When President Roosevelt made his Inaugural Address to the American people in the middle of the Great Depression he began with these words:
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory” (4 March, 1933).
In 21st century Britain, Better Together has built its referendum campaign on fear itself. The nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror that justly earned Roosevelt’s contempt has reasserted itself in Scotland today; and with even greater force in the latest Better Together claim that ‘No’ supporters are afraid to campaign, or even to express their views on the referendum, because of intimidation.
Strangely, any alleged intimidation is, as a matter of fact, at least as likely to emanate from belligerent and intolerant ‘No’ supporters as ‘Yes’ supporters (from road-rage, through alleged assaults, to CyberBrits); although aggressive ‘No’ bullies are much less likely to be reported in the mainstream media, or may even find that they are celebrated by elements of Scotland’s traditional media that are somewhat less elevated in their predilections than we may wish, or that care to be ’even-handed’ in their coverage. ‘Yes’ supporters it seems simply accept the excessive hostility of opponents with greater equanimity and tolerance than Better Together.
Meanwhile, Better Together has become notable for the shrill, finger-pointing, hostile, personal, vindictive turn to the rhetoric that has been indulged against its opponents. Indeed it should be no surprise that Better Together has managed to ‘find’ what it has relentlessly sought everywhere it looks, and claimed to discover under every stone it overturns – ‘fear’: and it doggedly exploits the sour results of its quest; however flimsy, however ridiculous, however vexatious, a posturing outrage is adopted for self-serving propaganda purposes. There is something demeaning and disingenuous about this whole approach, but the result of Better Together’s bitter mindset has had a specific and deeply unattractive effect; it has come to pass that for some confirmed ‘No’ supporters, Alex Salmond no longer represents only one side of the inconvenient reality of the broad-church ‘Yes, Scotland’ campaign, but has come wholly to replace it in an altogether more focused, malignant personification of fear, loathing or derision: making of the First Minister a gratuitous subject of poisonous bile, cruel contempt and even fury; the resort of ‘No’ supporters who may not always indulge their prejudice in public, but give vent to it freely enough in private.
I wish to examine the curious nature of this Better Together promoted, alleged intimidation; and especially the elusive, vague quality of the evidence: a sweeping claim against the ‘Yes’ campaign and the SNP is being developed, of such generality that it cannot be confirmed by mere anecdotes, or demonstrated by reference to isolated incidents, or worse by mere Better Together accusation; but in reckless disregard of common sense it has been inflated into a general atmosphere of intimidation that allegedly and effectively silences great swathes of ‘No’ supporters. Better Together points dramatically to the silence of Better Together supporters. Silence is the evidence.
Could it be that what Better Together has recently found in the streets that they have for so long deserted, in preference to the focus group and the soundbite; is that the ‘silence’ of their ‘supporters’ represents something quite different from intimidation? Could it be that silence is the sound of Better Together’s own failure to engage with the public, to discuss genuinely or to convince? Silence is rather the authentic sound of the grassroots ‘No’ campaign, perhaps because there is nobody there, or few traditional supporters are prepared to follow this leadership, fewer still willing to work for or declare openly for the cause. Silence, we may fairly conclude, represents absence. Better Together has become a furtive, shifty campaign of cynical finger-pointing, of affected outrage, accompanied by the notable, widespread absence of large numbers of active, campaigning ‘supporters’.
Better Together is not a union made in heaven. It produces some strange political bedfellows, and though this may be explained readily by the seedy political promiscuity of politicians, it accounts less plausibly for the presence, still less the enthusiasm in this spatchcocked marriage, of all the varied, and conflicted Unionist party supporters being unconvincingly rallied to the cause; or at least the supporters’ universal willingness to share their politics quite so intimately, or follow any or all of the political consequences of embracing Better Together. There is a price to be paid for the Better Together fudge; something has to be expended, compromised, or abandoned. In short, continuation of the Union will not come free, the ‘best of everything’ in the ludicrous sales pitch of Better Together’s leading snake-oil salesmen.
There are no doubt ‘soft-No’ supporters, ‘hard-No’ supporters and a wide range of variants in-between; as there are with ‘Yes’ supporters; but ‘Yes’ had not begun at the far end of a spectrum of political opinion that was aggressively hostile both to independence and even to any discussion of the issues at all (there was nothing to discuss); offering a campaign of utter negativity, delivered with a mixture of arrogance and contempt for other opinions that has astonished observers. The journalist Kevin McKenna (who has strong Labour, Unionist roots but has at least publicly acknowledged some merits of independence) noted in The Observer long ago the extraordinary picture composed by Alistair Darling immediately after the Scottish Government’s White Paper on Independence was published: of an “inelegant and slightly shabby travelling circus of Alistair Darling rushing from studio to studio desperately trying to joust with the bolder assertions of the white paper” (The Observer, 30 November, 2013). It is the conclusion McKenna draws from this shabby inelegance that provides the clue to the silence of ‘No’ supporters: “surely there must be a limit to how much a so-called patriot can denigrate the abilities of the country he purports to love?”
