Any campaign lasting several years can seem like a hell of a long time no matter what the issue. When the referendum was announced, it was unfathomable to imagine what the atmosphere in Scotland might feel like only days before the vote, but here we are, and it is hugely inspiring. Almost everyone is passionately debating the future of their country, at dinner tables, at the pub, in the workplace, on social media, in town halls and on the streets.
So much has happened in these few years and, while independence is now within arm’s reach, the political awakening and mobilisation of Scotland’s people that we are witnessing began with the premise of a single question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
In attempting to answer it, they have been reassessing Scotland’s role within the UK, the role of the Scottish government, and their own roles within society.
So, how did it come to this?
The Mobilisation of Millions: A Political Re-Awakening
Being faced with the decision to answer the most important question we will ever be asked has engaged the majority of people living here to research, question, discuss, argue and form opinions. Almost 4.3 million people – a record 97% of the adult population are registered to vote, while John Curtice – Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde recently predicted that around 90% of Scots will cast their ballots.
You see, Scottish politics is no longer exclusive to class, gender, age or location. People have become engaged and active in the largest grassroots campaign the country has ever seen. Beyond the densely populated central belt, small and rural communities are politically active, while speakers have been travelling across the country, sharing and inspiring different visions of what an independent Scotland could look like.
From the borders to the islands, town hall meetings, stalls and other activities have been held on a daily basis, reviving something that was fabled to exist long ago: community spirit. By meeting one another at debates and seminars, hosting events and campaigning together, so many people now know their neighbours: people of all ages, origins and beliefs across their community. If they ever need to borrow a cup of sugar, they’ll be spoiled for choice.
The Working Class
Huge swathes of people in working class areas, who’ve never before been registered to vote and others who removed themselves from the register during the period of the poll tax have joined the electorate.
Many more have never before used their vote or registered, seeing no real incentive in voting for a political party, but are primed to vote in the referendum. The Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) – just one, albeit large, grassroots campaign – has spent most of its time engaging these people, and signed-up more than 1500 to vote in the week before the registration deadline alone.
Working class voters have long been known to be more likely to vote Yes compared to middle classes. Judged by the canvass sessions, where RIC asked the voting intentions of 18,000 people on their doorsteps in 90 working class communities, support for independence is significant. After stripping out Undecideds, 63% were for Yes and 37% backed No. Research firm YouGov’s recent poll had similar results, putting working class support for a Yes vote at 60%
Politics has not only held the crucial flaw of being class-exclusive – such a world dominated by middle-aged males also breeds indifference with demographics including women and young people.
Women for Independence (WFI) has been long working to engage women throughout the last few years, due to the concerns that they were being drowned out of the debate on Scotland’s greatest decision. Greater proportions of women had been undecided on independence or backing a No vote according to polls, however the gap has sharply narrowed recently with a notable move towards Yes.
A notable demographic in Scotland’s awakening, women, making up 52% of the population, are hugely active in the national political debate both within and outwith campaign groups. WFI co-founder Jeane Freeman believes:
“Whatever happens after the vote, we won’t be able to put that genie back in the bottle.”
Whether you agree or disagree with the Scottish Government’s decision to lower the referendum voting age to 16, it’s hard not to value the vast political mobilisation of this age group. Young people have been offered the opportunity to decide their country’s future; most understand that they have the most to lose or gain from such a decision, and are taking the responsibility seriously.
Debates and mock referendums have been staged in high schools, colleges and universities across the country, bringing the Yes and No arguments to a younger, yet equally important demographic. Despite great facilitation of the debate from schools in past few years, a TES survey from earlier this month revealed “only 12 debates with outside speakers had been organised in the country’s 364 state secondaries for the period between the start of the summer term and the vote.” What’s more, some local authorities have – to the concern of many – banned schools from even mentioning the referendum throughout this period.
However, the debate didn’t stay confined to educational establishments. Pro-independence young Scots founded the grassroots campaign, Generation Yes, encouraging discussions amongst peers across the country. Writing in online political magazine Bella Caledonia ahead of the group’s launch, sixteen year-old Saffron Dickson asserted:
“The mass under-representation and lack of expectations for us younger people is something that needs to be challenged- and it will be.“
Evidently, Yes voters consist of a far wider berth than nationalists – there are not nearly enough of them to win the referendum. Beyond those with Green and Socialist leanings, Lib Dems and crucially, Labour voters are moving towards Yes in large swathes. Labour for Independence (LFI) has been engaging disenfranchised supporters of Scotland’s formerly dominant party to vote for independence. The vastly expanding group holds the belief that a Scottish Labour party would return to its left wing roots if it became independent from Westminster.
With polls showing rising support for independence from Labour voters, LFI’s efforts appear to have paid-off. A recent YouGov poll noted that Labour voters opting for independence rose 18% – 35% in only four weeks. More interestingly, the Daily Record reported the findings of a Survation poll that “Scots would narrowly back a Labour government in the first election after independence”.
