Accessibility links

The excitement of any contest depends upon four main elements:

1. The stakes are high.

2. The competitors are fairly evenly matched.

3. You care about who is going to win.

4. The outcome is imminent.

Politics shares much with sport in this regard, which is perhaps why, until very recently, most people outside of Scotland were not particularly engaged in the referendum debate that has been underway for almost two years. Only the first of these four elements initially seemed to apply.

But opinion polls have finally caught up with what Scots have been saying for some time: feelings on this matter have always been somewhat volatile, and the final vote could go either way.

As a non-partisan charity, the RSA has no official position on the desired outcome of the referendum, so although what follows is written with an RSA audience in mind, it is purely a personal perspective.

For those wondering what's going on, and why it suddenly appears so close and so serious, I thought I'd select one key theme that has made an impression on me, from each of the letters of the country in question (with a nod to a few others).

S is for Satire (or Scotland, Sterling, Salmond)

The classic definition of satire is that it 'afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.' For the Yes side, trailing in the polls for so long, satire has been a formidable weapon. Social media thrives on images, jokes and videos that embolden underdogs and enervate the favourites. Since so much of the 'Better Together' strategy has been about things that might go wrong in the event of a Yes vote, the response has included a lot of ridicule; queries about currency and pensions are addressed seriously by some, but these analytical responses are supported from the flanks by counter-queries about alien invasions and the end of the world.

The immediate Twitter response to one of the No campaign's television adverts, with the hashtag #PatronisingBTlady, involved superimposing alternative quotes to images of the broadcast, many of which were very funny. @Angrysalmond is 'only' followed by about 14,000 people, but his over-the-top statements about how great he is, with hashtags like #sexysocialism take the venom out of attacks from the other side that independence is merely Salmond's vanity project. My favourite example of satire however came from the #no side's @Swinneyscalc - a way of ridiculing economic predictions of Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Finance, John Swinney(abbreviated version):

September 18th- Yes win with 50.001% of the vote. Everyone in the world recognises a huge mandate.

September 19th-Cameron confesses he was only joking on the currency union and donates the Bank of England to Scotland as a goodbye gift.

June 2016 - Scotland joins Nato. China and Russia disarm stating: "we could not compete with such a disproportionately strong military."

And so it goes on...

C is for Creativity (or Culture, Currency, Constitution)

Creativity! I don't say this as an organisational endorsement of a political position, but in my personal opinion what is happening in Scotland is the quintessence of the RSA's 'power to create' worldview. It is about the many, not the few, discovering their own power, and re-conceiving how that power might help them turn their ideas for a better and fuller life into reality. It is also a longing for the chance to create a new kind of society, and build a different for themselves and others.

It saddens me that in most interviews and articles about the referendum, the London commentariat doesn't seem to 'get it'. They insist on speaking of what is happening in terms of 'separatism' and 'nationalism' and 'Alex Salmond' but what we are witnessing is a much more profound democratic reawakening. Moreover, as my colleague Anthony Painter indicated, what has been so impressive has been the breadth and diversity of this movement. While Westminster speaks uncomprehendingly in terms of atavistic nationalism, the Yes Scotland board is comprised of multiple political parties, but also actors, musicians and writers - fuelled by belief in the power to create a new democracy.

The essence of the case for Scottish independence is this: In the United Kingdom, it no longer feels like the people are sovereign, while in an independent country there's a chance they could be.

O is for Obfuscation (or Oil, Oldies, Otherness)

It has been a hugely complex discussion, full of uncertainty, judgements about expertise and probability, compounded by neither side really being able to predict what would happen after the vote, and yet both sides sounding remarkably certain most of the time.

For instance, bizarrely, both sides perpetuate a pervasive conflation. "Keeping the pound" is not the same as "currency union".

For weeks the No side said an independent Scotland couldn't 'keep the pound' because that's a vote winner, when what they meant was that Yes cannot guarantee Scotland will be part of a currency union. The Yes side has also played this game though, saying they will 'keep the pound!' while obscuring important concerns about a) how much fiscal control they will have in a prospective currency union, and b)who their lender of last resort will be under what is known as 'sterlingisation'. Of course their hands are somewhat tied (see Negotiation below) and this distinction is subtle, and lost on most of the electorate, but at different points in the debate, both sides have appeared to have reasons for wanting to keep the elision alive.