There is no doubt that there are committed ‘No’ supporters for whom there are no limits to their denigration of the abilities of their own country. For them Better Together is not even a ‘marriage de convenance’ but a discreet cartel operated by natural competitors. Some of these Unionists support a kind of Unionism that sees more in common with Home Counties ideology, politics and values than with what they see as Scottish blanket socialist dogma. Whether they are right or wrong is irrelevant; the belief is all and is immovable. Scotland is precisely what they do not want, on ideological grounds. Their vision of democracy does not extend to Scottish independence. Such ‘No’ supporters are furious that Scotland is stirring from the depths of its long political somnolence, which they were complacently assured, rested securely on Scottish Unionism’s historic reliance on the drip-feed of the Labour Party anaesthetic: but while some of these ‘No’ supporters give public vent to their anger, others no doubt consider that political candour would prove counter-productive. Their silence is essential to the nature of what they mean by the ‘Union’. They are calculating but not of a kind to be intimidated, and certainly not by pro-Yes supporters for whom they have little regard; unless of course it would be advantageous to do so.
There is no doubt that there are committed ‘No’ supporters for whom there are limits to their denigration of the abilities of their own country. They may have some or all (or none) of the prejudices of the ideological ‘No’ supporters above, but they understand the uncomfortable nature of the problem McKenna describes. They probably have a low opinion of their opponents, but will certainly not be silenced by the presence of such opposition. Their silence is the silence of those uneasy that they may be doing their own country and culture (and perhaps even themselves) an injustice; or they may even harbour an uncomfortable sense of guilt. We are in deeper, reflective waters. These ‘No’ supporters do not speak out because they are in fact intimidated – by themselves.
Better Together has no conscience. It can project arrogance while performing a u-turn. It can dismiss the need for further powers and a few short weeks later insist, on no reliable grounds whatsoever, that such (unspecified) further powers are “guaranteed”. Some ‘No’ supporters who began this journey alongside Better Together no doubt saw the referendum itself as totally unnecessary, further powers as not required, the status quo as best: these non-ideological ‘No’ supporters will have found that as the campaign has unfolded it has affected their views, just as the campaign has compromised Better Together. Such ‘No’ supporters may believe that Better Together has given too much ground, or given too little; but the unsettling nature of the process, and not least the transparent ineptitude of the Better Together leadership , or its insecure, ever revolving nature (whose turn is it this week?), and the incoherent philosophy of this deeply flawed campaign; have slowly silenced the troops who began in hope, but now discover that in the event of a ‘no’ vote what have they done? Are they following this erratic, inarticulate, unconvincing and uncomprehending Unionist leadership towards some grim, shapeless, unknown destination for the Union of Scotland within the UK; within or without the EU; under some lurid neo-conservative government led by Boris Johnson or within a Conservative-UKIP coalition; or both. Their protest is silence.
Better Together should thus take the deafening silence of its alleged supporters as an eloquent and devastating commentary on its own failure. The silence Better Together chooses to see as intimidation is rather the considered judgement of ‘No’ supporters on the Better Together campaign. This is the silence Better Together has discovered out there in the streets of Scotland’s communities that most of its leaders are so rarely inclined to visit; because there is no real Better-Together-No-Thanks grassroots campaign at all: outside the TV studio this is less a No-campaign than a Non-campaign.
Silence represents absence; beyond the party functionaries, the professional politicians, the spin-doctors and minders of Better Together few people wish to support, or to campaign for, or perhaps even to be associated openly with, a campaign quite so sullen, so negative, so critical of Scotland’s basic capacity for self-respect. What is there for people to support in Better Together: what is uplifting, ambitious, inspirational in this grim, mean-spirited campaign? Some may still vote ‘No’ for all that; but their silence in this debate is not likely to represent intimidation, but rather offers a sign that they are ashamed of the shabby, base case for the Union that Better Together has made in their name.The silence that Better Together hears from its supporters is the inevitable consequence of the fear it has tried to induce: it is the silence of despair.
It is “the people themselves”, in Roosevelt’s words that will overcome fear; and in Scotland’s People’s Referendum, for that is what it is; retain the power this life-changing opportunity has given them to exert authority finally over all political parties, even over a Westminster political cartel, and to keep this power safely in their own hands beyond 18th September; but for all of this, they must vote ‘Yes’.