Perhaps uncharacteristic of an independence movement is the transcendence of typical perceptions of nationalism – of being insular, bigoted and hostile. Recalling a talk from Tariq Ali, organised by RIC, the veteran academic told us that from what he had observed, the movement has been far from “blood and soil” – rather, it has been inclusive and progressive.
“Scotland has long been internationalist, by deed and by nature. While there are negative instances, for a small nation we have a renowned reputation for hospitality.” He told Bella Caledonia.
He’s right. Many of the main arguments for independence are linked to social conscience – beckoning the abolition of nuclear weapons, the determination to never enter another illegal war and to exist as a small peaceful country. RIC has spent much time discussing how an independent Scotland would be a humane global citizen, even dedicating crucial planning and door-knocking time to expressing solidarity with those struggling outwith Scotland, such as the Palestinians in Gaza.
Take a closer look at the plethora of groups that have been spawned to help Scotland regain its independence and you may be quite surprised. Groups such as English Scots for Yes, Africans for an Independent Scotland, Scots Asians for Yes, as well as factions from different European and Commonwealth countries have formed during the run-up to the referendum. The Huffington Post further explored this phenomenon of Yes support from ethnic minorities.
Throughout these few years, individuals have also been forming ‘Yes’ groups based on locality or, in the case of groups such as National Collective, NHS for Yes or Farming for Yes, for example, shared professions and interests. These groups have been busy developing their own arguments, designing their own literature, publishing their own media, and hosting stalls, meetings, events and door-knocking sessions – all independently of politicians.
Even autonomous new media organisations have surged in popularity. With only one pro-independence newspaper (a weekly) to reflect the views of news consumers, sites like Bella Caledonia, Wings Over Scotland and Newsnet Scotland have seen interest in their blog articles soar. Similarly other forms of media such as Referendum TV, Independence Live and the Scottish Independence Podcast have emerged to offer alternative coverage on the debate in all formats.
Harnessing the communicative tools of social networks, they have helped to keep connected Scots (and large numbers of young Scots) informed and politically engaged. The Scottish Independence Convention went as far as hosting a media briefing featuring different independent Yes campaign groups in Glasgow each morning of the month before the crucial vote.
Meanwhile critical outreach mistakes from Better Together have been flowing in quick succession. Firstly the sexist portrayal of a Scottish woman from the No camp came in the form of an advert “The Woman Who Made Up Her Mind”. The actress featured talked about her husband’s passionate interest in politics while she did not know the name of the First Minister.
Reactions from Yes, No and Undecided voters on social media were unprecedented, leading to vast attention from national and international media, as well as a string of Youtube parodies (see my favourite below). The PR disaster even convinced some people to vote yes, including Sandra Grieve, former convener of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
However, lessons were not learned. Soon after, Better Together launched a billboard campaign instructing Scots to vote No if they love their kids, families and country. The implication here was that Yes voters do not.
In the meantime, the artists and creative-types that make up National Collective have gone beyond the realms of political expression, pioneering a cultural revival encouraging independence-inspired writing, illustration, poetry, music and other art. The group even toured the length and breadth of the country with Yestival – a travelling cultural festival of music, poetry and other arts before hosting a show of their own during the Edinburgh Fringe.
Clearly, the independence movement far from epitomises the classic perception of nationalism. Moreover, the revolution has quickly outgrown traditional politics.
A Political Revolution – The Sum of the Parts
Thread together the events of the last few years whilst taking into account the groups, events and actions that have spurred a political and cultural awakening and it is hard to be uninspired.
The people of Scotland are at a crossroads facing two very different political paths.
One shows signs of further indefinite austerity, a rise in anti-immigration and anti-Europe hysteria and more unrepresentative governments dictating their lives from hundreds of miles away. The near city-state of London thrives as an entity in one of the most unequal countries in the developed world, and it is the ordinary people of the UK that fall short.
This is why you will see progressives in other regions of the UK and beyond urging Scotland to break free. They know our love for the people on these islands has not diminished; rather our tolerance of the political establishment has crumbled. They want us to take the opportunity that is best for us. More than this they know that our decision will shake the stagnant Union to its very foundations; in fact, many outwith Scotland support our independence because of this.
In less than a week, Scotland has an opportunity to take an entirely different path and escape from perpetual economic inequality and political apathy – this is why the country has such a vehement atmosphere and has become such an inspiring place to be.
The real challenge of course will be retaining this unification, passion and mobilisation of campaigners and the public in general after the vote. However, if a Yes vote is won, there will be no shortages of reasons to stay engaged. We’ll be building a newly independent country from the ground up, writing a constitution, electing the first parliament of solely our own choosing in 300 years, deciding how our lives should be run and shaping what sort of society we want to live in.
All of these exciting prospective challenges will come in addition to what we’ve already built during the long campaign over the past few years, and the people of Scotland may never have been more awake, active and ready to seize an opportunity.
Photo: Peter McNally / Documenting Yes