Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The importance of winning well

Whatever September 19 demands of each side in the referendum debate, let’s hope they rise to the occasion...

We're into the home straight now. The last of the big TV debates is over. After spinning for all it was worth in advance of the first debate that simply emerging alive would count as a victory for their man, that's exactly the fate which resulted for Alistair Darling following his second encounter with Alex Salmond. 

Snap polling gave the debate to Alex by a margin of 71-29, with handsome leads as well in terms of which man had the more appealing personality and the better arguments. Tempting as it might have been to reprise Jonathan Watson's impression of football pundit Chic Young with a cheery 'Gubbed! Blootered! Stuffed!', on this occasion I've resisted. Here’s why.

All of us have spent years watching Alex trample opponents into the dust in TV encounters only to find that it's often made little difference at the ballot box. For that reason above all else I thought he did very well in the first debate at reaching out to ‘the folks at home’. Despite the aggressive BT spin, the ‘folks’ seemed to agree, with subsequent polls showing a steady narrowing of the gap between 'Yes' and 'No'. Rule number one of marketing - never assume that you personally are the target audience. 

A landslide victory seems unlikely for either side right now, which means that somewhere just under half of the population is going to be left disappointed at the result. I don't go in for the sort of hand-wringing about 'a nation divided' so beloved of certain unionist commentators right now. Nevertheless, the manner in how those who are successful and those who are unsuccessful on 18 September react is going to be very important to how Scotland moves forward.

I'd like to think that long years of not winning will have conditioned most SNP members to behave graciously in the event of a 'Yes'. Similarly, I'd hope that in the event of a 'No', having been out of government since 2007, both the Lib Dems and Labour will be able to summon the generosity of spirit to finally accept that the SNP has legitimate views on how Scotland should be governed, both in terms of independence as well as in circumstances which fall short of that ambition. 

Making a success of independence is going to require a great deal of cross-party talent, engaged with a broad sense of purpose about what we're trying to achieve. The same is true in terms of making the best of the aftermath of a vote not to become independent. The worst possible outcome in either scenario would be to awake to the triumphalist gloating of one side or the other, especially if it were to be connected with a desire to exclude and to demean opponents.

I happen to think that a handful of sour partisans aside, Scots are on the whole far too sensible and civilised to go in for that sort of tribalism. In reality, any post-indyref ‘divide’ won’t be about whether you voted 'Yes' or 'No' - it'll be about how you carried yourself in your dealings with others, especially those not known to you directly, and whether you behaved like an objectionable eejit about the whole thing altogether. 

A Scotland which has voted 'no' because it is fearful of the consequences will not be a nice place to be, at least to begin with. On the other hand, a Scotland which has voted yes is unlikely to be an entirely joyful place either. While most people will accommodate and adapt quickly, there'll be plenty more looking for the first opportunity to gripe and claim that they in some way 'told us so'.

In this, think on the miserablism of post-1997 referendum press coverage. The mood of euphoria quickly turned to one of self-laceration, not helped by the inept handling of the Holyrood building project and the unfathomable decision of the then Scottish Office to ensure that the first things Holyrood would end up discussing in full session were members’ ‘holidays’ and expenses. 

Yet now, who remembers the cretinous, destructive reportage of Martin Clarke's Daily Record, or the corrosive behaviour of David McLetchie in his determination to find fault in everyone and everything related to Scotland's nascent democracy? For that matter, who even remembers the arguments of Donald Findlay and Brian Monteith - the 'No Thanks' campaign of their day? 

The answer, of course, is very few. If September's vote is a 'Yes', you can bet your last pound sterling that after 10 years, there will be no-one willing to admit that they voted 'No'. Not out of fear, but out of the fact that independence will seem the most natural state in the world and there will be widespread bafflement that anyone could ever have thought otherwise.

To mark that anniversary, no doubt some enterprising TV researchers will busy themselves setting up interviews with Lords Alistair Darling and others in the clubs of Pall Mall, who'll then have to really rack their brains to try and recall exactly what their arguments were at the time and why. Meantime, a fresh generation will emerge into adulthood, living in the luxury of being able to take Scottish Independence completely for granted.

We may not always care for the choices made by this new cohort as it finds its voice and place, but we should never forget it was for the ability to choose for ourselves that we engaged in this campaign at all. As with the twenty-somethings from Eastern Europe who don't remember communism and the referendum first time voters who have known nothing other than a semi self-governing Scotland, only the older, greyer heads will remember things being any different. 

Independence. For better as we dream or for worse as it sometimes might be. For us and ours, certainly, but mostly for those less fortunate and for generations still to be born. That’s the choice we face and the responsibility we carry. Let no-one be able to look back and say of us that in this moment - for which we and those before us worked so hard - that we were found to be in any way wanting.