Scotland’s Two Referendums

Last Tuesday night, I watched, along with most of Scotland, two besuited, middle-aged men argue with each other on national television for the best part of two hours. In the main it was pretty unedifying stuff.

Alastair Darling refused to accept that Scotland could function as an independent country; Alex Salmond made the frankly bizarre decision to waste valuable minutes asking facile questions about ‘Project Fear’ scare stories. The crowd booed and cheered on cue. All in all there was little – if anything – to differentiate this from the ‘Punch and Judy’ politics that nationalists have, rightly, chastised Westminster for.

The most depressing aspect of Tuesday’s debate was the message, not the medium. Gone was the rich discussion, the subtle ambiguities that have characterised a goodly portion of the independence debate beyond the podium and the dispatch box.

Referendums are, by their nature, notoriously Manichean things. Only two choices: yes or no; stick or twist; black or white.

But Tuesday’s debate played into another independence referendum binary: that the whole business is a waste of time, a distraction that has siphoned valuable time and money away from dealing with ‘real issues’. (In Britain, sadly, constitutional change has seldom been treated as a ‘real issue’ until far too late.)

This dystopian take on democratic politics has infused much of the media coverage of the Scottish debate over the past two years, and has been made explicit by political parties on both sides of the border. Watching Salmond and Darling slug it out in front of a live studio audience, such cynicism felt all too justified.

Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling at the end of the Scottish independence debateBut there is another referendum happening in Scotland right now.

A few hours before the STV debate, this other referendum was alive and well and trundling up and down the streets of Govan on what looked like a cross between a milk cart and an ice cream van. Standing atop the ‘Margo Mobile’, Jim Sillars declared to anyone that would listen that ‘we can make a better country than this’. A fleet of volunteers handed out badges and stickers.

Over the next five weeks or so, the Margo Mobile is due to call at housing estates and towns across the Central Belt. The whole enterprise was funded by donations. The conversations that take place won’t be beamed live into the houses of millions – but they matter just the same.

Many of these discussions – the kind I have heard everywhere from Coatbridge to Cowdenbeath in recent months – will not have definite answers or end-points. ‘How can Scotland become a better place to live in?’ ‘How can we make the best of the resources we have?’ ‘What constitutional set-up is best for a small nation in the 21st century?’ None of these are questions that invite easy responses.

Undecideds, we are are constantly told, want facts. That’s simply not true. We all know that there is only one certainty about the future. (It’s called ‘life assurance’ for a reason.) The rest is guesswork, supported by various degrees of evidence and assumption.

What undecided voters – and everybody else – want is to believe what they are being told. When Alex Salmond tells them that there will be no hiccups on the road to statehood – that the EU, Westminster, and everyone else will simply fall into line after ‘Yes’ vote – they don’t believe it. Most Yes voters I know don’t believe really it, either.

If it is a ‘no’, the deciding factor could well have been the decision to assume that the referendum is about what took place on Tuesday night in the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow, not on Tuesday morning on the streets of Govan. That the electorate wants easy answers and soundbites, not a vision of the future ballasted by a recognition of the realities of the present.

Yes Scotland, implicitly or explicitly, decided two years ago that voters would reject nuance and complexity, that they would baulk at the first sign that independence was anything other than the merest of pin pricks. Hence the decision to keep the Queen, Nato, Sterling, etc.

As a political move in a post-New Labour era of triangulation this ‘don’t scare the horses’ approach is understandable. But polls – and simple observation – suggest this strategy has not worked. Nobody really believes dismantling the union would be painless – but many could have been convinced that the discomfort would have been worthwhile.

The referendum campaign should make us more hopeful about democracy in Scotland. The people – ‘ordinary voters’ – can handle nuance and complexity. They could have accepted being told, ‘independence is a big project. There will be bumps on the road but in ten year’s time, 20 year’s time, there will be a better future for you, for your children.’ Some would have decided the risk was not worth other it; others would have the opposition calculation.

This referendum has engaged people politically in a way I have never seen before in my lifetime. The danger, though, is that this energy might be lost – or reduced to stale set pieces like we saw on Tuesday night. Whatever the result on September 18, if this is allowed to happen, Scotland will have lost.