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Wednesday, 3 September 2014

In the final two weeks...here's to positivity!

There are now only two weeks to the all-important independence referendum.
 
Two weeks.
 
Two weeks left for Scottish voters to determine our country’s future.
 
Two weeks for the respective campaigns to make their cases.
 
In two weeks, two and a half years of campaigning will come to a conclusion and we’ll have a result.
 
I know how I will vote, and anyone who reads my blog will too. I did change my mind at one point – considering not voting at all on account of the divisive campaigning – but it wouldn’t be in my nature not to exercise my democratic right. And so I will vote Yes, for the reasons I’ve given so many times in relation to democracy, accountability and the inability of the pro-Union parties to provide any reassurances that they’re willing to offer anything post-referendum other than some tinkering to devolution. As a federalist, rather than a devolutionist, they’ve given me no reason to vote no. I can’t embrace the status quo, and I can’t place my hope in Labour and the Tories to give us anything approaching the Lib Dem federalist aspiration.
 
I have to admit at times I’ve been embarrassed by what has passed for a national conversation. I’ve found much of the campaigning to be patronising, offensively simplistic,  disempowering, jingoistic, intellectually dishonest and – sadly – unhelpfully divisive. There can be no escaping either the negative character of much of the campaigning strategy, or the nastiness and intolerance that has, at times, overshadowed the debate. I hoped in 2011 for a civilised but intense debate that would showcase the very best of Scottish politics and inspire the nation; what we’ve had instead is a regurgitation of the same tired, familiar excuses for arguments with the potentially toxic legacy of a divided Scotland.
 
There has been much said about this negativity. And rightly so. But we must rise above it. Not only the negative campaigning approaches, but the apathy and fear that these actively create. In the final two weeks, we all need to be focused on what is good about this debate, about each other and about Scotland.
 
It dismays me to see the press reporting on violent or intolerant behaviour on the part of those who support one side or the other. It particularly disturbs me when an irresponsible media are so keen to stereotype supporters of one side as somehow being less civilised and law-abiding than the other – something not helped by politicians using language such as “nationalist thugs”. The focus on the evils of “cybernationalism” and the intolerance often expressed via twitter have unfairly and unreasonably helped to create a myth that such intolerance is rife in Scotland, that it is supported by the official campaigns, that it is widespread and that it has been the defining character of the debate.
 
Nothing could be further from the truth. Idiots have always thrown eggs at politicians. People have used twitter to insult others since its inception. Some people are internet trolls. Sadly, there will always be some who are just intolerant and obnoxious.
 
But I’m not standing for any more of the media’s attempts to diminish the humanity of campaigners (especially on the Yes side) and, indirectly, their attempt to dehumanise Scots more generally. The negativity of campaign organisations has often robustly been challenged, but the media are often oblivious to their own role in perpetuating negativity, and the potentially damaging legacy they are helping to create.
 
While I’ve been critical of the campaigning, and particularly of Better Together, there is a difference between criticising tactics and painting others as inferior. When one of us is diminished, we all are. The disrespectful way in which - in the last few days alone - campaigning has been carried out is both unnecessary and an affront to democratic conversation.

For example, why is there a need to portray Yes campaigners as being aggressive and intolerant, morally inferior to their No counterparts, and - in the words of Willie Rennie, "thugs"? Why the need to attempt to connect Better Together with someone from the Britannia Party who committed a serious assault in Glasgow last weekend? Why the suggestions that an independent Scotland would, on the basis of alleged misdemeanours on the part of Yes activists, be an illiberal society in which criminality would thrive and freedom of expression limited? Does any of this actually empower the electorate?

And what about some of our own Lib Dem campaigners - the same campaigners who argue the need for "a fair, free and open society...in which none shall be enslaved by...conformity" - who simultaneously refer to those who think differently as "traitors" (in spite of condemning SNP members for using the same language), who describe Yes voters in their own party as "beyond the pale", or suggest that any Liberal Democrat voting Yes must, by nature, be disloyal and illiberal. This has regrettably happened all too often; most upsetting isn't the individual insult but the self-delusion of people who lack the insight to recognise they are suppressing what they purportedly believe in. I'm not suggesting this is typical of the majority, but by the same token we have no right to claim the moral high ground.

