If one was to take most mainstream UK media at face value one would be forced to conclude that the people behind the #YesScotland campaign are some sort of impossible combination of right-wing reactionary anti-English racist xenophobes and starry-eyed unrealistic dreamers who expect Scotland to turn into a magical socialist utopia on Sept. 19 and will rip up and throw away a great nation (the uk) in pursuit of that impossible dream. By contrast, the Better Together campaign is presented as a mainstream common sense coalition on an issue so obvious that even old enemies like Labour and the Tories can unite to oppose it.
The facts on the ground do not support these characterizations.
In point of fact, every single person from the Yes camp that I’ve talked to has been able to eloquently and passionately talk about the full range of issues, from balance of trade and monetary policy to social justice and education. These are people who have read and read and read and gone way out of their way to inform themselves. By contrast, out of the five No voters I’ve talked to so far not one of them has been able to offer a coherent fact-based argument to support their positions. That doesn’t mean there aren’t intelligent and thoughtful people who have well research positions based on their own value systems who oppose independence, I just haven’t met any. (Seriously, DM me on twitter if you’d like to get your side of the story out).
I stopped by the “Yes Shop” in northern Leith, a retail space that has been rented by Terrance Chang, one of the local Yes supporters, to provide a place where anyone can drop in and get information, posters, t-shirts, and anything else. Terrence speaks in an accent that sounds almost English with just the barest hints of Chinese and is both passionate and precise in his language. For him, the issue really comes down to Self Determination. He is quick to point out that an independent Scotland will make mistakes and missteps, “but at least they will be our mistakes. We don’t need other people to screw things up for us.” When pressed about what he’d like to see Scotland do with that self determination, he talks about issues of social justice and fairness and describes independence as a framework to build a better nation that values human beings and protects the vulnerable and disadvantaged. The decentralized grassroots nature of the Yes campaign is a big deal for him as well and a sign of a renewed and reinvigorated democracy. Like virtually everyone else I talked to on the Yes side, Terrence is inspired by the combination of cultural outpouring and the openness and diversity of the larger movement – and gives much of the credit for the surge in support to the artists and musicians who have made the movement their own. He’s also worried by the rise of right wing xenophobic groups like UKIP and feels that minorities will be safer and more respected in an inclusive independent Scotland than they would be in Cameron and Farage’s Britain.
It’s getting a bit late and the shop is closing so I head back out into the rain and strike up a conversation with Chris (@chrisdarroch2 on twitter) and his teenage daughter Charlotte who are both big yes supporters. I ask Chris to summarize why and he instantly starts listing off facts about the economy and the gap between the wealth scotland generates and the poverty that far too many of its people live in. Unlike many Yes activists, he’s not shy talking about oil and believe Scotland should have done the same as Norway – who discovered oil the same thing Scotland did – but invested that oil revenue into a national fund that now owns almost 1% of the entire global stock market. Instead, all that money flowed to Westminster and was spent on programs that by and large did not benefit Scottish people. “So why would we keep giving them our wealth when they’re just going to throw it away?” It’s a good question. For Chris, money and profits are important but are a means to an end and wants to see Scotland follow the Scandinavian example. As the father of a biracial daughter, he also echoes Terrence’s desire to see Scotland assert itself as an inclusive place where everyone is respected. As for Charlotte, she’s excited and doing her best to reach out to her peers many of whom are excited to be able to vote for the first time and are one of the big wild cards in this election since no one has any real idea how they’re goign to vote.
Back at the Yes campaign offices, I catch the tail end of a training session for volunteers. Moni, an Indian-Scottish activist with a thick Scottish accent who cites Ghandi and Chomsky as key influences, also makes a point about the way Scotlands racial minorities feel alienated and intimidated by southern England’s embrace of UKIP. More than that though, he prides himself on being level headed. He works in financial services and says “I’m a numbers man… look at the infamous McCrone report that was commissioned by the Tories but concluded Scotland would be as wealthy as Switzerland if we were independent. Even the OECD says we’d be the 24th wealthiest nation in the world.” As he says “Scotland is a first world developed country – why couldn’t we be independent?” He frames poverty and foreign policy as moral issues and sees the current UK government as morally bankrupt on both counts.
His friend Hamish (@hatfinch), whose stereotypically Scottish name and red hair might make one assume he’s from the highlands until he opens his mouth and his careful English accent comes through. Born and raised in northern England he didn’t come to Scotland until he was an adult and sees a strong self-governing Scotland as an ideal trading partner for communities throughout the north of England that he feels have been abandoned by the London-centric policies of Westminster. For him, like Terrence, the core issue is self determination and the ability for Scotland to make its own decisions. Strikingly, he says that even if Scotland was a center-right country instead of a center-left country, he’d still vote for self determination because it’s easier to create change in a smaller country with a more representative government. Statistically he’s right of course, the inverse correlation between the size of a country and how democratic it is is well documented, as is the tendency of first-past-the-post electoral systems such as those used in the US and UK to create rigid two-party structures. The fact that the Scottish Parliament uses a hybrid system that includes some proportional representation instead of being a pure two-party system is a big attraction Hamish, as is the ability to be directly and proportionately represented in the EU.
As the conversation progresses, Alyson (@textuallimits on twitter) who grew up in a rural community in Scotland, joins in. As a younger woman she was involved in the SNP but in more recent years has approached the issue more from the perspective of the Radical Independence or Green perspective. Like many others, she’s very inspired by the way younger people have been energized by the referendum and hopeful that they’ll seize the opportunity to take control of their country’s future. The large number of younger people involved on the yes side has been both a blessing and a challenge for the Yes campaign because their comfort with Social media means it’s easier for yes activists to get information to them. Unfortunately, the flip side of that is that older people who are not as savvy with social media have been very hard to reach and are the least likely age demographic to support independence.
The three of us could have probably talked most of the night, but just then someone shouted out a cleanup reminder that they need to close the space at 9pm and so we exchange twitter handles and I head back to my hotel.
It’s been an incredibly long day – I’ve been up for 19 hours as I write this at 11:10pm local time but am wide awake and excited. I’ll be catching a bus to Glasgow tomorrow and hope to do a bunch more interviews while I’m there. If anyone has suggestions for who I should be interviewing please let me know in the comments or tweet at me at @jedwheeler