Gary Wilson: My journey to Yes

When folk say that Scotland is a village, they really do mean it. It’s funny how people you know through contact in a certain sphere, turn up again somewhere completely different and totally unexpected.  When I first met Gary Wilson, I knew he was a Labour member and involved in Better Together. I never dreamed that we’d end up on the same side nor that I’d get to hear his eloquent and powerful explanation for his Journey to Yes:

I began life in this campaign as a Labour party member and as the Better Together co-ordinator for my area, Edinburgh East. I’d like to say I beat off stiff opposition for the “honour” but lots of my Labour colleagues were uneasy about the alliance with the Tories in Better Together. I came forward because I saw it as my duty and no one else could or would.

But it didn’t take long for two concerns to emerge. First, here I was hob-nobbing with the very people I had spent all my life campaigning against. Second, a no vote could lead to the worst possible option for me – another Tory government in charge of all of us in the UK.

And I had been speaking with friends who work with homeless people, disabled people, and lone parents about the impact of welfare reform. It was more than I could stomach
and I began listening instead to my heart. And my heart told me I could not be part of the Better Together campaign. Even though I continue to be a Labour party member in
Edinburgh East.

I also started looking into the arguments against staying in the UK – the case, particularly the economic case, for independence for Scotland is strong, very strong. I also began to notice
the very vicious press attacks designed to scare folk and the success these scare tactics appeared to be having.

And so I journeyed to Yes. And I am not alone.

A lot of my Labour friends have doubts and are uneasy at the position they find themselves in with the party throwing their lot in with the Tories.

As a gay man who had come out many years ago, I was under no illusion of the impact of “coming out” for yes. But I had to do it. And it has been difficult but also the right thing to do.

I recall hearing Ruth Davidson (Scottish Conservative leader) talking to young people about change and how she felt that she now lived in a liberating, exciting, free country ie the UK.

That isn’t my experience. And there’s nothing exciting about the current environment of cuts and pay freezes for public sector workers. It’s not exciting for the one million living in poverty in Scotland. It’s not exciting being attacked for being sick or being disabled.

There has been a 400% rise in the last year in the number of people in Scotland using foodbanks to stave off hunger – I don’t call that liberating, I call that a disgrace. Where’s the freedom for the 1 in 5 living in poverty in the world’s sixth largest economy?

I did not get involved in the Labour party to sanction public service and welfare cuts but to fight them. And now I can by campaigning for independence for Scotland.

It took me a while to get involved with Labour for Independence, but I’m glad I did. We are fighting for what we believe in and there are more of us than the Labour
party likes to pretend.

“Telt”

This was the week when Better Together ramped it up.  First, there was an intensifying of the spook ’em tactics.

Thus, we had Bob Dudley suggesting that independence might not be a good thing for energy businesses like BP (though he was speaking in a personal capacity, you understand and not as CEO of BP).  It would create currency uncertainty, increased costs for BP and threaten investment, all of it vague and unspecific. His remarks prompted rebuttal from commentators as diverse as Derek Bateman and Alex Massie.  No matter, his intervention captivated the mainstream media: here was a big man, in charge of a big, very big business sharing thoughts on independence. 

Fund managers are also increasingly nervous of the uncertainty and risks (no irony intended) and especially, the prospect of a separate regulatory system for financial institutions north and south of the border, should Scotland vote yes.  James Clunie, a top fund manager – and having checked out his rep with someone who would know, this is a pretty accurate assessment – warned that big companies are already delaying investment decisions pending the outcome of the vote.  It’s very scary, he said.

There was also Justin King, the outgoing Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s warning of higher food prices in supermarkets in an independent Scotland.  From multi-billion pound industry and profit all the way down to the price of a pound of mince, the narrative is that independence doesn’t add up.  And while some might dismiss the impact of 5p on a pound of a mince as a reason to vote no, it actually is these bread and butter (literally) economic issues which will matter to many voters still to make up their minds. 

Along the way, there was an intervention by Caroline Flint, Labour’s energy spokesperson, who despite talking mince, probably gained sympathy plaudits on Newsnicht for trying to politely engage “Mr Ewing” in the debate only to be dealt with dismissively with bluster.  Not a good tactic, Yes people.  There was a Westminster debate in which a Lib Dem MP, Lord Thurso suggested that the lights would go out if we vote yes.  And Margaret Curran suggesting the independence campaign needs to “get real” and start talking the language of “ordinary voters”.  Expect more talk of mince then, though this was probably the most resonant intervention from all the BT folk and supporters in the week.

Today, we had the Chairman of one of the big oil engineering recruitment groups, Orion, saying that while he’d continue to live in an independent Scotland, he might have to run his business from elsewhere due to all the “uncertainty”.

Given all the dire warning emanating from distinguished that and renowned other on money, costs  and jobs,  it’s a surprise Scots didn’t just stay in their beds on Friday, waiting for the sky to fall in.

