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Comment from the Inside: The Scottish Referendum

The Print’s very own Scotsman on the inside gives his thoughts on working for the ‘No’ campaign and their frantic efforts to preserve the Union

I joined the Edinburgh office of Better Together about two months before the referendum polling day. The atmosphere on the campaign had been fairly unchanged for the two years before I started, showing small momentum to the ‘Yes’ side, but with the ‘No’ side looking like it could still expect a pretty comfortable lead. Had you arrived in Scotland in the beginning of September, you could be forgiven for not noticing any signs that the most important referendum in Scottish (and British) history was about to take place; people seemed to be living their lives perfectly normally, complacently accepting that the result was definitely going to be ‘No’. That was until September 3rd, the day everything changed – the day a poll showed the ‘Yes’ vote winning.

Overnight the atmosphere was different, as the possibility of Independence began to sink in. Supporters for ‘Yes Scotland’ became even more energised as they began to see that the work they’d been doing for the past two years was beginning to pay off. On our side, it’s fair to say, we got spooked. Within a day Prime Minister’s Questions was cancelled, then three Westminster party leaders, one hundred Labour MPs and George Galloway were sent north to persuade Scots to stay. It’s difficult to say whether it helped sway people towards the side of the union, but it definitely looked panicked and desperate. Within four days, a brand new timetable for substantial devolution of new powers to the Scottish Parliament was announced by Gordon Brown (who is still an incredibly popular politician in Scotland, something which English friends of mine still find baffling). This meant that whether the result was ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, big changes would be coming to Scotland. The status quo was dead.

Nonetheless, as well as spooking us a bit, that poll did prove to be quite helpful. It woke up a large number of ordinary people who were opposed to independence, and motivated them to get involved with the campaign. One of my jobs on the campaign was to organise canvassing events in Edinburgh and get as many volunteers as possible to come along to them. Before that poll we would struggle to get ten people to come along; afterwards fifty would turn up, even if it was pouring with rain, and we’d meet a lot more undecided voters who hadn’t thought about how they would vote much, but were now coming to us with their questions about the implications of independence. People in Scotland were suddenly more interested and engaged in the debate, and the referendum suddenly became the lead story on all newspapers and on the BBC for the next three weeks.

One surreal point during the campaign was when I was interviewed by a TV station alongside a worker for the Yes campaign for a segment about what issues people were raising on the doorsteps, which aired on the news that evening. Admittedly, it was for a Danish news channel, but it still counts. In fact, it was incredible just how the world’s eyes were on Scotland for those final three weeks of campaigning. We were followed during canvassing sessions by TV channels from France, Canada, Taiwan and Argentina, as well as journalists writing about what was happening in Scotland, including the Boston Globe and the New Zealand Herald.

Most international observers commented positively on the fact we were having a democratic debate on the potential break-up of a country and how it was being conducted positively and civilly by both sides. They did, however, often suggest to us that they thought personally that our opponents were running a better and more inspiring campaign, and if I’m honest, I’d agree. Whilst I’d deny the accusations that the pro-union side ran an entirely negative campaign, it did have its low moments. One of the worst examples of this was in the final five days of the campaign when we were handing out entirely black leaflets through the doors of undecided voters, exclaiming “SNP NHS LIES!” and declaring Alex Salmond the most untrustworthy man in Britain – so much for a positive case for the Union!

In the end, the result wasn’t as close as people had been braced for and it turned out to be a comfortable victory for the Union, but not exactly a landslide. Also notable is that a big part of our victory was down to overwhelmingly winning voters aged over 65, who backed the Union by 74% to 26%. Amongst those under 65 the result was much closer, and may even have been a ‘Yes’ majority. Also, the vow made by the three Westminster leaders was a promise of further devolution in the event of a ‘No’ vote, which is already beginning to look like it might possibly fall apart. None of this suggests that this will be a decisive enough result to definitely prevent a second referendum, as happened in Quebec. A ‘No’ vote means that Scotland will remain a part of the UK for the foreseeable future, but that probably isn’t going to prevent me from getting suspicious looks from bar staff in London when I hand over Scottish Banknotes and plead “Honestly! Its real money, I promise!”

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