view at all; going on to then debate it with friends and family, or friends of friends on Facebook, was for many a new experience, and not always a comfortable one, but made it difficult for voters to remain disengaged in the process. Some things we can leave behind, although for the most part, nastier elements remained on the fringes. Even if the George Square clashes with mounted police the night the result in 2014 were chilling, Indyref never approached the sinister standard of Brexit, with violence, MPs stepping up security and reports of some unable to return home, and far-right demonstrations intent on intimidation.

But gobbier pro-independence bloggers remain an embarrassment to a credible campaign. They’ve filled a quieter few years with digital noise, entrenching a support base of die-hard followers ready to dip their hands into pockets for crowdfunders, but alienating others likely to respond better to mainstream pundits who will step back in to the campaign space once the lights are switched on again. And hopefully others will have better sense this time round than to pal around online with some of the nastier trolls who emerged in 2014. Unionist Brian Spanner may still be live on his keyboard, but when the trail hotted up as to his identity, put his hands up and got down to apologising for tweets including those to Margaret Curran, about whom he once commented “Is she a victim of FGM? She is a torn faced c***”. It’s remarkable to consider such an account counted among its most responsive followers various figures in the public eye just a few years ago, but post #MeToo, when we’ve become more expressive in opposing abusive, gendered attitudes towards women, those closest to a troll posting venom about female political opponents would struggle to magic away deeper public disgust.

Instead, I’m hopeful more women come to the fore of campaigning, supported by groups such as Women for Independence. I wasn’t active in campaigning publicly in 2014, but attending their assemblies taught me some practical skills. Some of the younger generation who missed out voting in 2014 or 2016 have been watching and will raise their hands to be counted now. After 16-year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg’s visit to Westminster this week and the recent children’s strikes for climate change, I’m excited to see how a new energy and perspective will shape our next debate.

Bring on the new and matured independence campaign; I’m ready for it.