Good job we didn’t, for we’d have missed strand two of the new grand plan.  In the political equivalent of putting on a Barry White record, apparently we Scots are to be made to feel loved and wanted.  In perhaps the single most imaginative initiative to date in Better Together’s campaign, Rory Stewart MP, whose constituency runs to the border, launched Hands across the Border which aims to light beacons and unite 100,000 folk from the rest of the UK along Hadrian’s wall to show us how much they want the Scots to stay. How wonderful. All it needs is to be matched by a similar human chain from this side of the border to indicate we are not going anywhere and that we love the rest of the UK too.

Yesterday, it was clear the metropolitan elite had received a memo suggesting they get involved.  David Aaronovitch was given 20 minutes of airtime on Radio Scotland on Saturday’s Good Morning Scotland programme to pick up on a personal attack apparently first begun in student days, on Lesley Riddoch.  Given how several other male London chatterati got involved in twitter too, she clearly has ruffled a few feathers.  Apparently, all this political “othering” between England and Scotland is inaccurate and misleading and determined to drive a wedge in the Union.  To be honest, there was some truth in what Aaronovitch had to say, which is backed up by polls showing there is less difference between Scots and English on key social and political issues.  Perhaps, of more interest, though is the timing of the highly personalised attack, designed to add to the mood music being generated by the Union’s defenders.  Partly aiming to smother strong and resonant independent voices in the debate, but partly also to highlight similarity rather than difference.  We are family, and all that.

Which leads us to the big set piece at the end of a long week of staging: the Prime Minister’s speech.  From a formerly Olympian stage on Friday, he delivered a decidedly unOlympian speech, telling us how there are just “seven months” to save the Union.  “We must do whatever it takes… you don’t have a vote but you do have a voice...”  He urged family and friends in the rest of the UK to communicate with Scots they know telling them to please not go.  All that was missing was for him to be played out by Baby Please don’t go, though there’s still time for Better Together at UK level to adopt it as its official anthem. The many versions of this classic could enable a highly targeted demographic appeal to be mounted.  Yep, have that one for free.  I’d like the Them version please.

All of this activity, warning of doom and disaster on the one hand by respected this and that, coupled with expressions of love, family and togetherness by an army of supposedly notables on the other, was fascinating to observe.

But entertaining as it all was, it was also pretty pointless.  Because very little of it will have any effect or impact on Scots’ voting intention.

Indeed, Dr Matt Qvortrup – in no one’s camp, for the record – had an interesting piece in the Scotsman demonstrating evidence of a counter-intuitive impact of “big I ams” from any field intervening on big issue questions.  It tends to make ordinary folk do the opposite. 

But then, we already know that about the Scots.  No nation is better at harbouring tall poppy resentment.  The phrase “ah ken yer faither” still has currency here because it is regularly trotted out – and I have heard it and derivations of it – whenever someone gives the impression of getting above themselves.  It is an attitude not just designed to burst bubbles, but also to make clear that everyone’s opinion is valid, that there is no hierarchy of veracity nor weight of views just because they happen to be held and freely shared (whether invited or not)  by folk with entitlements, money, rank or education. While occasionally deployed in petty and mean ways, at its heart, such a mindset displays a wilful egalitarianism, best articulated in Burns’s A Man’s A Man for A’ That.  It might not be a uniquely Scottish value, having clear links to an internationally socialist belief system, but it probably is more evident in modern day Scottish values than in British or English ones.  A difference to note then, Mr Aaronovitch.

While Better Together might like to think that it and supporters of the Union “telt” the Scots a thing or two this week, they might wish to remember that actually, the Scots are not great at being “telt” on anything much.

Show them the money

Apparently, there are lots of people out there still seeking information about the consequences of voting yes or no in the independence referendum.  In fact, according to the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey findings published last week, the longer the referendum campaign goes on, the less informed people feel and the more unsure they are of how they’ll vote.  

Which is astonishing really. Particularly when you consider that since the start of 2014 we have been deluged with papers, speeches and opinions, most of it coming from the No camp.  Better Together appears to be working to achieve a barrage effect:  by keeping up a constant bombardment of artillery fire, the other side won’t even have time to get their weapons loaded.  Yet, it would seem that the electorate is becoming used to the ack-ack of another big set-piece speech, another UK government paper, another finger-pointing, doom laden portentous observation.  They are effectively putting their fingers in their ears and hoping it will all go away.

What the bombast does show is that Better Together has many units upon which to call to fight its air war.  Its own campaign and myriad groupings; the three main political parties which form its backbone;  the UK Government and its battalions of civil servants; some significant public figures, commentators, even the odd celebrity; and of course, a media willing to splash every banal announcement as though the day of reckoning had arrived.  It helps that Better Together has sufficient big names (in the view of the media at least) that in one day it can blanket the news agenda with its sound and fury.

