On the Campaign Trail

Peter Geoghegan

On Saturday, with only days to go before the independence referendum, thousands of Yes supporters gathered on Buchanan Street in Glasgow, waving Saltires and singing ‘Flower of Scotland’. At around the same time, more than ten thousand Orangemen staged a pro-union march in Edinburgh. The standards at the head of the flute bands hailed from Portadown and Coatbridge, London and Liverpool, Leeds and Stockport.

Elements of the Yes campaign – including the egg-throwing and name-calling – are disquieting. The Panglossian vision of a post-independent Scotland has been accused of silencing dissenting voices. But on the other side of the fence, Better Together has run one of the most vacuous, cynical campaigns in British political history. Beyond the tawdry threats to erect border posts at Coldstream or the ludicrous suggestion that the pandas in Edinburgh zoo would be deported if Scotland votes Yes tomorrow, the No campaign has failed to make a case for the union that wouldn’t fit in the ledger of a Fife accountant. The ‘Let’s Stay Together’ rally in Trafalgar Square on Monday was treated with contempt by everyone I met in Glasgow. ‘If they love us so much why don’t they come up here?’

On Sunday, I visited a stall festooned with blue Yes balloons on a street corner a mile from my flat. Passing cars beeped their horns. The organiser was a local SNP councillor, helped by a middle-aged woman who worked in a bio-tech firm. She said she'd never been involved in a political campaign before but had spent months knocking on doors, delivering leaflets and standing in the cold talking to people. Thousands of political neophytes with little or no party allegiances have mobilised in the largest grassroots campaign the country has ever seen. Activists at my local train station have been handing out flyers, balloons and stickers. I recently spent an afternoon in Easterhouse, one of Glasgow’s most deprived housing schemes, with an eloquent 17-year-old socialist. He has spent months canvassing and organising voter registration drives in an area where fewer than 35 per cent voted in the 2011 Holyrood election.

On Monday, the former home secretary John Reid and the Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont held a press conference with shipyard workers and union leaders across the Clyde from BAE Systems’ Govan yard. On a dreich morning, Lamont and Reid descended from ‘the indyref express’ to be met by banks of photographers and party hacks in matching blue Better Together rainwear trying to pass as concerned citizens. Reid did most of the talking to the press. Afterwards I grabbed a word with a ‘continuous improvement coach’ at BAE. He was voting No, but not because he thought he would lose his job: ‘I’m saying no to division. I don’t like the concept of nationalism.’

But what are the seemingly unending stream of ‘emotional pleas’ that David Cameron et al have inflicted on Scots in recent weeks if not nationalism? On Monday night, Tom Nairn made a rare public appearance, in a haar-enveloped Edinburgh. ‘The moment is right for Scotland to have, in a relatively short time, the chance to contribute to nationality politics and not nationalism in the old, traditional sense,’ he said. There was lots of passion from the floor, but a feeling, too, that most people there were preparing themselves for disappointment.

The choice tomorrow didn't have to be binary, but the third option – more powers for Holyrood without full independence – was left off the ballot paper. Then on Tuesday, just two days before the vote, Scotland woke to news that ‘devo max’ was back on if they voted No. The specifics of the additional powers seem both vague and unworkable, but the medium was more important than the message. The pledge, which could effectively usher in federalism across the UK, was delivered not after months of discussion, or even in person by the prime minister. Instead, ‘the vow’ was splashed across the Daily Record. If Westminster thinks that the front page of a tabloid is the best way to talk to Scotland in 2014 then it really has learned nothing from the referendum.


  • 17 September 2014 at 6:35pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    ‘If they love us so much why don’t they come up here?’

    Probably because they thought they'd get jeered - or worse - for going up there.

    I'm in favour of Scottish independence, by agreement and as part of a broader constitutional rethinking of the UK. Doing it unilaterally, in the teeth of opposition from all the main Union-wide parties, and at the same time doing it without any challenge to the powers in the land (e.g. the EU, NATO, the monarchy, the pound sterling, the Murdoch press) seems bizarre. And I'm quite alarmed by the rhetoric I'm hearing from Yes supporters - not directed at the English but at No voters. Never mind England and Scotland, how is Scotland going to live together after this?

    • 18 September 2014 at 12:02am
      Amateur Emigrant says: @ Phil Edwards
      I think the "why don't they come up here" comment is facetious and hardly worth taking seriously, although having said that it might more fairly be aimed at the Westminster leaders who love Scotland's money/votes so much that they left it to the 11th hour to helicopter in and offer their vague and undeliverable promises. In the face of such evident disengagement and contempt, how could Scotland expect a constitutional rethinking of the UK through anything other than unilateral action?

    • 18 September 2014 at 9:28am
      Phil Edwards says: @ Amateur Emigrant
      left it to the 11th hour to helicopter in and offer their vague and undeliverable promises

      As I said, they got jeered for staying away, then they got jeered for going.

    • 18 September 2014 at 9:41am
      Amateur Emigrant says: @ Phil Edwards
      Pretty fair, I'd say.

    • 18 September 2014 at 10:15am
      Harry Stopes says: @ Phil Edwards
      They might have found themselves jeered less if they hadn't only helicoptered in at the 11th hour though. But then again maybe not.