Scots, wha couldnae be bothered…
In a year of Bannockburn celebrations, the Commonwealth Games and the largest arts festival the world has ever seen, the referendum has been marked by apathy more than strength of feeling
Fifteen years ago, the Australian people voted on a two-question referendum to determine whether the position of Head of State should be replaced by an Australian President or continue to rest with the British monarchy. Almost inevitably, the debate came to be defined by what would be lost – the British monarchy – rather than what would be gained.
Forests have been felled in the attempt to explain how and why the No vote prevailed, although it remains an open question. And with Ozzie enthusiasm for royalty higher than ever (in the wake of a Danish princess from Hobart followed by the birth of George), it’s one that’s unlikely to be revisited in the near future.
In just under two months, Scotland faces a test with similarly clastic potential consequences. But a couple of pretty important differences have given the atmosphere a different flavour altogether. Non-compulsory voting means that much of the electorate remains unengaged; the interference of EU and UK politics means that a lot of agency for the narrative rests outside of Scotland. And, of course, there’s that uniquely Caledonian streak of indifference. Many quite simply can’t be arsed with all that shite.
Play the game, Jimmy
The Bannockburn commemorations were hardly what you’d call a Stirling success.
Seven centuries after arguably the zenith of Scottish military achievement and the independence movement, the official celebration was marked by poor attendance and (allegedly deliberate) competition with Armed Forces Day events rather than a Braveheart-esque outpouring of Scottish sentiment. The Ryder Cup and Homecoming festival were also meant to kick things up a notch, but there’s no evidence that this endeavour was succesful.
But the big drawcard for the ol’ Scottish way-hey team was and is meant to be the 20th quadrennial Commonwealth Games, held this year in Glasgow. Both a symbol of Scotland’s willingness and ability to put on an international knees-up, as well as an opportunity to show up the Auld Enemy on home ground, the Games are seen as an important litmus test for the Scottish National Party and, by proxy, the nationalist cause. As one of the few arenas for open English-Scottish competition, many will judge the future viability of an independent Scotland not only on the smooth running of the Games but also on the success of the Scottish athletes – whether fair or not.
Somebody set us up the bomb
This being 2014 and aw’, both the Yes and No (or ‘Better Together’) campaigns have jumped on social media and digital communications as a key tool for reaching the common man. Scottish publicity campaigns and social media marketing of late have not been noted for their subtlety or attainment (we’ve written about it ourselves), although the Glasgow Games organisers proposing to blow up public housing as a sign of progress or something was a new level. Yet even by north-of-the-border standards, the level of communication has been beset by ailing campaigning more redolent of forwards from Grandma than an important political discussion determining the future of millions.
Marketing consultancy and analyst firm Velocity Digital took a look at both sides of the #indyref campaign and decided that they were both, essentially, a bit meh. This may go some way towards explaining why the bulk of the debate – at least at street level – has been dominated by jingoism or down-the-pub hearsay rather than intensive investigation of the issues that matter to Scotland: finance and economics; energy and trade; European and domestic law; and the shape of the Scottish society of the future.
The Secret Life of Walter Scotty
But if Scottish voters aren’t engaging with sloganeering, memes and ‘shareable assets’, what exactly are they doing? A good solid core of the electorate has already decided how they’ll be voting on the 18th of September, although there’s reported movement in the ranks. But the big undecided mass – the one that’s likely to decide the result – is squarely located in working class Glasgow.
Bizarrely, both Yes and Better Together campaigns can appeal to Scottish parochialism in the attempt to reel them in. Since Sir Walter Scott’s enormously kitsch Royal pageant, Unionists and nationalists alike have pointed to the iconic kilts, bagpipes, shortbread and whisky as either symbols of Scotland’s role in British identity or of perfidious Albion’s subjugation of the proud Scots race.
Neither is accurate.
Perhaps it’s reflective of Caledonian anti-syzygy or ‘Scottish schizophrenia’ that the national sense of self is so torn on what its iconography means. But the real oxymoron here is the placement of such trivial kipple and caricatured clutter at the forefront of Scottish symbolism. Only in 1782 was tartan really seen outside of the Highlands, driven by London fashion enthusiasts. It took another 40 years and the intervention of Sir Scott before the kilt would be regarded in Edinburgh as the outfit of dandies rather than sheep-buggerers or creative anachronists (see also: cosplayers).
I suspect that while this kind of imagery has a definite appeal, it isn’t resonating with the great Glaswegian mass that is the primary target of both the Yes and No campaign – and their dual co-opting of the same parochial tone probably isn’t adding to any penetrative value of their messages.
The Lying Scotsman and railroaded arguments
In Catalonia, which will go to the polls on the 9th of November, the Scottish situation is being watched very closely. As an important test case in EU law and social engineering, the result will have some bearing both on how the Catalans vote and on what they’ll do afterwards.
Over here, however, there’s little or no official discussion of the Catalan situation. Nor is there much engagement between Yes and No on questions of oil rights, financial models, border controls, debt, pension, defence or even currency. While both sides have their own proposals and arguments, very little connection between the two – or with reality – is made, in public at least.
The SNP says they’ll keep the pound; the Chancellor says they can’t. Both sides accuse the other of misrepresentation and deception, and prefer to speak directly to the electorate rather than with one another. The same is true of the engine of the Scottish economy, off-shore oil; the UK government refuses to even countenance the possibility of losing the oilfields, much less plan for it.
In fact, with both sides dearly in need of a reality check, it’s become increasingly difficult to find reliable factual information on the debate.
This sad state of affairs is likely to continue up to the end. Now that David Cameron has almost unequivocally ruled out a debate – preferring instead to almost deny the existence of the impending referendum – the public will probably not receive the opportunity to hear the two sides dissect and defend their cases.
A sporting chance for Scotland
Meanwhile, the fun and Games continue in Glasgow. As athletes battle in the pool, on the track and in the velodrome, there’s been a decidedly sleepy feel to the event. Despite expectations of demonstrations on both parts, the public avowal to keep the Games neutral territory has more or less been kept. One spectator has been ejected for waving some be-sloganed bunting, but there’s been no flag-burning incidents in the crowds or fists of Saltire solidarity from the athletes.
After a strong start, Scotland is currently battling for 4th place on the medal table with New Zealand – comfortably far from England, who’re tussling for top position with (of course) Australia. There have been some exciting moments so far: Erraid Davies, a 13-year old Scottish swimmer, unexpectedly won bronze in her event. The Scottish judo team has had a cracking battle for dominance with England, winning six golds apiece in front of screaming crowds. And yet there’s no real sense of any wider significance, no urgency or weight to the celebrations.
One local lad, disinterestedly watching the boxing on a muted television in an Edinburgh pub, summed it up best when asked if he’d be attending in person: “Naw. Ah couldnae be bothered.”
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