One of the things which has baffled and intrigued me from the beginning of the referendum debate is the labyrinthine psychology.
Yesterday, a Yes supporter shouted ‘you are a serial murderer’ at Ed Miliband. I am no great cheerleader for of Ed Miliband, and I am prone to hyperbole myself, but even I thought this was lunacy. Another man bawled ‘liar liar liar’ until he frothed his posse into such a frenzy that the entire event had to be stopped.
Why would anyone do that? What is the thought process? I like to think I am a bit of a student of the human condition, but I find it really, really strange.
You are a Yes person. I see very well the arguments, and some of them I agree with. Who could argue with liberty and independence; a plucky nation with storied names in its proud past and great human capital in its strong present, deciding to go it alone? There is goodness and even romance in that. That is, as the Yes campaign says, a positive message. Their great criticism of the No campaign is that it is negative, and they have a point.
So there you are, with your eyes filled with this dazzling future, your heart filled with hope and belief, and you go up to someone who is making a different argument and accuse them of being a liar and a murderer. Not only that, but you manage to shut down one of the most precious gifts of a liberal democracy, which is freedom of speech. You are all about freedom, yet you deny it to someone else.
What is the thought process which makes you scratch ‘coward’ and ‘traitor’ on the front door of someone who sees the world in a different way than you do? What is the animus which leads you to leave a bottle of urine outside a No voter’s house, or throw paint on a No banner, or go out at night and take a knife and carve up a No sign? You disdain the negative, and yet you employ tactics which could not be more negative.
Perhaps the most disturbing story I have heard is that of the farmers. I am wildly biased in favour of farmers. I grew up on a farm. I love the farmer whose sheep and cows keep company with my red mare. I am lost in admiration and awe at his work ethic, how he rises with the dawn and finishes his jobs long after dark. I love his feeling for his livestock. Anyone who attacks the farmers deserves a very special category in my book. In Perthshire, a farmer had his telephone lines twice cut, No banners in his fields have been scrawled with the word scum, and most sinister of all, these men and women who work the land have had anonymous calls telling them that if they do not take down their posters their gates will be broken and their animals let out onto the roads.
In the myriad of rolling news, the endless stories of this kind, it is easy to be shocked and move on. This is the kind of thing which happens in an impassioned campaign. There are always fringes who go too far. But I stop and think of the peculiar impetus which would lead an individual to do such a thing. How do you get from thinking I want an independent Scotland to sitting down and ringing up a hard-working farmer, whom you have probably never met, who has never done you any harm, who adds to the success of the nation you love by producing food, and threatening their cows with injury and possibe death? Not to mention the terrifying road accidents which might be caused by such an action. Again, my baffled mind asks Why?
The No Campaign is not composed of spotless angels. There have been people who have behaved badly on that side too. I think that they have made mistakes, and the accusation of negativity and last-minute hustle is often correct. But there is not the same orchestrated pattern of aggression, the same automatic use of extreme epithets. There may be people voting no who are absolute showers, appalling excuses for human beings, but there is not the same overarching story. There is not the same narrative arc of attacks on journalists (one went so far as to say he felt safer when he was covering the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which may be a slight exaggeration), the mob action against Nick Robinson for asking a perfectly ordinary question, the bizarre idea that you cannot be a true Scot if you disagree, the flying pickets which follow around the No speakers.
No has its own questions to answer. It has often felt feeble, and sometimes even patronising, although it does not have the monopoly on this. It has erred on the side of the minus rather than the plus. Most of all, it has failed to ignite a big idea. Where Yes wins is that it has the most lovely idea. It does have a dream. (My reservation is that I don’t think the reality can match the dream, and that everyone might wake up in a new Scotland and say: where is my pony?)
My psychological conundrum is – why would you have such a beautiful dream and sully it with shouts of traitor and terrorist, with vandalism and the shutting down of speech? The Yes campaign, when asked about some of the uglier incidents, usually says something along the lines of the other side does it too, as if that makes it all fine. I’m not so much interested in false equivalence, I’m interested in the oddity of a group so invested in its self-image of positivity being so negative. It is a sort of twisted cognitive dissonance. When Jim Murphy is called a quisling, a terrorist, and a traitor, merely for expressing an opinion in which he believes, how does that sit with the idea of a positive campaign?
It’s not that one side is good and one side is bad. There is nothing as simplistic as that. I imagine that the vast majority of people who will vote Yes deplore the aggressive minority, and would never do anything like that themselves. What fascinates me is the strangeness of one side, in its deeds and words, going against its own defining feature. There is no need to call someone a traitor or a terrorist. If you believe in your own argument, you should welcome dissent, happily confident that you can refute it. If a person has a profound belief in the sunlit uplands, in a new dawn, why would they pick up the telephone and threaten a farmer? It is so unnecessary and contradictory as to be almost inexplicable.
Humans are complex and often say one thing and do another. Perhaps this curious dissonance should be expected. But I would have loved a serious, thoughtful debate, an argument of strong ideas and high passions. The Yes campaign has many good points, and I wanted to hear them. They lost me when they went after the people who work the land.
Luckily, away from the big campaign stages, there are individuals who are charming and gentle, who go out of their way to be polite to their opponents, who refuse staunchly to indulge in ad hominem. Luckily, in ordinary life there are ordinary people who say whichever side wins, let us all be friends afterwards. Luckily, there has been thoughtful, serious writing about democracy and nationality and economics and the human heart. I know some people who fear that Friday will dawn with fighting in the streets. I hope that yes, no and all points in between might sit down instead and have a pint of Guinness and remember the fine moments – the good jokes, the heartfelt pleas, the nuanced discussions, the fact that as turnout roars over 90% nobody could say that we take our dear democracy for granted. I hope that glasses will be raised, and not smashed.
Meanwhile, in a quiet corner of my own Scottish field, these two were at their crest and peak of sweetness today, riding out together like two courteous old dowagers, two glorious equine oases of calm in the middle of the maelstrom: