Sometimes it’s worth listening to British political commentators, not because they have anything insightful or informative or even interesting to say about Scottish politics, but because of what their comments reveal about British attitudes. We are surely entitled to regard a veteran BBC presenter such as David Dimbleby as some kind of barometer of those attitudes since this is a large part of what justifies the ‘expert’ status afforded him by the BBC. Dimbleby is an ‘insider’. He has ‘contacts’. He is knowledgeable. He is trustworthy.
David Dimbleby is very much the voice of the British establishment. So, when he says that Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum “brutalised politics”, we have to assume that this is how it is perceived by the British establishment. When he says that people were “frightened” during the referendum campaign, we must suppose that this is what is believed to be the case by a significant part of the UK population. When he says that it was “terrible”, we are obliged to consider this to be, at the very least, a widely held opinion.
One thing we know for certain is that David Dimbleby’s portrayal of the referendum campaign as brutal, frightening and terrible is completely false. Those of us who were actually there know it to be false. Anybody who had any involvement or contact with the Yes movement knows it to have been a positive and even a joyful thing.
There was brutality! The intimidation of pensioners by British Labour activists bussed in from England could readily be described as brutal. People were frightened! The anti-independence campaign was not referred to as Project Fear for no reason. There were terrible incidents! An elderly man attacked in the street by some crazed Unionist woman and revolting scenes of Union Jack-wrapped British Nationalist thugs in George Square spitting hate and giving Nazi salutes.
Had the Yes movement responded in kind, then Scotland’s politics truly would have been “brutalised”. Had independence supporters been prepared to engage in the kind of deplorable tactics employed by Better Together, then the referendum campaign would surely have descended into generalised ugliness. But it simply didn’t happen. Much as some in the No campaign tried to incite violence on the street of Scotland’s towns and cities, the worst that happened was that one of them was hit by an egg – injuring only what pitiful remnant of dignity they clung to.
We could debate at length whether Dimbleby’s remarks are purposefully dishonest; a casually uttered calumny on the 2014 referendum campaign intended to serve the British state’s effort to deny Scotland’s right of self-determination. We might speculate that his warped view is no more than a grotesque personal fantasy. We can wonder how common this perspective is among those who rely entirely on the British media for information, or if it is merely a cosy consensus generated among British journalists wedded to a London-centric perspective and perpetuated because nobody in their little clique has the professional rigour or intellectual integrity to challenge it.
Regardless of any of that, Dimbleby’s words tell us something very disturbing about the British establishment’s attitude to democracy. A referendum is part of the democratic process. The 2014 independence referendum was widely acknowledged to represent the ‘gold standard’. It was democracy in action. Popular, participatory democracy. The entire process was conducted according to rules imposed or accepted by the British government. The cream of the British political elite became involved. An unprecedented percentage of Scotland’s people were engaged.
The 2014 referendum transformed Scottish politics. It gave birth to the remarkable phenomenon that is the Yes movement. It energised our democracy. It generated a wave of activism which has enlivened Scotland.
And, if Dimbleby is to be believed, the British establishment found this great exercise in democracy utterly horrific. That can’t be healthy.
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