If there’s one great height
The British 24-hour news cycle isn’t really 24 hours — how could it be? It starts at 6am, as the first journalists arrive at work, and begin putting out brief, skeletal descriptions of the day ahead: Miliband to speak to a business audience at 11am, the Secretary of Education to appear at a conference on inequality in the afternoon. The blanks are there to be filled in, not when the journalist discovers what has happened — British politics is so perfectly briefed and choreographed that the speech already exists, has been circulated to the press, has even had opposition quotes sourced — but when the journalist is finally able to openly announce what has happened. There will perhaps be some local colour: the business audience applauds louder and longer than expected, the conference on inequality asks tougher questions than predicted. But these minor details are simply the make-work of the journalist’s day.
The spaced out, spread-too-thin coverage of TV news channels has a different feel to the punctual metronome of the hourly radio bulletin, the daily turn of the newspaper. But underlying these differing patterns is the brute fact of the earth’s absurd, grandiose rotation. This means that if you live in New Zealand, as I do, the cycle happens while you sleep. Through the night things happen and every morning you wake to the evening news. Normally you wake up and there’s little difference: Milliband’s speech wasn’t that interesting, and the Secretary of Education has made some minor gaffes. But occasionally you wake up and you discover that now, just for the time being, the polls say that there will be an independent Scotland.
There’s a fascination to watching the referendum campaign from a detached, formalist perspective. British politics is one of the great dramas of our times, and the independence referendum features some of that saga’s most memorable players, some reprising earlier roles straight, some acting with a stunning flexibility as traditional allegiances are mixed and villains appear as unlikely heroes.
There are of course the predictable characters of Alex Salmond, the canny national leader; Nicola Sturgeon, a show-stealing understudy; Alastair Darling and Johann Lamont, a rather dour pair performing Scottish prudence. But there are also the cross-over parts with David Cameron flying in for the day and Clegg invoking Gladstone and Home Rule in the Borders. There is the re-appearance from retirement of some of the all-time greats: John Major harrumphing his way into irrelevance, Gordon Brown dragged out of Fife for one last quixotic tilt, and the ghost of Thatcher, the PM who lost Scotland, haunting the set. And then there are the glamour walk-on parts: Irvine Welsh and J K Rowling, Sean Connery and Tom Barrowman. It’s absorbing, and, like all British politics, deeply theatrical.
Despite the high stakes, the vocabulary of the referendum is the vocabulary of any contemporary political campaign: the attack ad, mobilisation and persuasion, deliveries and doorknocking. Both sides are highly sophisticated operations playing the game of their lives. For both teams, this is a Cup Final. Salmond and Sturgeon’s walkabouts are gorgeous displays of confidence and power as they pass through cheering groups of Yes voters, the first leaders of a free Scotland meeting their people.
Better Together’s final ad, ‘A Proud Nation’, is similarly good. It’s the product of a sophisticated campaign machine, a precise piece of targeted communications. You can almost see the demographic before your eyes, as the Jarrow March winds towards you, the nurse wheels the NHS bed through the ward. They are middle aged, living in a downmarket part of Glasgow. They’ve always voted Labour for Westminister, maybe voted SNP once or twice recently for Holyrood. They don’t like the Tories, and they still blame the English for Thatcher, but they aren’t sure about independence or Salmond. When Gordon Brown looks down the barrel of the camera, he’s looking through you, and talking to that West-of-Scotland voter, tribal Labour, who’s always stood by them, who still has a soft spot for the tragic, doomed ex-Prime Minister, and he’s saying, look at me. No one hates the Tories like I do, no one is dyed in the wool Scottish Labour like I am. The NHS saved my sight and cared for my dying daughter, he’s saying, would I do anything to risk it? He’s saying, do this one last thing for me, for Don Dewar, for Keir Hardie.
It’s masterly. There’s no concession to the Liberals, to the rump Tories, to the die-hard nationalists. Those votes don’t matter anymore: they’re in the bag, or they’re lost for good. Better Together knows it needs to win and keep wavering Labour voters for No. It’s doing that, with the kind of careful targeting that Brown and Blair applied to the English marginals. The spot was backed up with the precisely gridded artillery barrage of news that the Downing Street press office used to call in at will on opponents: BP says No, Standard Life and RBS say job losses, Bank of England says no to the pound, the Daily Record poll puts us six points clear. New Labour — a project that was always heavily Scottish — is coming home with a vengeance.
But where lost elections are cyclic, this is an irrevocable point. Where, normally, the tools of modern campaigns aim to win three years, four years, five years of power, this is playing for keeps. The last time Scotland made this choice, it was made for three hundred years. To watch this decision fought out via the media of direct mail, doorknocking, poorly moderated television debates is disconcerting. I don’t want to overstate the importance of the campaigns; I don’t think the Scottish electorate is easily swayed by patronising women or 80s rock soundtracks, but it’s not often that you see the every-day tools of politics used to fight for such a prize, with the fate of a nation staked on focus-grouped television ads.
For me, the independence referendum has flashed up a series of familiar associations. David Cameron’s last ditch speech to Scottish Widows, for instance, reminds me that my mother’s first job as an actuary was there. Gordon Brown is somewhat older than my father, and like him has spent far too long in the stands at Stark’s Park. But the familiarity goes deeper than that: I grew up in a household with Brown’s biography of Maxton sitting on a dusty bookshelf alongside a copy of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark. This is a debate that has been coming for a long time, an argument deeply embedded in Scottish politics, in Scottish culture. It’s a debate fought out by forces laid out throughout Scottish history and now, finally, being brought to bear at a pitch of intensity rarely seen in liberal democracies.
For many Scots, of course, one way or the other, this is a definitional moment, a choice about where to go as a people. I have the luxury of distance, and it’s easy for me to take a detached position. This is not an option open to everyone.
But for some people living overseas, many of whom have only the most tangential associations with Scotland, the referendum seems to open up a rich psycho-social play, often one with only the loosest anchoring in the realities of Scottish life. It becomes a way to express anger at colonialism, at New Labour, at Margaret Thatcher. Scotland becomes an oppressed colony, one that was violently occupied and militarily repressed, an ideal locus for anti-imperial anger. Gordon Brown becomes the ultimate hypocritical politician, who never did anything for Scotland. For others, like David Farrar, it becomes a chance to express anger at the losers of Thatcherism for the very fact of their victimisation.
In all this, the actual lived experiences of Scots fade away. The absence of any factual basis for these claims is symptomatic of the reduction of a rich and multifaceted society into a naive morality play. It becomes hard to remember that the referendum is balanced on a knife edge. There’s no obvious consensus among Scots as to the way forward, no high road to a better, fairer society. The people who live in Scotland are not faced with a simple affirmation of independence or unity, but a complex, intrinsically unknowable future.
Tomorrow I'll wake up and the polls will still be open in Scotland. They close at 9am our time, 10pm there. At that point, either a majority will be for independence, or they will be against. One way or another, the thing will be done, the choice made. The media cycle will stutter; we know the schedule of the vote count, and we know that the polls reckon No will probably take a narrow victory. But until the results are declared nothing is certain, and so the journalists will be up all night. The result won’t be known until perhaps 6am the next morning, when the Glasgow count is projected to declare.
The cycle will drag on through the Scottish night, through the antipodean day. No one will know exactly what to expect and for those few hours as we wait, in the dark or in the sun, the precise choreography of British politics will stumble. But for all the drama of ballot boxes ferried among the Western Isles by helicopter and election night crowds, it will already have been decided one way or another. And either way, here on the other side of the earth, I will have lost one nation — an independent Scotland, a United Kingdom — and gained another.