THERE is a little exchange chronicled in David Torrance’s diary of covering Scotland’s independence referendum which inadvertently reveals the gulf that lay between what was experienced during that great debate by the nation’s ordinary citizens on one side and by we in the swollen political commentariat on the other. It occurs on Thursday, 17 July at Waterstone’s in Edinburgh’s George Street at the launch of another Torrance publication, The Indyref Idiot’s guide (co-authored with Jamie Maxwell). Torrance is describing an intervention by the historian Owen Dudley Edwards, a larger than life character whose warmth of personality matches the size of his big brain. ‘Owen got visibly angry,’ writes Torrance, ‘when talking about “weapons of mass destruction” (Trident, in other words), which made me a little uncomfortable, but then maybe that’s my trouble: I lack passion about politics (although educational stuff does get me a bit worked up). Otherwise a lady in the audience said England was keener on neoliberalism than Scotland (sigh) while a chap in a kilt rambled on about egalitarianism and folk songs.’
This passage is illuminating for in it is distilled much of the haughty disdain that professional commentators and political fluffers had for the opinions of the common man and woman. But is there not something else here too: a helpless bewilderment in the face of views passionately expressed no matter how untutored or unsophisticated? Elsewhere, Torrance nods in silent approbation at a piece by Kenneth Roy, all splenetic eloquence, curling his lip in at those commentators who allowed their own personal prejudices during the referendum campaign to come to the fore. Yet what is an opinion piece on the editorial pages of a newspaper for if it isn’t about allowing the writer the privilege of espousing his own… ahem, opinions?
The title of Torrance’s book is 100 Days of Hope and Fear: How Scotland’s Independence Referendum was Lost and Won. The 100 days were those in the final strait of what had been a two-year campaign. Torrance writes properly about politics, which is to say that he has the gift of conveying the gossamer nuances of economic and social policies in a manner which can be understood and digested by the rest of us. But in those mad, chaotic days of the independence referendum something was happening in the country which travelled well above the normal currency of policy and ideas. People who were used to having their politics handed down to them now found a voice and began actively to participate in the great events unfolding before them.
Throughout that period, though, Torrance exists in a state of silent terror that his vow of sacred political neutrality might be compromised, expressing alarm whenever a television or radio presenter describes him as belonging to the No side. But as anyone who is a regular reader of his comment pieces knows, of course he would be on the No side, and what of it? This was a political event like no other where your opinion could not be diminished by taking a side. There was room for dispassionate discourse as well as fiery invective; the normal rules of political commentating did not always necessarily apply.
Torrance himself became one of the themes of the independence referendum in his tee-shirts, tank tops and Brompton foldaway bike. In 2016, in a module on urban tropes at West of Scotland University or Abertay, students will be asked: ‘To what extent was the political commentator David Torrance responsible for introducing a hipster element to the Scottish Independence referendum?’ By morning we would encounter him either through his column in the Herald or contributing pieces on demand for assorted other publications. Meanwhile, by night he was a high priest in the ranks of the indyref demi-monde, a mendicant little tribe of commentators, activists and analysts who, at the witching hour, would twitch into life again and descend on television studios to suck every ounce of blood from the independence referendum. It was in these places where I mainly encountered Torrance, for I too became part of this political undead, feeding on the carcass of the day’s events and hoping all the while that my ignorance of currency, federalism and levers of taxation wouldn’t be too exposed by Sarah and Rona, those twin sirens who might lure unwary commentators on to the rocks of their own hubris.
Torrance’s book conveys in entertaining fashion something of what it was like to be one of these political phantoms, appearing in studios, hosting seminars, lunching with anxious Yes and No executives and exchanging knowing texts with others in the media bubble about polls and gaffes. He is good when waspish and gossipy in the upper rooms where nightly it seemed some political nonentity, eager to have his name in the footlights, was tilting at fame. Of one of these he writes: ‘It was a very Bufton Tufton gathering, complete with chaps in blazers and pink (even green) trousers, all harrumphing that Salmond was a cad and why weren’t people like me (i.e.) journalists exposing what a charlatan he was.’
