Halfway through the cross-examination stage of The Debate on Tuesday night I started to write an exasperated Tweet, then realised that Twitter had crashed. The aperçu thus denied to the world was this: can there be any more shameful way to decide the future of a country?
Alec smirked. Alistair huffed and puffed. Bernard waved his arms like a demented referee. Alistair stonewalled on an independent Scotland’s prospects for success, unable to bring himself to endorse Dave. Alec stonewalled on the currency question – for sound tactical reasons, perhaps, but it certainly didn’t look good. And then there were the vapid utterances of the pundits in the ludicrously-named Spin Room.
It was a dismal and unedifying spectacle, for which we have American TV to thank. How can we learn anything of any value from the sight of politicians slugging it out in the ring? All it tells me is the extent to which our own campaigns now mirror those in the US, where there’s generally so little between the contending parties that the leaders’ personalities are all they have to distinguish them. Except that in this case the future of Scotland and the United Kingdom hangs between the two contenders.
Given which, the thing that really saddened me was that neither Salmond nor Darling offered us any vision. There was no passion, no inspiration, just bad-tempered wrangling over the issues that have dominated the so-called debate from day one.
I’ve long maintained that this battle will be won in the heart, not the mind. I was reminded this week of a post I wrote earlier in the year in which I framed that thought by suggesting that it was the Why of independence that mattered far more than the How. It seems to me that Why? tends to be the default question of belief, whereas How? is the default question of doubt.
Currency, Europe, oil, Trident, pensions etc – after a Yes vote these things will all be dealt with because they’ll have to be. This is a constitutionally legitimate referendum. Negotiations will follow a Yes vote and as in all negotiations things will be thrashed out and there’ll be compromises. This is the How, and it’s a matter for the politicians and specialists, whom we can trust as much or as little as we usually do.
The Why is the fundamental matter for the rest of us – we own this vote, not them – and it occupies a different space in our consciousness. Why should we choose independence? For what it’s worth, and I’m not saying anything here that hasn’t been said before, I believe it’s because around the world it’s the norm – and in case we’d forgotten, the Commonwealth Games were a timely reminder of that. Because we want to run things ourselves. Because we don’t like the status quo. Because we believe we’re the best people to manage our own affairs, and certainly better than a distant and largely disinterested government we didn’t choose. Because it will place our relationship with our neighbour on an equal, and if anything better, footing. These are things that people feel in their gut – they hardly even require thought. They’re as normal as night following day.
I was interested by the contribution on Tuesday from commentator Lesley Riddoch. She pointed out that there’s a large grassroots movement that’s overlooked by the mainstream media because it’s completely beyond their reach (and, by implication, beyond the reach of the debate). These are not the media-savvy middle classes who agonise over the How of currency or pensions. These are the long-term disenfranchised: people in parts of the country that no politician has visited for decades, people not even registered to vote, people so badly served by the status quo that they’ve dropped off the map. And these people are realising – in large numbers, Lesley Riddoch suggested – that the Why of this vote is a future that finally offers them a chance, hope, something that springs in the breast. So they’re starting to engage – which I’m assuming does not mean they’ll be voting No.
For them, as for me and I imagine most other Yes voters, what it comes down to is simple belief. Do I believe we can make it work? Yes. Why in the name of God wouldn’t I? Without resorting to the well-worn list of Scottish firsts, this is the country of which Churchill famously said, ‘Of all the small nations of this earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind.’
He said it a long time ago, admittedly, but he could just as easily have said it today. Scientists, artists, technologists, writers, musicians, designers, sports-people, business-people, engineers, academics, financiers, doctors – there are Scots everywhere who enjoy worldwide acclaim, leaders in their fields whose reputations directly reflect what’s going on here, in Scotland, today. Their achievements testify to the fact that we remain at once one of the most inventive and one of the most practical nations on earth.
But independence is a one-way ticket, No-voters say. What happens if we fail? That begs the question: how do you measure a nation’s failure – or success for that matter? Conventional wisdom, sadly, would have it as somewhere between falling off an economic cliff or heading for the sunlit uplands of eternal prosperity. But there’s another measure which has come to the fore in the independence conversation. It has less to do with the pound/euro/alba in our pockets, and more to do with the moral currency whose deficit so many people are increasingly desperate to redress. Success by this measure is about bringing the excluded back into society, closing the wealth gap, welcoming immigrants, staying out of unjust wars, living sustainably.
Utopian? Only if we vote for the status quo – otherwise, I believe, eminently achievable. At a cost, of course, but a cost that I for one would be happy to pay. Is that any comfort to the How? seekers? Perhaps not, because most of their questions won’t start to be answered till September 19th and beyond. All I can offer is my passionate personal belief that it will work, along with the acknowledgment that it will almost certainly involve a degree of muddle along the way. But it will be our muddle and the reasons we’re in it will be something to be proud of.
Click the tab at the top of the page or the image at the head of the right-hand column for a collection of all my posts on the referendum to date.