If you wanted an explanation for the momentum that has carried the Yes campaign to the brink of victory in the Scottish referendum, you have to look at what’s happening on the ground. The extent to which the independence referendum has engaged and mobilised people during the campaign is palpable.
Beyond the public discussion, mainstream media coverage and focus on high-profile politicians, far more political dialogue is taking place between family members, friends and work colleagues than usual. You don’t have to look far on Facebook to find users displaying “Yes” or “No Thanks” badges in their profile photographs.
Similar expressions of political activity are evident from equivalent car stickers and posters on house windows across Scotland’s neighbourhoods. Blogs have become enlivened and there is substantial online footage of different referendum-related events all over the place. Little wonder that poll research group ScotCen is forecasting a turnout of around 70% to 80% on September 18, far higher than recent UK and Scottish government elections.
Some see in this explosion in grassroots political activity echoes of the movement against the poll tax in the late 1980s. Many still believe that the Thatcher government’s decision to impose it north of the border before anywhere else in the UK was indicative of its antipathy to Scotland. This in turn fuelled the growing movement for home rule and has both directly and indirectly brought us to the current referendum. Both the Yes and Better Together camps have sought to emphasise their grassroots credentials.
The Yes side is adept at portraying No as being driven by London elites. The Better Together campaign accuses the Yes camp of being driven primarily by the Scottish National Party (SNP) in a bid to break up the United Kingdom. We’ve seen much the same narrative from the majority of mainstream media, where independence supporters are regularly referred to as being a nationalist, “Nat” or separatist. You could be forgiven for thinking that September 18 is Alex Salmond’s referendum, rather than Scotland’s – and the two TV debates arguably reinforced this sense of reducing the referendum to key individuals.
Yet as tends to be forgotten, the pro-independence movement also includes The Scottish Green Party; The Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; The Scottish Socialist Party; the socialist party Solidarity; Women For Independence; the artists and creatives group National Collective and the socialist Radical Independence Campaign. Yes Scotland is a loose amalgam and umbrella of different pro-independence groups and individuals. A significant number of front-line activists campaigning under the Yes Scotland banner represent ordinary people with no party political membership. Some have never been involved in political activism before.
Yes groups have been organised in the majority of towns and villages across Scotland. In some cases, group organisation corresponds with parliamentary constituencies; but it is not uncommon to find groups within specific neighbourhoods within some larger towns and cities. And though Yes groups identify with Yes Scotland, individual groups are organised autonomously. The age and background of campaigners is as diverse as the different colours and styles of Yes badges that they wear. Activities such as canvassing, leafleting and running a street stall attract significant numbers of volunteers on a daily basis. A further indication of local engagement is evident in the large numbers of people who attend public meetings.
The demarcation between professional politicians and this grassroots mobilisation of ordinary people appears to be blurred in this contemporary Scottish political landscape. It is evident that a hybrid movement has emerged within the campaign, which according to Tommy Sheridan “dwarfs the anti-poll tax campaign” that he led in the late 1980s.
Patriotic nationalism? No
It might surprise some outsiders to hear that any theme of patriotic nationalism has generally been absent from the pro-independence campaign, and that the main case being made for independence has involved arguments around democracy and social justice. The prominence of social welfare issues reflects the fact that socialist and social democratic politics continue to maintain a particularly high profile in Scotland – hence the involvement of the likes of the Radical Independence Campaign. The opportunity to build a new Scotland free from nuclear weapons, austerity and welfare cuts has widespread appeal. It is this concern with social justice and welfare that has galvanised support for Yes.
Whether Scotland says Yes or No, many people in the electorate have switched on to Scottish politics in significant ways. Many of them will undoubtedly continue to do so after the referendum, whether as engaged actors with a voice in the political process or as interested observers with an increased tendency to take notice of social issues. Longstanding caricatures of voters as apolitical, apathetic and disengaged have been staunchly challenged. That is surely a victory in itself.