T is for Togetherness (or Tartan, Tendentiousness, Tories)

'Better Together' is certainly a more positive cause to fight for than 'no', or even 'no thanks', but togetherness is partly in the eye of the beholder.

Perhaps the most powerful question in the entire discussion came from an audience member in the second televised debate: "If we're better together, why aren't we better together already?"

Meanwhile the The Yes side keeps trying to create a sense of Scottish togetherness with an emphasis on 'Team Scotland', and they try to downplay the idea that British family togetherness will end, for instance by speaking of being "An equal partner in a family of nations'. However, there have been strong arguments in favour of the more layered and inclusive togetherness that stems from staying in the UK, for instance by Alex Massie in The Spectator:

"Most of all, I like that when you get the train to Scotland from London or Peterborough or Newcastle north and you cross the border in the gloaming you feel your heart soar and you cry hurrah and yippee because you know you’re home now without having been abroad. I like that and think it matters. I don’t know if I know why it does or why it suddenly seems so valuable but I know I do. But that’s the Britain I know and like; a place in which I’m always Scottish but also, when it suits, British too. A country where you travel to very different places and still always come home without having been abroad."

L is for Language (or Love, Labour, Liberty)

Language is the main weapon of politics and the winning side is invariably better armed.

I've been particularly struck by the role of the word 'foreigner' in the debate, with lots of those arguing for No on the grounds that the creation of 'iScot' will turn Scots like me, living in London, alongside about 800,000 Scots in 'rUK' into 'foreigners'.  This move in the language game is generally made with a great deal of rhetorical force, but it strikes me as strange and ultimately insipid. Perhaps one feels it less in a large global city like London, but more generally the idea that 'foreigner' means bad or even alien is weirdly old-fashioned.

The word 'independence' has also taking a beating, with people presenting it some sort of sacred absolute, rather than a question of political sovereignty that includes aspects of social and economic interdependence.

A is for Anger (or Activism, Animus, Anglophilia)

Given the high stakes, there has been impressively little anger. That said, tensions are rising now, and each side has found plenty to be angry about.

The No side feels angry that the Yes side cannot definitively say which currency an independent Scotland will use, even though 'the pound' seems to be the answer (see obfuscation above). They are also angry that progressive privatisation of the NHS in England has been presented as a 'strategic threat' to the NHS in Scotland and a reason for voting for independence, because Health is devolved to the existing Scottish Parliament, and health spending has been going up, so if it is a threat, it's a relatively oblique one relating to gradual loss of revenue.

The Yes side feels angry about apparent or unconscious bias in the mainstream media, including the BBC. I broadly agree with this impression, and I get particularly annoyed by casual references to 'the nationalists' and 'the separatists' because it obscures or ignores the broader case for Yes (see creative above) which is the basis for Yes Scotland being within touching distance of winning. However, I only really felt angry the day the media presented an apparently orchestrated picture of devastating capital flight in the event of Yes, which felt bullying in spirit, but proved to be altogether tamer on close inspection.

N is for Negotiation (or Norms, Norway, Negativity)

The debate has often felt a bit unreal to me because it has often 'forgotten' that between the vote on September 18th and Scotland becoming independent there have to be a complex negotiation that will determine the nature of the uncoupling, and various trade-offs that haven't yet been discussed will result.

The debate has featured a request for 'clear answers' but such demands are often unfair. There may be flaws, assumptions or omissions in the White Paper written by the Scottish Government, but all the broader Yes side can do is give as much detail as possible about their preferred outcome as a negotiating position, and then see what happens if the negotiation actually transpires. All this: "You can't tell me what would happen..." business, feels a little gratuitous after a while.

D is for Democracy (or Debate, Devolution, Deixis)

The essence of the case for Scottish independence is this: In the United Kingdom, it no longer feels like the people are sovereign, while in an independent country there's a chance they could be.

That case may be flawed, and some have argued that the economic costs and consequences would be such that the Scottish people might even be less sovereign as a result. But still, in principle the idea of reclaiming democratic control from a remote political elite and from large corporations is attractive. There is likely to be a turnout of around 85%  and many outside observers are waxing lyrical about the democratic buzz in Scotland. People are engaged in political thinking to an extent that has reminded people of the positive, life enhancing quality of democratic self-expression.

So although one side is definitely going to suffer a very painful defeat on Thursday, it's hard to imagine an outcome where democracy doesn't emerge as the winner.

By Jonathan@Rowson


Join the discussion

Please login to post a comment or reply.

Don't have an account? Click here to register.