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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.