Three things shocked me as a Unionist visiting Glasgow. The first was the realisation that although, in the course of several hours’ conversation in George Square yesterday afternoon, I met a considerable number of people who are going to vote No on Thursday, the people who are going to vote Yes are on average younger and better looking. This is always a good sign for a campaign. Success, fashion and beauty generally go together. Many wearers of the Yes badge made it look quite chic.
The second thing which shocked me will be equally obvious to people who spend more time in Glasgow than I do. The threat to the Union does not only come from nationalism, or from people who think of themselves as nationalists. People are not, for the most part, swept away by a romantic love of Scotland. Nor do they regard Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party, as an attractive figure: or if they do, they keep this liking to themselves. No one I met burst out in praise of him.
In Glasgow, the greater threat to the Union comes from socialism, and from people who think of themselves as socialists. Romantic love of socialism remains strong. This is a painfully obvious point, but one I had managed to miss while following events from London.
Willie Telfer, 47, a trade unionist who recently lost his job at the DVLA, said he “was born and brought up in the Labour Party”, and his family had been involved in Labour politics ever since the party was formed. But in 1997 he left the party in protest at the Labour Government’s decision to introduce tuition fees.
In Telfer’s view, “A Yes vote on Thursday offers a great opportunity for working-class people. Since Tony Blair the Labour Party’s drifted away from representing working-class people.” He described the referendum as “a peasants’ revolt: not exactly a vote to dissolve the Union, but a vote to get their say”.
In the East End of Glasgow, Telfer observed, and in other poor, working-class areas, turnout in general elections has fallen as low as 51 or 52 per cent, but on Thursday the Yes campaign is “expecting 80 per cent and above” to vote in those areas: “The Yes campaign is far to the Left of the Labour Party and it’s picking up traditional Labour voters. A lot of working-class people in Scotland have seen that there’s no Westminster route to social justice.”
After leaving Labour, Telfer joined the Scottish Socialist Party, the left-wing group once led by Tommy Sheridan: in 2003 the SSP got six of its candidates elected to the Scottish Parliament. But Telfer believes independence will transform the Scottish Labour Party: “It’ll go to the Left again because it doesn’t have to appease the views of Middle England. It doesn’t have to worry what the Daily Mail will say.”
New Labour was for many Scots just the continuation of Thatcherism under another name: they associate it with privatisation, holding down wages and cutting public spending. And to them, Thatcherism was itself an evil deviation from “One Nation” conservatism, which Scottish socialists found far less objectionable.
Telfer is from Kirkintilloch, a few miles north-east of Glasgow, and surprised me by bursting into a paean of praise to the late Lord Whitelaw, whose family still own the local Gartshore Estate, and who as a Conservative Cabinet minister was a loyal and valued colleague of both Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher: “Where I lived Willie Whitelaw owned the land, Willie Whitelaw owned the pits. Willie Whitelaw’s family built houses for the miners, they built pubs and shops. In that working-class community, if you mention the Whitelaws, they’re actually spoken about in very good terms.”
Michael Scanlon, 40, a Glasgow office worker who also spent eight years working in London, claimed that since 1979 there has been an “irreversible political divergence” between Scotland and England: “Thatcherite Toryism was anathema to Scottish Tories. Blairite Labour was anathema to Scottish socialists.”
When he lived in London, Scanlon was against independence for Scotland, and assumed everyone involved in the Yes campaign was a nationalist. Now he has moved back to Scotland, he intends to vote Yes: “The biggest leap forward for me was understanding that Yes is not necessarily about nationalism. I’m not a nationalist. I’m not a flag-waver. I’m not anti-English – my wife is English. I’m no supporter of the SNP and no supporter of Alex Salmond. Only a handful of Yes voters are nationalists. The rest are thinking what we’ve got is not working.”
Scanlon predicts that on Thursday, the Yes camp will “miss it by a ba’ hair”, a Scottish expression meaning to miss something by a tiny amount – a ba’ hair, pronounced bawhair, being a scrotal hair. But he says “the genie’s out of the bottle” and independence “is going to happen in ten years’ time”, when the generation of pensioners which votes against it this time “begins to pass away”.
Just over half the people I met said they would vote No. A retired security guard who was carrying a Union Jack bag bearing a “No thanks” badge said he had been threatened by Yes campaigners: “I’m British. Always have been, always will be. I’ve been to all the countries [of the United Kingdom]. And we speak with the one language and we went to war as one. Some of the behaviour of the Yes campaign is disgusting. I was wearing my Union Jack rucksack and they tried to burst balloons in my ear.”
An 81-year-old lady said: “I am pro-No. My family lost three people in World War One. Will you print that for me? I’ll be so proud of my grandfather and uncles. Hundreds of thousands of Scotsmen died for the UK. Hundreds of thousands of Englishmen died fighting for the UK. Why should we throw that back in their face? Don’t say my name in the paper or they’d come up and put my windows in.”
Another old lady said: “Me myself I’m not for independence at all. I feel better about what I know about just now than going into something you’re not sure of.” Like several people, she spoke well of David Cameron: “I liked him and it kind of turned me towards the Conservatives. I feel that he’s got a tough, tough job at the moment. I think he’s very truthful. I’ve got a sister that lives in Nottingham. She says to me, if it goes that way [independence], just come down here and live with me. I just don’t feel Alex Salmond is telling everything.”
A social care officer from Dundee said he had been abused for saying he is going to vote “No”, with people walking past him shouting “traitor” and telling him to go and live in England: “You’re not a true Scotsman.” He said he had been “really, really hurt by this”, had lost one of his best friends, and was worried there would be trouble on Friday.
A woman in her twenties who was pushing a bicycle decorated with Yes flags said: “I’m just voting Yes because I don’t want to be ruled by England any more. That’s it.” Another woman explained in even fewer words why she will vote Yes: “I want better for my son. Better Together’s not good enough.”
Stephen Darling, who had a bike with a trailer adorned with a large Yes and said he is no relation of Alistair Darling, leading light of the No campaign, declared: “I want Scotland to be free. We’re the cash cow for London. As I was growing up I began to realise the harm that had been done to Scotland and its people by our neighbours and allegedly closest friends, although I definitely wouldn’t allow any of my friends to bed my wife on my wedding night.”
The third thing that shocked me in Glasgow was the vindictive tone of some of the speakers. Like every other commentator, I do not know what will happen on Thursday. But if there is a No vote, the most difficult task may only just be beginning: to find some way of calming the passions which motivate so many Yes voters. For many of them, this referendum represents a longed-for and unexpected chance to take revenge on the hated Thatcher and Blair.
These Yes voters want so much to believe that their egalitarian, state-directed version of ethical socialism can work in Scotland, although the English are not even prepared to try it. Who can convince them that such policies would lead to economic collapse? Or must the perilous experiment be tried?