Grassroots Campaigning Turns Scottish Independence Vote into a Cliffhanger

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Grassroots Campaigning Turns Scottish Independence Vote into a Cliffhanger

“Scots don’t like being bullied." (Photo: Phyllis Buchanan)

Every day, a stream of volunteers approaches the unofficial Yes Scotland office in Edinburgh. None of these people are political activists; they are members of the public who’ve stopped at the office to do their part for Yes Scotland, the campaign dedicated to making Scotland an independent country.

As a middle-aged trio leave with boxes of pamphlets, a young couple walk in with their two children, offering to deliver leaflets, posters and Yes badges. It is that kind of campaign and proof of how the debate over the country’s future really has re-energized the democratic process in this part of the world at least.

When the referendum on Scottish independence was announced in 2011, it was considered a foregone conclusion. The pro-independence camp were seen as delusional Braveheart-loving, Saltire-clad nationalists; Scotland would vote No and the United Kingdom would remain strongly intact. British Prime Minister David Cameron was so sure of this that he refused to allow a third option offering “devo max” – giving more autonomy to the Scottish parliament while keeping Scotland in the union – onto the ballot.

In the last month, though, the Yes Scotland campaign has turned the vote into a cliffhanger. It started in late August, when the polling showed 47 percent for Yes and 53 percent for No, close enough to send a tremor reverberating through the London-based political parties. Within 72 hours their leaders were scrambling towards Scotland to try and rally support.

That turned to outright panic barely a week later when a further poll put Yes in the lead — 51 percent to 49 percent — and the prospect of Scotland becoming and independent country and the United Kingdom breaking up quickly became a real possibility.

The question is: How was this remarkable turnaround achieved? The short answer: grassroots enthusiasm.

It has been the staple of the Yes Scotland campaign. Colin Williamson, a volunteer campaigner for Yes Scotland, who has been active in politics for 20 years as veteran of the Scottish National Party, or SNP, says he has never seen most of the volunteers before. “This is huge,” he said. “Whatever the outcome, whether it’s a Yes or a No, I’ve had the time of my life.”

Back at the office, a new delivery of posters comes in and volunteers hastily start a bucket chain to stack them before sending them out for more canvassing, when Williamson and his fellow volunteers will be checking up on registered Yes voters in the area. “Over the last six months we’ve delivered roughly 360,000 pieces of literature through the doors in this area,” said Dave Sharp, another seasoned Yes volunteer.

It is notoriously exhausting and unglamorous work, but has been the backbone of the Yes movement. Passionate supporters leave their jobs at the end of the day and go straight out to hit the streets and knock on doors.

“This is truly a grassroots campaign,” said Williamson. “If I see a little Yes sign in somebody’s window, I’m actually going up, chapping on their door and saying ‘What can you do? You need to come out, even if it’s just to come down to the stall for five minutes.’ We’ve got them all over [the place] now. I say to them ‘Come down and talk to the activists, even just to offer some encouragement because there’s some of us who are on our last legs.’”

The weather in Scotland is often unkind to canvassers, and today is no exception. It’s misty with a cold, spitting rain as the volunteers leave to check that those who pledged to vote Yes haven’t changed their minds. Virtually none have.

In a poorer, low-income area of Edinburgh, many people on the doorsteps talk of their disillusionment with the main Westminster parties, particularly Labour, the party that was in government when the recession hit until it was voted out four years ago.

These are rarely new grievances, but they have been building up over a long period. One woman spoke of her shift to voting SNP when she felt it become standard for the Westminster parties to ignore ordinary people: “I’d voted Labour all my life, and then around 10 or 12 years ago me and my husband decided we’d just had enough. Tony Blair was the one that did it,” she said.

At about the same time, former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown is due to address an audience in a nearby Miner’s Club. Williamson chuckles as he drives past, watching the elaborate security systems being installed outside the event, which requires people to apply for attendance. It seems a fitting metaphor for the restrictiveness of the pro-Union campaign, Better Together.

“The thing about the two campaigns is we knew we had to convert people and win people over,” said Sharpe. “We were identifying undecided people very early on and started targeting information at them. The No campaign has always thought the pre-existing no vote was enough to take them over the line, and all they’ve done is target their campaign essentially to scare their voters into the polling stations; the elderly, the generational Labour voters, people like that.”

“Scots don’t like being bullied,” said Williamson. “This is like an abusive partner saying ‘If you leave me I’ll wreck your economy.’ There’s a element within the ‘don’t knows’ who are completely fed up with being told ‘You shouldn’t do this! You’re not getting that!’ In the end, they basically said ‘Screw it, I’m voting Yes.’”

In this respect, the Yes campaign has been highly critical of the established media for giving a one-sided view of the Scottish referendum, and for toeing the pro-Union line with constant warnings and fear-mongering. “I’ll bet you, on Thursday morning [polling day], in the papers you’ll see ‘Run on Banks if you Vote Yes,’” Williamson said. “Even though it’s a whole crock of shit because we’re not independent on the 19th. This is out of the Quebec handbook on how to scare people.”

Comparisons with the campaign in 1994 for Quebec’s independence from Canada and this one are commonplace. Both were neck-and-neck in the lead up to the vote, and both rattled the establish politics of their countries, though in the end Quebec narrowly voted to stay part of Canada.

The consensus in the Yes camp is that these comparisons are outdated. Times have changed with the internet and social media being able to mobilize people and share information at a level which was previously unimaginable. “Twenty years ago, I don’t think this would have been possible,” said Stuart Mackinlay, a Yes volunteer who had just finished work and is about to start canvassing.

“Before people only really had the mainstream media and word of mouth for information. Now you’ve got blogs like Wings Over Scotland, the National Collective, Bella Caledonia, which give the other side of the story, and get people involved in the discussion.”

That is where the Yes campaign has been making their ground: they have got the nation talking. Left to their own devices, the No campaign wanted to make this a shouting match between political leaders, but the Yes enthusiasts have made sure it is a proper old-fashioned doorstep campaign with modern social media layered on top.

If nothing else comes out of this campaign, the sight of a family wandering in off the street to get involved in a political debate proves the will to get involved is there; the secret is making sure people believe they are making a difference.

Calum Stuart

Calum Stuart is a freelance journalist and videographer from Scotland. He is currently based in Singapore.

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