The People’s Referendum: Why Scotland Will Never Be the Same Again (Peter Geoghegan)

Peter Geoghegan - The Peoples ReferendumThe last book I completed reading in 2014 also turned out to be my favourite of the year. Peter Geoghegan’s The People’s Referendum has been published recently and tells the story of his journey through Scotland and further afield getting under the skin of the independence campaign in the run up to September’s referendum. In Geoghegan’s own words:

… the independence referendum changed not just Scottish politics but the nation’s people, its sense of itself and its future. This is the story of the campaign and its aftermath, not as recorded by pollsters and politicians or by the official Yes and No campaigns, Yes Scotland and Better Together, but as it was experienced by some of the five million ordinary – and extraordinary – people involved on both sides of the debate.

Each chapter is devoted to somewhere visited by Geoghegan in his referendum roadtrip: from the febrile atmosphere of a pro-independence rally in Glasgow’s George Square to Coatbridge (“Little Ireland”), Cowdenbeath, Dumfries, and the Western Isles. You get a sense of local identities and political activity, as well as the issues driving the independence debate in particular communities.

The narrative skips between the campaign and the immediate aftermath of the poll, checking back with the places and incredible characters he met to gauge their reaction to the No result. If you’re ever interviewed by Geoghegan be warned that he is an acute observer of people, and his scribbled notes may detail as much about you and your milieu as they do about what you were saying!

Louis MacNeice and his book I Crossed the Minch are brilliantly used as a framework to underpin Geoghegan’s exploration of the Western Isles.

A few days earlier a poll had given Yes a slender lead … That week it seemed every [politican’s] utterance was either ‘emotional’ or ‘passionate’. If Ullapool was moved by all this unbidden affection, it was not showing it. As with just about everywhere else in Scotland, Yes posters far outweighed No’s in the windows of the town’s cottages.

As well as discovering the revival of Harris Tweed, he ends up in conversation with Stornoway Free Church minister Rev Iver Martin. In an aside the author explains:

It is not for nothing that in the academic literature on the sociology of schism there are two major corpus of empirical research: revolutionary Marxists and Scottish Presbyterians.

As well as perspectives from different Scottish communities, Geoghegan visited Catalonia to understand its long-running quest for independence, the continued campaigning with up to two million on the streets of Barcelona, and the recent unofficial poll.

While not at all satirical, Geoghegan’s easy style of writing reminds me of PJ O’Rourke, and he is certain of a career authoring travelogues should his journalism falter! Chapter 5’s imagery and description of attempting to interview Milorad Dodik (the President of the Republika Srpska entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina), his stay in Banja Luka, and touring the post-conflict society with taxi driver Goran is superb.

Finally the author brings readers behind the scenes into the press room of the second televised debate and analyses the media’s role in the campaign, arguing that national media organisations (like the BBC) were “testament to the power of the idea of the United Kingdom as the legitimate national state” as they “unwittingly buttress the status quo”. However, Geoghegan reckons:

The key difficulty for the media during the referendum was not one of intentional bias but often of an inability to reflect the vivacity of the campaign back to its participants.

The book’s subtitle repeats the observation of many during the campaign: Why Scotland Will Never Be the Same Again. Geoghegan concludes:

The quiet No’s are still quite No’s. But the old order has been shaken and damaged, perhaps irrevocably. If the bricks and mortar of unionism … are gone, what will hold the United Kingdom together? The question of how long a Union state can survive without an existential unionism is unlikely to go away …

The independence campaign recharged formerly inert, long neglected sections of Scottish society. The dynamism of summer 2014 has yet to fade fully. Whether this energy dissipates or can be turned into new, productive forms will determine the lasting impact of the referendum for Scotland and the UK, and for other aspirant nations.

I’m persuaded that the referendum has shaken up Scottish politics and brought the politically jaded and apathetic out to polling stations to vote. However, published so soon after the referendum result and ahead of the Westminster campaign beginning in earnest – as well as before the more crucial Scottish Parliament election in 2016 – I’m less convinced that the evidence is there to put a finger on how Scotland is changed.

Public meetings in communities across Scotland in the lead up to September 2014 focussed on the issues around independence. While the number of citizens involved in meetings and hustings was still a tiny percentage of the electorate, it was a significant increase on grass roots political activism and involvement in previous years. As a pre-negotiation referendum, many issues were ‘up in the air’ and unresolved, leaving much to debate and discuss.

Post referendum, in a Scotland where “everything has changed, and everything has stayed the same”, will those groups reform and debate local issues as well as the national ones? (Large percentage increases in Scottish political party membership still equate to a minuscule fraction of the population.) The Scottish genie may be out of the bottle, but might yet evaporate rather than sustain. Geoghegan reports that Yes meetings restarted in some communities:

There were discussions about what powers the Smith Commission could deliver for the devolved parliament and whether a cross-party Yes Alliance should run on a pro-independence ticket in the 2015 general election. In November, two months after the vote, a Yes gathering in Kirkcaldy attracted over 250 people.

Still, perhaps the spirit that motivated a “cavalcade of mothers pushing prams” to an Easterhouse polling station to find their voice and realise “we don’t have to settle for what the government gives us” will not die easily.

Part travelogue, part sociology, part political history, and part analysis of the state of Scotland and its democracy, The People’s Referendum is well crafted and wholly readable. The vocabulary throughout the book – both in Geoghegan’s prose and reported speech – is authentic Scots, and the use of words like “gallimaufry” should be encouraged across the UK and beyond!

If you want to get behind the spin and bluster of the Yes and No campaigns, I’d recommend you read Peter Geoghegan’s account of grass roots Scotland. The People’s Referendum is available for Kindle (£4.79) and can be ordered in paperback from its Scottish independent publisher Luath Press (£9.99).

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