Sunday, 13 April 2014

Project Aspiration

I had a bit of a shock yesterday. I saw someone wearing a "Better Together" badge.

I was so surprised it took me a moment to recover. I'd known that such badges existed, of course, and by the same virtue I'd known that there must be people who wore them, but in stark contrast to the many, many "Yes" badge-wearers I've seen (myself included), I'd never once, until yesterday, seen someone in the flesh actually wearing the emblem of Project Fear (as they accurately but unwisely once dubbed themselves in a piece of internal correspondence).

(And no, the wearer wasn't Alistair Darling... though given that, prior to yesterday, I'd only ever seen these badges when sported by Labour, Tory and Lib Dem politicians in TV interviews, I haven't discounted the possibility that the person in question had some connection to one of the unionist parties.)

As some of my readers (all two of them) may know, there is a referendum taking place in Scotland this September to determine the country's constitutional future -- part of the UK or an independent nation. I've been a committed independence supporter for the past three years, having previously been quite indifferent about the whole affair, but pushed into the Yes camp by a series of realisations which I'll write about in another post at some point. Given the much higher visibility of Yes supporters and activists compared to their Project Fear counterparts, it sometimes strikes me as baffling that No still commands a lead in the polls (albeit a lead that is steadily diminishing and, at the current rate, should be wiped out some time in July).

And yet, I think when it comes down to it, the reason for this is that people in Scotland are, on the whole, just not that enthused about the UK. The most recent census revealed that a sizeable majority of the country's citizens regard their identity as exclusively Scottish (as opposed to Scottish and British, or exclusively British). Outside of an Orange Lodge meeting or Rangers game, you're unlikely to see union flags flying proudly. (It's telling that, on the day of the royal wedding in 2011, when the news showed towns and villages the length and breadth of England festooned with bunting and Union Jacks, I happened to find myself on a bus that took me from one side of Glasgow to the other, and the only union flag I saw was in the window of a single pub.) I suspect that, by and large, Scots have no great attachment to the union, and that in the majority of cases, those intending to vote No do so out of fear of the unknown (a fear that has been exacerbated by the daily barrage of scaremongering from the mainstream media, led by the mendacious BBC). Take away the fear, and I suspect that most would happily vote to dissolve the UK.

Which seems like a good time to highlight Alex Salmond's speech on Saturday at the SNP party conference in Aberdeen (the last one before the referendum):

It wasn't the best speech he's ever given (his 2013 conference speech remains, in my view, his strongest since the referendum campaign began), but it was suitably rousing, combining aspiration with pragmatism, along with a little bit of humour at the No campaign's expense ("They are the most miserable, negative, depressing and thoroughly boring campaign in political history"). A lot of it was clearly designed to woo female voters (who remain markedly more sceptical about independence than men -- if as many women as men planned to vote Yes, we'd be home and dry), promoting Shona Robison and Angela Constance to the Cabinet and pledging that all future Cabinets would be comprised of a minimum of 40% women (which I must admit I have mixed feelings about -- I've never been a fan of quotas). There was a plea to Labour supporters to get on board too, though, they being the other demographic that will be crucial to secure a Yes vote. He claimed that "Independence will be good for Scottish Labour" and give it "a chance to return to core values" -- values like a commitment to social security, free education and the NHS, which the SNP has stepped in to defend as Labour has abandoned them. As one commentator put it, it's the only party political conference I can think of where the party leader asked his political opponents to get on board on the promise that it would provide him with a better standard of opposition.

But then it wasn't exactly an ordinary party political conference. It was about something much bigger: a movement that is not just about Alex Salmond or the SNP. It's about a massive grass roots movement growing bigger every day, incredibly politically, socially and culturally diverse but all coalescing around the same fundamental question: "Does it have to be like this?" I sense that energy around me every day. People who have no interest in politics are becoming engaged and asking questions about our constitutional future. It's Project Aspiration versus Project Fear, and I know which side I'd rather be on.

And that energy will not simply fade away once the dust has settled. Whatever the outcome in September, that energy must continue to be harnessed to push for social progress. One thing's for sure: things will never be the same again.

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