Love-bombing the Scots, the world's politest independence fight

Yes, please. No, thanks. Scotland's referendum slogans sound more like a manual on good manners than those of a spirited independence campaign, Nahlah Ayed writes. Oh, and you're welcome, they owe a debt to Canada.

Yes, please, No thanks, Scotland's referendum slogans sound more like a manual on manners

Better Together leader Alistair Darling, left, and Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, shake hands prior to the second and final television debate over Scottish independence on Monday. The pair argued and shouted over each other on a number of questions, but the heart of the 90-minute exchange centred on what currency an independent Scotland would use. (Associated Press)

"Yes, please." "No, thanks." The slogans sound more like a manual on good manners than those of a spirited independence campaign.

But this is Scotland — not Crimea. Fighting about independence here has so far taken on a noticeably docile tone.

Odd then to hear commentators talk about the rival leaders of the Yes and No campaigns "landing a punch" or trying for a "knockout blow" in last night's televised debate.

Scotland's first minister Alex Salmond, who is leading the pro-independence side, and Labour MP Alistair Darling, who is chairing the Better Together campaign, are at the tip of the spear in this fight.

But this isn't Braveheart. Their live televised rumble — their second and last — was probably the most acrimonious moment in what has, in public at least, been an exceptionally polite campaign.

"There hasn't been so much as a bloody nose in the modern fight," says Luke Skipper, a polite though savvy backroom adviser — from Canada, no less — who works for the pro-independence Scottish National Party.

Some of its supporters compare their movement to a "peaceful revolution."

"I think there's something, not necessarily cold-blooded about the Scottish mentality, but it's very 'sit back, weigh it up, keep it close to your chest'," says Skipper.

"It isn't the type of culture where you see millions of people out on the street, but you'll see polls that are very close, so clearly there is support for it."

The Queen is worried

Less than a month before the vote, it is that same composed character trait the No side is counting on, too: the belief that there is a "silent majority" of Scots who, though not jumping loudly into the fray now, will, come Sept. 18, stampede to the polls to ensure Scotland doesn't stray from the United Kingdom's three-century old political and economic union.

It is the same thinking, apparently, that prompted the No side to switch gears and replace its "Better Together" slogan with "No, Thanks," believing the latter would sound politely above the fray.

A demonstrator carries a sign during a pro-independence march in Edinburgh in March. The anti-independence side has maintained a consistent lead, but support for independence has been growing and thousands of still-undecided voters are holding the balance. (Associated Press)

It isn't very well known they borrowed the polite phrase from Canada's own separation fight — a "Non Merci" that appeared in an anti-separation poster during the 1980 referendum campaign and went on to become a semi-official slogan in the 1995 one.

Now, none of this is to say the discussion here hasn't often been heated, or that the debate hasn't been divisive.

There has been serious nastiness online — on Facebook and Twitter —anonymously playing out a far fouler fight than what you see on television or read in the papers.

Britain's Independent newspaper reports that one in five Scots have fallen out with people close to them over the vote. And there are apparently many people, including the Queen, who are worried those splits could become permanent.

Queen Elizabeth is said to be so concerned that she urged the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to help with "healing divisions" among the electorate "whatever the outcome," she wrote in a letter.

In that spirit, the Church of Scotland is attempting to organize a "service of reconciliation" for after the referendum, which is to include a handshake between Salmond and Darling, though the event hasn't been confirmed.


In a different century — or even in other parts of Europe — Scotland's bid for an arms-length relationship with a country it agreed to join generations ago, might have drawn blood.

Here it has elicited "love-bombing" — the No campaign video message from a number of celebrities earnestly imploring Scotland "don't go," while the rock band Queen's You're my best friend plays in the background.

It is a tactic many here suggest won't play well — and that the other side should have known as much.

Of course the Yes arguments for independence have invited a body of criticism and rebuttal, too. But even most of that it has been muted.

Take Monday's debate. Heated moments? Yes. Talking over each other? Absolutely. Accusations of misinformation? For sure. But hardly ugly, as some papers described it.

Ultimately the toughest words came from an audience member who counseled anyone against believing Darling.

The Yes side, though, believes the premise for its desire for independence is what has kept the debate so largely level-headed — the fact that the campaign has been rooted in political and economic arguments rather than the more ignitable ethnic or language ones.

So, Skipper says, the parallel here is not with Quebec's separatists, but with Canada, with Pierre Trudeau's patriation of Canada's constitution from the U.K. in 1982.

"If it's good enough for Canada, why wouldn't it be for Scotland?" asks Skipper, adding "I think Her Majesty will be incredibly relaxed.

"She's head of state for Canada, she's head of state for New Zealand, so will she be for Scotland."

That is no certainty, of course. But with the recent experiences in Crimea and Donetsk, and with Catalonia and Venice (and likely Quebec and Canada) watching this one closely: Scotland's debate (so far at least) seems to be setting a new standard that others might want to take note of.

How the two sides react after the vote, how Scotland copes, will determine whether that standard stands.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.


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