Occasionally though, his disdain for anything resembling raw and unkempt passion can be grating – ‘some fluff in today’s newspapers about the LGBT “case” for independence ahead of Glasgow Pride tomorrow,’ he writes. We understand the need for a paid chronicler to operate above the excursions and alarums of everyday struggles but history will record that the importance of the independence referendum was not about currency or the European Union or sustainable deficit but about how the ‘little people’ began to dismantle the world of the ‘big people’ and gate-crashed their eternal black tie dinner party.
Iain MacWhirter was also one of those wraiths who took form every night at the threshing of the day’s events. His manicured cadences and linen threads were woven into the fabric of our experience of what happened in 2014 and it was good that he was there. His analysis and experiences formed a bridge to the lost referendum of 1979, which has scarred the landscape of Scottish constitutional politics ever since. His writing and broadcasting on politics in Scotland have been the benchmark by which many of us judge our own, more modest, contributions. His book Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won a Referendum but Lost Scotland covers the same ground as Torrance’s work but is less of a diary and more of an attempt to understand the currents and eddies which made the independence campaign the greatest act of democracy in the UK since the dawn of universal suffrage.
It is clear that MacWhirter underwent something of a catharsis during the independence referendum. During it he went from being a lofty sentinel of the political commentariat, pronouncing, dissecting and quantifying, to becoming something much more universal. Along the way he broke the hitherto sacred vow of the commentariat, ‘thou shalt only hold the jaickets’, by stating that he had lately become persuaded by the Yes argument during the referendum. In so doing he didn’t lose any of his authority. Indeed in his book it’s clear that he eventually voted Yes despite his own analysis that ‘Scottish voters, while many found the idea of independence appealing, believed that it carried unquantifiable risks. Scots did not feel oppressed in any way by England, and they did not need national liberation from a Union in which Scottish identity was given free expression.’
Yet, discussing the renaissance of cultural and political ideas that occurred among the multitudes who were previously disengaged or excluded by Big Politics, it is evident that MacWhirter, unlike Torrance, discovered ‘passion’ in politics and I can’t be the only one of his regular readers who feel that this added a different dimension to his writing. Early on he describes the risks that many working class people were prepared to take in actually registering to vote in the referendum and condemns the 11 (mainly Labour) local authorities who used the newly-swollen voters rolls to pursue unpaid council tax. ‘But these working-class people participated nevertheless… because for once they thought that they could change something by creating a new society in a new Scotland.’ In this sentence MacWhirter is transformed from mere chronicler and disseminator of policy to one who is pleasantly surprised even as the ground is moving beneath him.
Not that his book doesn’t address Big Politics or indeed glory in them. The first sentence in Chapter 6 is: ‘It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that constitutions are dry and boring.’ He then devotes the next eighteen pages to the stuff, including an algebraic formula about the Quebec tax base of the type that once caused me to awake screaming in the middle of the night during my schooldays. MacWhirter though, is enchanted by the cultural conversation about what independence could mean and how it might affect Scotland’s relationship to the rest of the UK in the years after. He gets it, although in agreeing with Jonathan Freedland, ‘that the unitary United Kingdom as we understand it is all but finished,’ he adds: ‘It could still take a long time to die.’
Disunited Kingdom is at its most compelling when discussing the role of the press in the independence referendum and in seeking to unravel the reasons why the BBC was perceived to be so biased in favour of No during the campaign. The title of his concluding chapter ‘Independence Postponed’ chimes with this remark in the preface: ‘The Unionists didn’t quite win, and the Yes campaign didn’t quite lose.’ This book is the second in what, I hope, will become a trilogy. In the first, the excellent Road to Referendum, MacWhirter prepared the way for his referendum book by observing how we got here. Perhaps the third in the series ought to have the working title ‘The Beginning of the End’. In it he will discuss, with reference to the 2015 Westminster election and the 2016 Holyrood election, how a second referendum on Scottish independence was secured and how it was presaged by the death of privilege and deference.
100 Days of Hope and Fear: How Scotland’s Independence Referendum was Lost and Won
Luath Press, £9.99, ISBN 978 190885265, PP192
Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won a Referendum but Lost Scotland
Cargo Publishing, £8.99, ISBN, 978 190885265, PP176