The behaviour of the media has at times been contemptible - far more so than that of campaigners. The media represent yet another group who lack the insight to recognise their inherent hypocrisy. 

And yet...while the negativity, the character assassination, the ridiculous stereotyping, the socially irresponsible media, the potential for further dividing society, the toxic language, the intolerance and the reduction of complex arguments to glib simplicities are all very real, focusing on them misses the bigger picture.  Because for every vicious cybernat there are 1,000 decent people on twitter exchanging their views in a frank but respectful way. For every Yes supporter who jeers Jim Murphy, there are countless others who would rather take their message door-to-door, engaging freely with voters in a civilised fashion. For every bombastic, provocative parliamentarian there are thousands of amiable, winsome and deeply human people campaigning on each side - simply hoping to do their best to secure the best possible future for Scotland.

There are so many more positives...not least that we actually have this referendum (I defy even the most ardent unionist to deny the positivity in that). Then there are the sheer number of people who are engaged, and who have been engaged with - there have been far more activists in this campaign that in any recent election in Scotland, far more communities touched, so many more conversations had. And despite the media obsession with the unbecoming behaviour of a tiny minority, for the most part this debate has been conducted respectfully, often in village halls, schools, pubs or people's living rooms - debates that may sometimes be as fierce as they are serious but which, inevitably, are characterised by warmth and deference.

Having looked closer, I don't see what the media are reporting. Or rather, I see more than they do. I'm not buying into the lie that Yes campaigners are a bunch of immoral, thuggish and ignorant bullies. I'm not accepting that No voters are unpatriotic, traitorous or paralysed by fear. What I see are many people doing what they think is in their country's interests, with many others trying to make sense of the complex and sometimes conflicting information to arrive at the right decision. I see people struggling with their consciences because they understand the significance of the vote - only yesterday I heard of an 85 year-old Lib Dem who, for the first time in her life and with a heavy heart, is voting "against" her party. I see young people, voting for the first time, who have developed an infectious desire for political action. I see people living in hope of a better tomorrow. I see people taking pride in how they're voting. I feel a Scotland that is alive in anticipation and expectation. I know I live in an increasingly open, welcoming and inclusive Scotland, rather than one which is as inherently intolerant as some would have us believe

Sure, I don't like Alex Salmond's style. And I agree that Better Together organisationally has been shambolically amateurish. But look beyond them, and you'll see ordinary people making extraordinary contributions. We should show them respect. Our democracy depends on such people.

The campaigning has not been all that it could be. That much is regrettable, and I hope we are all able to live with each other after 18th September given some of the poisonous and divisive rhetoric that has been dishonestly passed off as political discourse. But this referendum is not about the campaign groups. Neither is it about political parties, nor the media. It is about Scottish people, deciding on the future of Scotland.

I hope we can all embrace positivity in the final days before the vote - and, in the immortal words of Bill and Ted - I hope we can all "be excellent to each other". Here's to a final 14 days of exhilarating, energised, impassioned and courteous campaigning!


1 comment:

tris said...

I'll go with that.

I agree that on both sides there have been faults, but let's be honest. It's all new. No one is an expert at this. Even seasoned campaigners have never had to campaign so much across party loyalties.

I sat in a hall the other day with Dundee and Dundee United supporters, listening to an MP from the SNP, a Labour for Indy man a Trade Unions man and a Radical Guy. There were things they disagreed about, but they were together on the fundamentals of the way forward.

At every meeting I've been to the atmosphere is electric. The hope, the aspiration, the anticipation that at last we can have something better and change our lives, is palpable.

This afternoon in the YES shop I spoke to people from various backgrounds, posh and not so posh, from a man, clearly in his late 70s, to a lad off to play hockey for Scotland in Manchester, at most 17 years old. They were dressed differently but they all had yes badges on.

The enthusiasm was joy giving.

It has changed our way of thinking. I just hope we don't have our hopes smashed and people go back to the "they are all the same; it's not worth my bother to get involved".