By contrast, the armoury in Yes Scotland seems pretty thin.  Aside from the key protagonists in the Scottish Government – leading SNP figures – who and what have we seen out there on the frontline in recent weeks?  Zilch from any of the other parties in the Yes camp, a welcome book launch offering an alternative vision from Jim Sillars, re-emerging onto the Scottish political scene for one last big push, smatterings from other vision-makers such as Radical Independence and the Common Weal.  But where is Yes Scotland?  There is no sense of its imprint on any of this, nor of its being the central axis for co-ordinating efforts to counter the air attacks with a few of its own.

The focus for Yes Scotland appears to be at grassroots level, with community activism and small conversations and public meetings key.  The Yes camp is also relying heavily on Scotland’s Future to provide the answers people seek on every eventuality in the run up to and immediate aftermath of independence.  What it means is that this campaign is being fought in two different arenas, which makes the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey’s findings even more fascinating.  Whose approach is winning?

You could argue no-one’s. The second most interesting finding is that the referendum campaign appears focused on issues that voters are not very bothered about:  the issues dominating the guerilla warfare between the two camps are ones that many voters aren’t prepared to go to war for.  EU membership, welfare and even nationhood are not the big players the headlines would suggest.  So why are both camps devoting so much ammunition to them?

Indeed, worryingly for Yes Scotland and the SNP, some of its narrative appears to be running counter to the trend of public opinion in Scotland.  Where the Scottish Social Attitudes survey has mapped trends in opinion, it is that fewer now support staying in the EU or at least wish to see reform.  Many Scots appear to support welfare reform – or at least, been captivated by the rhetoric peddled by first Labour and now Conservative-Liberal Democrat governments about the cushiness of benefits.

We  might warm to the idea of Scotland as a progressive beacon for the rest of the UK, of creating a fairer society, but drill down into the detail and our opinions do not differ hugely from prevailing opinion elsewhere on these islands.  And if that creates a problem for those in the Yes camp’s narrative, it also suggests that Labour’s theme of all one big left-leaning family together doesn’t exactly chime either.

So eight months to go, eighteen months in and everyone on both sides might as well have stayed in bed.  Or at least, that’s the impression given by this survey.  The shift is not from no to yes or even yes to no, but of yes and no becoming more fluid.  As the survey suggests, those occupying the neutral zone are not just the usual suspects of never votes and won’t vote.  They do appear to be genuinely undecided and looking for more information: just not on what they are currently being given.

There are key target groups in the undecided camp – women, 25 to 44 year olds, C2s – and what they want to know more about is the money.  Not the currency, not revenues, not big numbers, but the rather more prosaic issue of what’s in it for me and mine.

This much we have always known, so why is the debate not coming down into the trenches where voters want it to be fought?  It is remarkable to think that the princely sum of £500 could swing the referendum vote either way.  Those who earn well above the average wage may scoff but clearly £500 is still considered to be a big enough amount of money by many in Scotland to symbolise a gain in real terms.  This fact in itself should stop us all in our tracks – there are enough people in Scotland who think that £500 is a big enough sum to change their lives forever and to prompt them to want to change their lives forever.

People don’t want answers to the big economic questions, they want it explained in terms that are meaningful and indeed, personal to their households.  Will I still have my job?  How much will I earn?  Will I pay more tax?  How will independence affect my household finances?  How much will a bottle of wine cost?  How much will it cost to run a car? 

This is where Yes needs to take the debate and to open up two fronts.  First, the Scottish Government needs to ensure the public know that with the limited powers it has, it is responsible for staving off the worst effects of the financial crisis, but it also needs to mimic Labour’s UK cost of living crisis campaign, pointing the finger squarely at the UK Government and the worst excesses of its brand of economic recovery for people feeling pain and bearing the brunt.  High energy prices, high food bills, frozen wages, hidden taxes – all of it is Westminster’s fault.  You can only be positive if there is a negative reference point, after all.

At the same time, it needs to show, budgetary style, how independence and making different choices with all the fiscal levers available would make a difference.  What does £500 better off look like to families in different circumstances and how will independence make that happen?  Nicola Sturgeon’s focus yesterday at the Scottish Women’s Convention on how childcare will benefit young parents and of how a living wage will help women in particular, is good stuff.  But more needs to be done.

There are signs that the long gameplan for Yes is working, that despite the noise and fury of the naysayers, the focus on momentum rather than a Eureka moment as Stephen Noon’s excellent article in Scotland on Sunday outlines, is starting to turn votes.  It is reassuring that when pushed, many don’t knows are more inclined to vote yes, but at some point, Yes needs to start moving people from their holding position and into departure mode. They need to feel that the big step is worth taking and all they need to feel better off by is £500. 

The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey findings reinforce much of what we already know – and which both Yes and No camps will know in forensic detail, in terms of where the persuadables lie in this debate. Better Together appears to think that it just needs to beat those inching their way from no to yes back;  Yes Scotland needs to entice them across no man’s land.  Showing them the money might well be the key to doing so.