WHY was there no dancing in the streets after the declaration of indyref2 – or ScotRef as we must apparently learn to call it?
Well, it came as such a massive surprise that most voters, political commentators, supporters and opponents are still digesting and processing the news. Last weekend, many SNP MPs were insistent there would be no second referendum before 2020 and no announcement this week or next. But rumours that Theresa May was preparing to trigger Article 50 on Tuesday – after the Commons and Lords capitulated to let her Brexit Bill pass un-amended – appeared to change everything.
If the Prime Minister had managed to make such speedy progress towards Brexit, Nicola Sturgeon would have been left on the back foot and forced to call a second referendum amidst the high emotion of her party’s conference in Aberdeen. Instead, by getting ahead of the rising Brexit curve she was able to deploy the calm, diplomatic interiors of Bute House and announce ScotRef in her role as First Minister.
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In choosing to address the world’s press instead of the party faithful, Nicola Sturgeon did much more than choose a venue. She set a tone for the next two years. ScotRef will be a more careful, nuanced, forensically managed affair than the indyref, with few self-congratulatory, flag-waving moments and even fewer bursts of military metaphor or aggressive language – except for during dealings with the widely reviled Theresa May.
Why the softer tone? Because dedicated Yessers know deep down that the only people who really matter now are the unconvinced and there’s nothing more offputting for folk who are swithering than encounters with the aggressively convinced.
Of course, some excitement after her leader’s speech on Saturday is perfectly welcome. But Nicola Sturgeon will not want to be carried from the stage aloft or to watch while the conference venue turns into a saltire-swathed party central. It’s not that Yessers have suddenly become dour. It’s that no-one wants a second and (maybe) final shot at independence to be marred by smugness and presumption.
Fiftysomethings will remember the cautionary example of Labour leader Neil Kinnock whose premature celebration with party insiders before the 1992 General Election turned the night sour.
And failure is sobering.
Most Yessers have become more psychologically savvy than first time round. We know uncertain voters simply retreat when arguments become too hostile – no matter who has been “proved” right. Might may be right for supporters of the Union – it’ll never work for supporters of independence.
The language used by the late Jimmy Reid at the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in 1971 may reflect Scotland’s past. “There will be no hooliganism. There will be no vandalism. There will be no bevvying, because the world is watching us,” he said. His call for discipline remains absolutely valid – because the world is watching. More importantly, uncertain voters are watching and they will judge the cause by the manner of its advocates.
In short, our collective job during the next two years of ScotRef is to keep the heid and learn how to respond assertively, but not aggressively, to challenge.
Mind you, none of this excuses the media’s current preoccupation – that “the next independence referendum will be nasty and divisive”.
A couple of very unhealthy beliefs underpin this widely held anxiety, including a profound historical belief that Scots are inherently aggressive, violent and unable to restrain themselves, and will lapse into a confrontational “See you Jimmy” mode given half the chance.
Actually, there’s nothing wrong with a decent argument –indeed arguing is awfy Scottish. Hugh MacDiarmid was no fan of mealy-mouthed compromise and famously wrote: “I’d aye be whaur extremes meet.” Flyting is a poetic exchange of insults practised until the 16th century in Scotland and the word heckling originated in Dundee, where women combing flax in textile mills chose one of their number to read the day’s news aloud to workmates, “to the accompaniment of interruption and furious debate”.
The media’s overweening concern about honestly held difference suggests that disagreement is somehow toxic, abnormal and un-British. Perhaps the gentry believe that the correct response to Government-induced chaos is to “stay calm and have a cupcake”.
But passivity in the face of democratic meltdown isn’t regarded as healthy or normal anywhere else.
There’s nothing wrong with animation and challenge as long as speakers encourage wider participation -- and in TV terms that means debates must be balanced, well mediated and vigorously chaired.
If I find myself on a panel with politicians who constantly talk over everyone else, I will relish the opportunity to deploy the mini-megaphone I purchased after a particularly foghorny encounter on BBC Scotland with Alistair Carmichael and Brian Wilson in 2014. Broadcasters can and must play a big part in keeping debate sparky but civilised by having the confidence to bring the “big beasts” to heel in the interests of fair play. And that applies to both sides.
Meanwhile, as activists survey the next two years, we know exactly how much work lies ahead, just to regain base camp. And as for that final short trek to the summit, the precise route is still unknown.
The political backdrop this time round is quite different. ScotRef will necessarily map the rise and fall of Brexit – a different scenario from the indyref, which largely had the national stage to itself.
And of course Yessers know how easily a Yes bubble can obscure the fact that important pockets of voters are quietly impervious to the case for change.
But maybe the biggest reason there isn’t dancing and merriment in the streets is that we’ve forgotten how little jubilation there was first time round in 2012. The Scottish Greens had only just swung behind the idea. Personally speaking I wasn’t even “out” as an independence supporter until a Question Time programme of epically biased proportions with Nigel Farage, George Galloway, Ruth Davidson and Anas Sarwar against Angus Robertson and myself. I’m not saying such a weighted panel would be impossible this time around– but I do believe challenge would be mounted inside the Beeb.
In 2012, support for independence was just 23 per cent. The annual Scottish Social Attitudes Survey shows it’s now the most popular constitutional option at 46 per cent. Of course, like trying to lose weight – the final percentage points will be the hardest to shift.
It’ll take time for the phoney war over Section 30 powers to subside and the truly pivotal points of contention to emerge in this referendum – just as it did last time.
But fears fall on fertile or stony ground. If voters are confident they aren’t being lied to or played around with, and believe politicians are being honest about the risks that lie ahead and our capacity to deal with them, the slow shift towards independence will continue.
For the meantime, it serves us all to ca’ canny an stay inspired but above all stay connected to the doubters not just the Yessers.