Perception and Possibilities in Perth

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I’ve just arrived in Perth, about an hour north of Edinburgh.  The drive up was pretty enough – rolling green hills and trees dotted with houses under a foggy Scottish sky.  Along the way we saw 3 Yes signs and the first No lawn sign I’ve seen so far on the trip.

Maia and I are heading to the Perth / Kinross Yes campaign HQ. I saw online that a bunch of activists will be meeting there to go leaflet around noon and I’m hoping to get some interviews in. We find parking not too far off and duck into a the first restaurant we see in search of breakfast but they don’t open until noon. The lady is tired having just flown from California via Toronto and desperately wants hot food and beer, I promise her an epic lunch and she munches on the remainder of a grilled cheese with a look on her face like a kid who just lost her favorite baseball over the fence.

Perth has the feel of a relatively bourgeois suburb with big yards and flowers everywhere. I’m wondering if the campaign here will be different from the bigger cities to the south which were very much driven by the culture and ethos of recently de-industrialized workers who feel betrayed by the Labour party and hope for a better future in an independent Scotland.

We arrive at the office and it’s a neat little corner shop with pamphlets, flags, and more in neatly stacked piles. I introduce myself and have some great conversations, first with a young woman named Rachel and then a grandfather named Bill. They both talk about feeling despair at politics in the past – Bill is a former Labour activist who gave up on the party under Blair.

For everyone here, the Yes campaign has been transformative – Bill says he feels like he has hope for the first time in years and Rachel talks about how her little niece is having a birthday and this is the best present she could possibly give. When I ask about their passions and what drives them to get up and volunteer for the campaign they both tear up. It’s getting close to the vote with just a day to go and emotions are running high but even so it’s obvious they’re speaking from the heart. Rachel talks about the importance of living in a country without nuclear weapons where people don’t have to rely on food banks to survive in the midst of incredible wealth.

For Bill, it comes down to a chance for the Scottish people to regain their confidence and create a country that values fairness and equality. I ask about how Scotland will act on the world stage, Bill talks about the importance of being able to be an equal partner in Europe and the world community. Rachel is more succinct – “I just want to hug the world.” They both separately point out that Scotland is a very peaceful country, that the most violent thing that’s happened during the entire campaign is that someone threw an egg (just one) at a politician, and that they hope to bring that same spirit or nonviolence and an engaged civil society to the world stage as the new Scotland defines itself.

I thank them both and head off to High Street where the Yes and no campaigns both have tents set up, passing a few shops with Yes banners along the way.

The two tents are practically next to each other, but where Yes is a swirling crowd of people and passers by with a musician  playing, the No tent has three activists standing around and talking to each other. I’ve heard allegations that the No people are all paid staff but they will neither confirm not deny it. Draw your own conclusions. The Yes tent, meanwhile is all volunteers and include the full spectrum of age and demographics – including an English ex-army officer and a former Conservative (Tory) councilor. I talk to just about everyone in turn.

The first interview is a group affair, the youngest person is 19 year old named Ivana and the oldest is Jude, a silver-haired grandmother. As with everyone else, the social justice issues loom large here. Getting rid of nuclear weapons again features prominently and Jude mentions how the Better Together people talk about how the UK “punches above its weight” in world politics. Her reply is succinct “I don’t want to punch above my weight – I don’t want to punch anyone!” Asking about Scotland’s place in the world they talk about how important cooperation is and how they see Scotland as inherently interdependent with its neighbors. Fiona, a middle-aged mother, chimes in that “how you view the world is how the world views you” adding that Scotland is a very peaceful country with a great sense of humor.

Paul Leslie is a former Conservative politician (Perth is much more conservative than Glasgow or Edinburgh and here the SNP and Tories are the two main parties with Labour a distant third), talks about how he worked with an organization that helps at-risk young adults just entering the work force manage their money, handle bills, and hold down jobs so they can make it in the world. He recalls one of the young people he was helping remarking to him “Paul, you’re helping us learn to be independent and handle ourselves in the world, why couldn’t Scotland do the same thing?” For him, that was the turning point towards support for yes and he approaches the question with an entrepreneurial spirit.  As a businessman, he wants Scotland to have the representation on the world stage to grow its economy and believs ultimately this issue isn’t about conservative or liberal – it’s about Democracy and Scottish people overcoming the sense of inferiority that they’ve had in the past.

Andrew, an English former soldier, makes a similar point about Democracy and the importance of Scotland being able to act in her own interests on the world stage instead of having everything filtered through Westminster. As many others have he points out that Scotland is under-represented in the EU Parliament because they’re considered a region and not a country in their own right.

As a former soldier, I’m particularly interested in Andrew’s views on defense and he talks about how the role of Scotland as a non-nuclear member of NATO would shift its military focus to one of regional cooperation and a defense-oriented policy. He believes that in the same way NATO had troops in Germany for decades it’s time for NATO to move those deterrent forces to the EU’s eastern border and he sees Scottish troops as a part of that force – not attacking anyone but doing their bit to help protect the European community from a resurgent and aggressive Russia. Other Yes activists would doubtless oppose any deployment of Scottish troops, but this is a very broad movement.

Lastly we talk about Civic nationalism vs the Ethnic Nationalism of many other movements and he emphatically states that “if there were even a whiff of anti-English prejudice I wouldn’t be part of this movement but our vision of Scotland is one where everyone is welcome.”

I thank them for their time gratefully and head off in search of lunch, the lady is wilting from lack of food and I don’t want to press my luck. We stop at a pub and get haggis (which she’s never had – a handy excuse for me to eat it again for the third day in a row – along with Scottish stovies and a couple well-earned pints. Next stop: Dundee!