Our Friends in the South
Among the green leather at the heart of the British state and in a muddy field in rural Somerset, the Big Slander of the No campaign continued to fall apart.
I was down in the South of England at the weekend to attend two events and I genuinely had no idea how they would play out. The first was organised by Red Pepper and OpenDemocracy in the House of Commons. A mixed audience of 200 people (some London-based Yes supporters, some people who came along out of curiosity at what was happening in Scotland) heard six stories from a panel of Yes supporters (Neil Ascherson, Joyce McMillan, David Gregg, Cat Boyd, Pete Ramand and me).
At the end of the session the audience had half an hour to comment. The most telling words came from those not associated with the campaign in any way. They said variations of the same thing – “my god, what they say about you is a total lie – this is really inspiring and the people of England should be helping you”. We were described as Britain’s ‘indignados’, the Spanish movement of citizens sick of state and elite corruption. Person after person stood up and asked us what they could do to help. There was a show of hands (for fun). Not a single person in the room did not put up their hand in support. The chair of the meeting closed by saying that she believed she may have just sat through the best meeting held in the Houses of Parliament that she could remember in her life.
I’ll be honest, I’d had little sleep (out at a debate in Troon the night before and up early for flights) and I found myself fighting back emotion. I’ve had to endure an awful lot of ‘socialism of convenience’ during this campaign. It comes from people who didn’t let the word ‘redistribution’ pass their lips six months ago and who won’t utter the word again after September – but who will happily talk about solidarity for the next two months so long as it remains an abstract concept useful only for moral blackmail. That balmy night in that emotionally-charged committee room there was real solidarity. The sound that solidarity made was “would it help if we organised a convoy of busses from English cities to come up and help you with canvassing?”
Yes. Yes it would.
From there I headed off to Glastonbury where I’d been invited to talk at Billy Bragg’s Leftfield tent at a session organised by left-wing think tank Compass. During a sunny lunchtime the day after a deluge more than 300 people came to listen to a debate about the future of the left in Britain. Again and again it kept coming back to Scotland. And again it all amounted to much the same thing – “we talk about a mass campaign to change society – up there in Scotland they’re doing it”. Backstage with the lefties there is no question they see their best chance of change coming from some kind of real and substantive change in Scotland. One person had simply been looking at the media and taking it for granted that we were a noble but losing cause. I told him I figure we’re perhaps something like a three or four point swing away from winning. “Really?” he said, “Christ, you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to wake us up.”
When you own the guns and when you own the ink you can force the people onto their knees and then report that this is their natural position. The British social and political elite and the No campaign are the same thing. Any lie (that the Scottish Government phones business leaders and tells them to shut up or they’ll regret it…) is told by one of their own (David Cameron say), endorsed by another (perhaps Johann Lamont), is aggressively circulated by their social media hangers-on and is then reported by their tame media allies.
And so it is that we are portrayed as English-hating, anti-modern, backwards-looking, reactionary and above all uncontrollable, uneducated, despicable barbarians, fascists and hatemongers. Alastair Darling appears to believe that it is acceptable just to call us ‘vile’ at will, Lamont to call us a ‘virus’, Sarwar to use any version of dictator or oppressor and their social media supporters – well, there is quite literally no line they won’t cross (if you have a strong stomach for extreme language and vicious personal abuse have a look at https://twitter.com/BritNatAbuseBot).
I can’t remember an honest, civic campaign which has been so relentlessly demonised by its opponents. I can’t remember a media so closely coordinated with the campaign of demonisation. And I can’t remember a portrayal of a group of people so wholly unrepresentative of what and who they really are.
So when each member of the panel in that Westminster committee room were asked to answer the question ‘what can England do to help you?’, my answer was straightforward. Bear witness. We are a grassroots campaign of ordinary people who have been accused of the most awful behaviours and attitudes. Look and listen to us. Do we really seem like fascists to you? Is Neil Ascherson an English-hating zealot? Is Joyce McMillan covered in Scotland the Brave tattoos, hollering freedom? Is Cat Boyd contemptuous of the poor of England? Is David Greig a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal?
The progressive left in London are among Scottish independence’s biggest supporters. They admire our determination to build up a real grass-roots movement of scale and focus. They are in awe of the way we have engaged ordinary members of the public in town hall meetings (that was us, the No campaign has tried to close down engagement with the public). But above all they are 100 per cent behind the vision of a fairer nation for which we are campaigning. They want it for us – and they want us to show a way forward for them.
That’s the thing about trying to create a villain out of good people – it doesn’t last. In town hall after town hall I meet undecideds who come up to me afterwards and express mild surprise at how positive and nice and friendly and inclusive we are. They expect some version of the lie and that is not what they find. This is true in spadeloads of the people who are really campaigning on behalf of a more just Britain (and here’s a hint – if you want to identify who they are they’re not the ones cutting unemployment benefits for the poor or proposing another five years of austerity).
And so to Andy, met outside the Toastie van on one of the main drags in a mud-splattered Glastonbury at three in the morning. He doesn’t get it. Even after half an hour of chips, curry sauce, beer and talk he didn’t really understand why we couldn’t just stay and hope Britain got better. But in hugs as we leave he tells us “I don’t know if you’re right or wrong but you’re good, honest, nice people, you seem to want to do the right thing and you’ve made me feel really welcome in Scotland and so whatever happens I hope things are good for you.”
You too Andy. You too. Scottish independence is an act of love, not an act of hate. More and more people are coming to know this. Increasingly, those who tell the lie about us will have to answer to others for what they say.