Both campaigns have been launched, and everybody’s getting rather emotional. Not the general public, of course; it’s painfully clear that most Scots would like politicians on both sides to stop the high-stakes staring contest and start acting their age, but there’s no mistaking a big push from both Yes and No to start tugging at the heartstrings.
The people running the two ‘official’ campaigns appear to have decided that the only way politics ever stirs up the passions of the public is through full-throated proclamations of national pride. Both campaign launches were drowning in saltires, and everybody is using the tired old equation of ‘I love Scotland the most, therefore my lot are the best’.
It’s understandable. Patriotism is, by its very nature, content-free. Blind national pride doesn’t care about policy, making it a potent political tool in a debate where each side is seeking to unite people from across Scotland’s wide political spectrum.
It’s a smart move from the No campaign. ‘I’m voting no for the future,’ says one of the ‘real Scots’ in the Better Together launch video. Because Scotland is fine. The Better Together message seems to be that everything in Scotland ticks along quite nicely as part of the union, so why change it? A nationalist No campaign that flies the flag high and says ‘Scotland is great, why risk that?’ can avoid talking about what needs to change. Because, of course, there’s nothing that they can change.
Yes Scotland is trying to make a similar case, and it’s not working. Their patriotism says that Scotland is great, and could be even better; but if things are working so well right now, why risk independence?
That’s why the Yes campaign needs to forget the safe, comfortable emotional appeal of Caledonia and start getting angry. Jimmy Reid’s famous 1972 rectorial address to Glasgow University students on the subject of ‘alienation’ is now widely accepted as one of the most powerful Scottish speeches of the modern age, and it paints a picture of a broken, deeply damaging social order. He shows us a Scotland to be ashamed of, not proud of, and it’s all the more persuasive for it.
Reid’s speech, for all its sadness and frustration, is also full of hope, common humanity and compassion; it’s this mix of emotions that the Yes campaign needs to capture if it is to persuade the Scottish electorate that our country has to change radically.
Independence, if it is to be successful, has to be placed in a context of broader social progress that stretches both backwards and forwards in time. The choice between Yes and No needs to be portrayed as a fork in the road rather than a final destination. Our society hasn’t improved much since Reid’s address, and the Yes campaign has to start asking people why we still have too much poverty, too much inequality, and why so little has been done about problems that have been at the centre stage of Scottish politics for decades. Most importantly, these issues have to be presented with passion, anger and humour. Scots need to feel the need for radical change on an instinctive level, and that cannot be done as long as we’re told that everything is fine, and that everything will continue to be fine regardless of how we vote. It isn’t, and it won’t.