“What Scots have got to realise is this isn’t a general election.” “This is one poll, but people in Scotland have to recognise that this is forever, the break up of Britain.” “I wonder if that’s really sunk in.” “I don’t think they’ve fully understood the implications of this.” Etcetera, etcetera. Over the last couple of days, the UK media has crackled with sentences of this kind as, as the Daily Mash put it, the UK media rouse themselves to the fact that “Scotland having some sort of referendum, apparently.” What a difference a poll makes.
Cue a jungle column of political explorers, wending their way north from London, to prognosticate on the future of the Union and the chances of victory. In their train, we can also apparently expect a band of UK “heavyweights”, in the political patois, to press home the case against independence. Both enterprises, the commentary and the campaigning, are fraught with a kind of peril. On the media side, some pieces of writing have been much better than others. Folk like Paul Mason have shown a real interest and sensitivity to their subject. Others rather less so, like the pith-helmeted imperial anthropologists, who gain a superficial knowledge of their subjects, and trump off to pen the authoritative tome, shot through with their own problematic assumptions and cultural blind spots.
The strange inarticulacy of the rash of tin-eared UK paper reviews and columns on Scotland tells its own story. Do you think, after three years, anybody with half a brain in this country is in danger of conflating the referendum with a general election? Do you think anybody earnestly considering putting their cross in the Yes box can’t countenance the idea that independence means independence? Why assume, on the basis of no real information on the poll, that for the Yes campaign to have run Better Together close means that the punters are nitwits who haven’t been applying themselves in a serious-minded, considered way to the range of alternatives, facts, arguments and uncertainties which have been presented to them? “I know nothing much about the referendum, but if you are inclined to vote Yes, you must have neglected the homework that I’ve… um… never done on the subject.”
This is a reheated version of an auld sang we’ve heard many times before. Independence is bonkers and unthinkable, and if close to a majority of folk living in Scotland are willing to countenance it, they must either be in the grip of a childish and petulant “anti-politics sentiment”, have been beguiled by that mischievous peddler of villainy, Alex Salmond, or have failed really to understand what they’ve been asked. All of which might be more impressive, had the incredulous scribbler composing it shown any interest or sensitivity to the Scottish question these last many years, or a decent level of respect for the intelligence and responsibility of the public.
Casting the Scottish electorate as ignorant saps is just another way of avoiding the interesting and significant implications of the referendum for the whole of the UK, whether Yes or No carry the day. It is an expression of a serious lack of self-reflection and self-analysis which has characterised the astonishing complacency and indifference with which the referendum has elicited in the circles of convention British power. In more prosaic terms, it also presents significant potential hazards for Better Together, in making their case in the final ten days of the campaign. I wrote this during the first big Union wobble of the campaign. If anything, it is truer this morning than it was back in May.
Crumbling certainties confuse and they upset. And the No campaign across the UK doesn't have the luxury of much time to recalibrate its emotional and intellectual resources. The imaginative gap, alluded to by both Massie and Rifkind, separating the Westminster-dominated politics and the debate in Scotland, remains one of the Yes campaign's most significant structural advantages.
The best advocates always understand their audience, its quirks and assumptions and reactions. They know which levers to pull, which switches to turn and which to leave well alone. Now and then, the talented amateur may get lucky, but it is a risky business. For the increasingly-anxious political actor, steeped in London-centric politics and hoping to have an impact on how Scots vote in September, the prevailing disunities within the UK make the job that much harder. For Better Together's supporters, they can but hope that none of their fretful, tinkering amateurs presses any big red buttons before September.
The good news for the No campaign is that the United Kingdom has finally woken up to the Scottish problem: that’s also the bad news. In the wake of yesterday’s panic, many, many more people will be hovering around the big red buttons of the campaign, wanting "to do their bit," but deaf to the years and months of conversations and arguments which have gone before.
If you can’t begin understand your opponent, can’t empathise with where they’re coming from, you are hobbled from the get-go. Tackety boot unionism is the last thing Better Together need at this stage of the campaign, but if the last few days are anything to go by, our late constitutional visitors and observers have few resources of experience to make an informed, sensitive case to an informed, sensitive public. Like yesterday's collapsing federalism shtick, the late renewed interest in Scotland is at best a mixed blessing for the No campaign, and potentially a whole new petard to be hoist by.