Just when you think the behaviour of the referendum campaigns can’t get any worse, it does. We thought Alistair Darling’s Kim Jong-il comment was a new low in a relentless series of jibes and counter-jibes which have consistently lowered the tone of the most important national conversation in 300 years. And that followed the debate between Nicola Sturgeon and Johanna Lamont earlier in the year, which has gone down in turn-off TV history.
Then yesterday, the reaction to JK Rowling’s donation to Better Together saw an explosion of vitriol that more than equalled the treatment the Weirs received when they donated to Yes Scotland. At the same time, a Better Together campaigner’s background was being questioned.
As the insults and the tit-for-tat intensifies, it could be distressing to think that we have 90-odd more days to go. The campaigns, which are mainly proxies for political parties, have got bogged down in name-calling, spinning and scary shadow-making. Facts fly around, but the voters don’t really believe either side.
And to think, it could all have been so different: At the outset, ERS and many others argued for a two question referendum as the best way to determine the consensus choice of the Scottish people. This would give them the option of ‘devo max’ – full powers on welfare and tax – as well as full independence or the status quo . The world has turned and everyone has moved on, but the big men and women of politics have failed to deliver a campaign that could have united, choosing instead to go for division. Clearly, the original offer of a binary choice over a more open debate signalled how the politicians would go on to conduct themselves.
Those politicians are of course fighting to fulfil their own ambitions of personal power, which is a winner takes all game. The politics of the referendum have been created in that image. But this is not the whole story: People who see formal politics as completely alien are suddenly talking to each other about what sort of society they want. Scottish civil society has never been more alive with ideas and vision.
The interesting thing about the referendum debate is these two things are happening in parallel, and seem to be the dark side and the light side of the same thing. As people turn away from the spluttering old formal politics, they are turning to new ways of participating. At the same time, Ipsos Mori’s poll last week showed a potential referendum turnout of over 80% – unheard of in British elections. People know this vote will count, that one vote could swing it either way. The danger is that a high turnout is used to obscure the dire nature of the formal debate.
The lesson that should be drawn is that the tricksy ego-driven politics of the elites annoy most people. They don’t buy it any more, they are sick of being told half-truths, of being manipulated and of ridiculous hyperbole and what looks like nasty jealousies. It would be partisan not to acknowledge that elements of the Yes campaign have demonstrated better ways of political campaigning allowing self-organised, ‘outside party’ groups to flourish. These groups are not so focused on power and so don’t seem so be so bitter and self-interested. The political campaigns could learn these lessons and change.
No-one disagrees that the legitimacy of representative politics is in trouble, perhaps in a dangerous way. If people don’t trust politicians then they no longer have permission to act on their behalf. As the central pillar of our democracy our elected representatives have a duty to protect it. The opportunities for things to get worse are often the same opportunities for things to get better. The desperate hunger for power demonstrated by the politicians in the referendum campaign may be the same thing that forces a better politics. They need people to pay attention so they need to change how they talk to them, and also to each other.