On its surface, the Scottish independence referendum appears a shining beacon of modern democracy. It is a peacefully conducted campaign for separation, lying in stark contrast to the many ongoing disputes around the globe that have similar stated goals but witness violence in the absence of a democratic process. Whatever angle we take on the use of democracy as a cultural, neocolonialist export, it is a sure-fire privilege that we live in a society where ballot papers are preferred to bloodshed.
There is, however, something insidious in the tone of voice when a politician tells us this same thing. There is always a hint of danger when the rich and powerful assert the fairness of the process that made them rich and powerful. It reaffirms the validity of their place in the upper echelons of society, and whispers: “Be grateful that we still haven’t taken it away!”
Celebrating the democratic purity of this referendum, though, is a more manipulative move than most, because it relies on people’s false assumption that a process is fair if the most obvious and visible components of that process are fair. We are taught to believe that an unjust government either denies its people their right to vote, or rigs the results when they do come in. Democracy by numbers tells us that we are free as long as certain basic criteria are fulfilled. It begs us not to look closer.
The #PatronisingBTLady advert commissioned by the No campaign brazenly held ignorance aloft as a reason to vote no. It put forth the argument that politics is hard and complicated and voting for the status quo was the safer option. It bluntly implied that kids can’t be into politics and that talking about political issues makes a person dull and uninteresting. The plea to stick with the status quo has echoed through the hallways of bought-and-sold newspapers and big businesses with big business interests. The right-wing UK press is packed with claims that the Yes campaign has run on intimidation – willfully ignoring the No campaign’s lazy scaremongering. Do you really want things to change? they seem to ask. Change is scary.
Change is scary for the politicians in Westminster. This referendum was granted to the Scottish people because nobody in the UK Parliament believed it would turn out as close as it has. As soon as it did, the knives came out. When Alex Salmond won the second debate against Alistair Darling, the political classes began rolling out every dirty rhetorical trick in the book, pushing scare story after scare story through a media circus that is half owned, half indoctrinated. The Guardian’s editorial line on the issue said that the Scots should give the union “another chance”. One wonders how many times you have to be let down before you finally decide it’s okay to hit back.
The distinction between the two campaigns could not be more stark. Where the Yes campaign have run an emotive, ideological and at times naive message, the No campaign has been detached, cynical and ruthless. The last-ditch bribe of “more powers, we promise, you guys, we swear” is derisory in both its lateness and its vagueness. It was the action of a government that treats the public like shit to whatever extent they can while still getting what they, themselves, want. “We’ll listen this time,” they say, while deliberately avoiding the detail that they never ever listen until their own reputations or interests are on the line. The Scottish people are fed up of being lied to and fed up of being treated with this derision. The difference is that they can see a light at the end of the UK’s grim political tunnel.
There have been great arguments on both side of the debate in this referendum campaign, and to me it feels right that it will be a close-run affair when the numbers come in on Friday morning. Not every reason to vote No boils down to being scared, and not every reason to vote Yes boils down to being overcome by emotion. I hope the stories of Scottish families being torn apart by the argument are exaggerated; I hope the country stays as energised as it has been for these last few months.
But mostly, I hope that they prove a point.
Very little affects David Cameron. He has led his government through racist immigration policies and devastating welfare budget cuts, and I’m sure he still sleeps fine at night – perhaps even better than he did when he wasn’t in power. But if Scottish independence becomes a reality, it will be the first legitimate bloody nose that the comfortable, sticky establishment of this country has collectively suffered for a very long time. It might finally warn them that the contempt with which they treat the British public cannot necessarily be disguised with such an arrogant impression of giving a fuck. I hope that Scotland vote Yes so that I get to see the look on David Cameron’s face. And if Scotland vote No, I pray that the passionate spark that has been on show during the referendum campaign lights a fuse that Westminster can’t just ignore until it suits them.