by J Simon Jones
The latest Referendum Café was hosted at the Old Hairdressers on Renfield Lane in the centre of Glasgow. It has been one of the gentlest, most earnest contributions in the Referendum debate. Off a cobbled street, metres from Central Station, people have been coming and going, learning and talking, eating cake and discussing ideas. The only theme is the referendum – there’s no agenda here, it’s a forum to discuss whatever issues come to mind.
Volunteers with knowledge of a particular subject: economics, defence, the social sector, sports or what have you, are available for light-hearted, non-partisan chat and to answer questions. Entry isn’t pre-determined by political allegiance or existing belief, only the enthusiasm to transmit knowledge. Listening in at one event there seemed little referendum-specific discussion, most people were talking obliquely of culture or change.
In the corner there was a masterpiece of psephology: a teacake poll asking people to rate their responses to 10 statements about Scotland and the Referendum. 5 typical of the No campaign. 5 typical of Yes. Red teacakes illustrate discord, blue (dark chocolate, for those wondering) indicate harmony. The referendum wall is adorned by strips of paper where people write whatever comes to mind about the referendum, the café, or just life in general. A circular flow-chart projected on the thinly plastered wall questions the futility of so much of the thinking around the referendum.
This might seem like typical Yes propaganda: Café culture, rinsed with platitudes about egalitarianism and ‘debate’, whatever that is. That’s simply not the case here, and a visit dispels the notion almost immediately. Run by an architect (Lizzie) and a literary scholar (Emma), this is a space unlike any other in Scotland, reminiscent of ancient Greece – a space for honest discussion of ideas, without the staleness that blights so many forums now. People here might genuinely not have made up their minds, but more importantly this is a space in which their experience can be related honestly and without angst as to the reaction it might provoke. Isn’t this what our discussion needs now? A place, a space, in which we can examine ourselves and the shared context of our lives without the tribalism or fear this debate is so often tinged with.
The next Referendum Café takes place at the Common Weal event at the Arches, in Glasgow, on July 6th. Go along. Talk. Eat. Just don’t go in to convert anyone or expect anything except the kind-hearted challenging of every belief you entered with. “Can Certainty Exist?” a paper fortune-teller asks, in response to “Currency”. It’s that kind of place. People look visibly relieved to find somewhere to talk without the need to seem more decided than others, more sycophantically driven by facts than their peers, or more jaded by the political debate. In a strange way this kind of gentility breeds assurance, if only in certainty’s uncertainty. This really is what we need.
But that’s just today’s debate. Think what this could do in its planned post-referendum identity as a modern-day reawakening of Athenian Democracy. Social sector participants, academics, politicians and citizens hashing out ideas and ethics in the New Scotland, all with a slice of banana bread in hand.
(The Referendum Cafe will be popping up in various locations in the three months leading to the Referendum. Check Facebook page for events.)