Well, the weather forecast yesterday in Edinburgh was officially ‘excited’ – I watched as the titular heads of the Scottish branches of the Westminster parties trooped out despondently in front of Holyrood to warmly celebrate what the Daily Mash referred to as ‘Gordon Brown’s exciting timetable’. After the obligatory turn-about speeches, with a sea of cloned ‘best of both worlds’ placards behind them, someone started heckling about ‘a realistic timetable?’, the press call was swiftly closed down and they moved to pressing the placard-holding flesh. Johann Lamont continues to look increasingly unwell, and I genuinely feel sorry for what is evidently an ongoing decline in health due to her position. I’m pretty sure she will be glad to leave office if there is a Yes vote, or even to succumb to the vagaries of an internal party leadership contest after a ‘No’.
Back in the BBC News channel’s studio, Dr Duncan Ross, a social history and politics academic from the University of Glasgow was asked for his opinion of what was being offered by this unified…um…timetable. After dismissing the powers as nothing that had not been already presented back in the spring, he was pressed on the timetable – but wasn’t this a good addition to the debate? His answer was choice, and a tad Matthew Perry from ‘Friends’: “It takes in St. Andrews Day and Burns Night – I mean, could they be any more patronising to us?”
Then it was time for the guffaws to end, and to head back up to the ‘Yes’ stall on the Meadows for the afternoon.
At the bus stop across from Trinity Academy (my sister’s old school), a group of older secondary pupils got on. I heard some of their banter on the top deck during the journey, then, when we all got off the bus at the same stop on Princes Street, I was somewhat surprised to notice that my old mate Callum was the teacher with them. Callum had been Science Students Council Convenor when I was on the Students’ Representative Council at the University of Edinburgh, and it must be more than twenty years since I saw him. We exchanged brief biographical catch-up pleasantries, then, as I showed them round to the Royal Society of Edinburgh rooms, I challenged the group of pupils: ‘So I overheard you were 5 Yes to 1 No?’ They pointed at the unfortunate anomaly, who grinned as he noted that he had agreed to vote No purely for a box of Smarties.
I told him that this haggling (even if not directly for ballot papers on eBay, as last week) was not uncommon – one individual who is swithering has said to me that he would vote Yes if I converted my computer’s operating system to Linux. He then stepped up this relentless barrage of temptation, by sending a video of his (suddenly adorable) 4 year old son saying ‘Yes’ to Scottish independence. These are, indeed, the times that try a man’s soul.
Some brief Referendum conversations with the schoolgroup later, I continued my journey on up towards the Meadows, to join up with the ‘Yes’ stall there. I was feeling kind of guilty for abandoning the people on it for almost 3 weeks – at that point, there had been a rolling turnover of helpers, but generally around 4 from Frances (from the Western Isles – she had been away in Detroit for a few weeks), Kaye (primary liaison for campaign materials), Margaret (left Ayrshire for London for her working life, only returning in the last couple of years), Ishbel (from Orkney), Irene (a seasoned SNP activist), Paddy (seemed to be the organiser, maybe a Green), Steve (staffed the stall for English Scots for Yes – the adjoining table), and Colin (a bit more withdrawn). As I walked up through the city centre, I saw a couple of No badges – unsurprising, given the morning’s ‘No’ stunt at Holyrood, and indeed very much to be expected, in the last weeks of this campaign (and especially after the weekend poll result) that they would become more visible. When I got to the stall, I was surprised to see that rather than 4 helpers, there were 12. And rather than two tables…there were three: the third featuring the legend that is the Wee Blue Book – copies stacked high across the table, we went through a shedload. This Wings Over Scotland publication (which I am proud to say I helped crowd-fund) has been the most thoroughly referenced piece of work put out during the campaign. We were out in force, and in buoyant mood – people coming up for information, conversations, posters and stickers (badges we were almost completely out of – scarcely a few Green for Yes, and a bunch of English Scots for Yes remaining).
There was a lot of traffic through the area – Freshers’ Week helpers milling around the area (even with their own ‘Yes’ stall, barely 400 yards away towards Potterrow) – it really seems to be all kicking off, for these charming older ladies as the stalwarts on the stall. As the afternoon drew on, the schools came out, and an 8 year old kid from my old school cycled up. ‘What are the benefits of independence?’ he said, as he fixed me with a steely gaze. I gave him a short spiel, watching his combative gaze soften, and at the end he smiled ‘thank you!’, then cycled away. Even though he did not have a vote, I was relieved to have apparently managed to give him some answers that satisfied him…for now.
Schoolkids can be tough to satisfy, whether young or secondary, but I seemed to hold my own with both yesterday. And they were wanting information, as part of the constant flow of people to the stall for posters and badges.
The level of engagement is escalating exponentially, and of course just as much as there seems to be a torrent for ‘Yes’ advertising after the weekend, there are one or two ‘No’s also appearing: walking home in my own small street last night, the first timid ‘No Thanks’ poster was up in an upper window. I had been expecting it, and after the shock that ‘the system’ appears to have got at the weekend, it was inevitably going to ‘smoke’ a few of the determined ‘No’s into the open, as the narrative of the ‘foregone conclusion’ win for Better Together fell apart.
These levels of engagement have been climbing steadily for a while, though. Three weeks ago, I was getting ‘Suggested Pages’ from FaceBook, for Alex Salmond (23,000 likes) and Nicola Sturgeon (19,000 likes). As I type, Alex is now at 52,000 with Nicola at 37,000. Even John Swinney, who was languishing on 3,000, has just broken through the 10,000 barrier!
At the end of the night, I watched the BBC News Channel again, with Peter Haine and Jonathan Redwood arguing over what form the enhanced devolution package for the rest of the UK would look like after a ‘No’ vote – and arguing quite intensely, too. It seems that suddenly the fight for the revamped UK got real.
Which makes me think that – although it may, or may not, have had an impact in Scotland – Gordon Brown’s timetable has certainly been exciting for the rest of the UK.
“Devolution, the Calman Commission, the Scotland Bill, the Edinburgh Agreement, all of this and more you have…because Westminster parties are scared of the SNP. If you vote ‘No’ you massively change the balance of power and they will not only give you nothing, but will probably take powers away from the Scottish Parliament.” (Andrew Neil, 2012)