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The Yes campaign is more joyful

05 September 2014

Pro-independence Scots have been more positive than their opponents, says Doug Gay

THE referendum is almost upon us and, as the polls are apparently tightening again towards a dead heat, the Yes and No campaigns will be throwing everything they have at the Scottish electorate in one last effort to secure a result.

My position in favour of a Yes vote is no secret, having been set out in Honey from the Lion (SCM Press; reviewed in Books, 23 May) and given media coverage after the "respectful dialogue" at the Church of Scotland General Assembly earlier this year, in which I was Yes to Douglas Alexander MP's No.

I would like to try to share some sense of how the campaign has gone, and why. For some, perhaps many, English voters, the recent debate shown on the BBC between First Minister Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling MP may have been a shock to the system, in particular the heated and "shouty" section, where they cross-examined one another. This was the second TV debate, but the first was shown only by STV in Scotland, and not networked across the UK.

THESE debates, however, have been only the final flurries of a long, and, I would argue, exhilarating campaign, the breadth and depth of which are unlikely to have been visible to folk outside Scotland, unless they followed closely via the internet.

The first piece of good news about the campaign is that it has been involving. Breaking with the usual narrative of political apathy and worryingly low levels of participation in politics, there has been an astonishing revival of the local political meeting in ways not seen for at least a generation here in Scotland. Town halls, church halls, community centres, arts venues, schools, and universities have hosted meetings, often packed - both hustings, and those linked to one side or the other.

Anecdotally, Yes meetings have been far better attended than Better Together gatherings, and have been far more numerous. The hustings at which both sides have been involved have also had very strong turnouts, however, with 15-20 per cent of people presenting themselves as undecideds who wanted to hear the arguments and challenge speakers to persuade them.

IT IS always easier to sound upbeat when arguing a Yes than a No, but, from early on, the Yes campaign has adopted a different tone from that of its opponents, whom it labelled "Project Fear".

The wilder fringes of the Yes campaigners, often labelled "cybernats", have regularly behaved badly, and too often moved into abuse or invective on Twitter and Facebook; but the mainstream of Yes has been animated, buoyant, and even celebratory.

A crucial factor in understanding the tone of Yes is the extent to which Scotland's literary, artistic, and musical community have been not exclusively, but overwhelmingly publicly identified with support for independence. Yes events have regularly featured folk and pop musicians, adding a sense of fun, "cool", and even joy to the feel of the campaign.

Yes supporters have mostly gone positive in their campaigning. It has been anti-Trident, but not anti-English; anti-Tory, but not anti-English; anti-austerity, but not anti-English.

Unless you understand the extent to which this has been a positive, romantic, and aspirational campaign - think Barack Obama's "Yes we can" - you will not understand what it has felt like, and why it has gained confidence and momentum to the point where even the Daily Mail concedes that polls are on a knife-edge.

Lacking support from any UK/southern broadsheet, and with only the Sunday Herald coming out for independence, Yes campaigners have been defiant about their underdog status, and have even been energised by the tide of opposition and critique from the media establishments.

FOR those to whom nationalism is still an object of suspicion, and even revulsion, even if they are unshakeable in that belief, to understand the "indyref" debate, they need to understand the extent to which nationalism has become a progressive, civic, and social-democratic cause in Scotland, and a focus for opposition to the right-wing political projects of the Conservatives and UKIP.

The rallying cry of Yes (which is not just the SNP, but Greens and Scottish Socialists) has been the project of creating a more just and equal society, free from nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

The continuing democratic deficit in Scotland is shaped and exacerbated by the lack of proportional representation (PR) in Westminster elections, so that Scotland can overwhelmingly vote centre-left, and get a Thatcher/Major/Cameron government because of voting behaviour in 70 English marginals.

The Labour Party is seen by many as a discredited force, resisting PR because it wants to win big and win dirty, by achieving Blair-like massive parliamentary majorities with a minority of the popular vote. Its refusal to campaign for PR means that the Westminster system remains vulnerable to Scots' voting for centre-left parties, and getting right-wing governments.

Add in the prospect of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, perhaps in coalition, and even lifelong Labour supporters are coming across to Yes.

Furthermore, incoherent and conflicting "devo+" offers from the No camp have struggled to articulate a new constitutional vision. (If I were a Unionist, I would be a federalist, but no UK parties made that case with vision or conviction.)

BETTER TOGETHER has relentlessly emphasised the risks and uncertainties of independence, and has struggled to find a front-foot narrative of the benefits of Union which could capture hearts and minds. Yes has mimicked a parody of the Unionist message - "We're too poor, too wee, too stupid" (are we?) - and mocked the scaremongering.

With the exception of the belated shift to "No Thanks", Better Together has not excelled at presentation, often sounding peevish and exasperated. The constant attempts to debunk and burst Yes bubbles are driven by a political wisdom that says that negative campaigning may make you look bad, but it will ultimately work. Appeals to love-bombing tactics, similar to those used in Canada in the mid-1990s, when all Canadians were encouraged to say how much they valued Quebec, have not been much followed by the rest of the UK.

When, at the Brit Awards in February, David Bowie appealed: "Scotland, stay with us," we groaned, because we loved him, but, after a wave of Twitter reminders that he was a tax exile, the humorous and affectionate rebuke was a pro-Yes show at the Edinburgh Fringe called All Back to Bowie's.

The Churches in Scotland have tried to model respectful dialogue, hosting meetings where folk were invited to reflect on the kind of society they wanted, and which scenario could best help to build this. The Roman Catholic Church, it is fair and sad to say, has had a quiet "indyref" campaign, in line with its lower public profile after the Cardinal O'Brien scandal.


IF YES wins - and I accept it is still a long shot - we will be into uncharted and extremely turbulent waters, provoking something close to a constitutional crisis. Piers Morgan tweeted recently: "OK Scotland you've had your fun, now vote No and let us get back to normal."

At the risk of dignifying him with attention, his wind-up rings true for many of us. England has not seemed much interested. Lord Hennessy recently lamented the neglect of the campaign by southern broadsheets.

If No wins, there will be plenty of sighs of relief within and beyond Scotland, but also deep disillusionment from many of us who have dreamed of working to create a fairer nation. And I say this to England with love: I really believe it could have been better for you as well.

The Revd Dr Doug Gay, a minister in the Church of Scotland, is Lecturer in Practical Theology and Principal of Trinity College at the University of Glasgow.

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