I’m on the train to Inverness as I write this, reading the very interesting post in the Spectator by Alex Massie about complacency in the anti-independence campaign. Massie’s basic point, that London’s journalistic and political class do not understand what is going on in Scotland could not be truer. I was down in Scotland’s other capital last week talking to the political editor of a popular website. He’s someone I’ve known a while and who I have a fair amount of respect for, even if we don’t see eye to eye politically, but he downright refused to heed my warning that he should pay more attention to the referendum and to what was going on outside of the media. His defence, as so often, were the opinion polls. You can’t argue with the polls as polls, but as the campaign goes on it is becoming apparent just how soft the vote is in some areas.
I was also recently invited to take on a Better Together rep in a debate at Napier University. The debate ended with a vote of 80-20 to Yes, though even the most optimistic fan of full powers would struggle to imagine such a result in the real referendum. Some of the students who came to take part, including ones who still plan to vote no, admitted to being surprised by the content of what was going on. This is because the Yes campaign is increasingly determining the issues on which the referendum is fought. Cineworld and the slightly cringy videos featuring the SNP’s favourite word of yesteryear – destiny – seem a world away. I don’t know whether they sacked Pete Wishart as musical director or whether it was an elaborate bluff to convince the No side it would just be the kind of identity politics most people run a mile from. Whatever the truth, it is Better Together who are increasingly falling back on metaphors of national family whilst Yes, in all its incarnations, makes the running.
This is to say nothing of the SNP who, for all the hard work on independence, are doing a moderately worse job in government than in their first term. This can be attributed in part to the hubris created by that magic majority, the absence of an effective opposition and the shifting around of resources so that important portfolios such as transport, climate change and education are occupied by people lacking much of a coherent vision or passion for what they do. The inaction on land reform and the readiness with which everything is reduced to a constitutional question do not help either. Perversely, the Greens are being invited on TV to talk about independence in a way they are rarely allowed to talk about their actual policies, and the thousand flowers approach is already showing promising growth. People who for ideological or identity reasons are unable to vote for an SNP future have found in the Greens and some of the other non-SNP campaigning groups a way of relating to the idea of independence that makes no demands on party lines or parroting press releases. I am one of those people, and any independence built on faith in a single party would just be as dispiriting and intellectually empty as people blindly signing up to join Glasgow Labour. You can’t leave the 49 per cent behind in a democracy, even if you’re in government.
The thing that the Yes campaign has come to terms with, and that the London media seemingly has not, is that although you might only need 50.0001 per cent of the vote, you have to aim to represent the interests and aspirations of more than that group of people. Instead of one-party centrism, that is more easily achieved through consensus across ideologies and groupings about the basic democratic functions of the country and what might be done with it. The conversations which are going on across Scotland are not just a question of Scottish or British, and not just a question of SNP or Labour. As the debate matures, Alastair Carmichael’s protestations about how much he loves whisky sound increasingly like Gordon Brown reeling of The Arctic Monkeys (Or for that matter, super-safe Ed Milliband choosing Hard Fi over John Knox Sex Club on Desert Island Disks). If you go out around Scotland you’ll soon see that people are willing to engage with the referendum on a more complex level that relates to their lives. Scotland isn’t on pause, but it is stopping to think.
Edinburgh may not be London, but neither is Inverness Edinburgh.Come next summer you might see panicked hacks skulking around Inverness airport in the search for the real people they are currently happy to ignore.