How many people will vote Yes in the forthcoming independence referendum simply because the status quo is boring?
This question might come as a surprise to anybody who has visited a Scottish workplace within the last year. The gulf between those who are excited by the referendum and those who are monumentally bored by it is often far more immediately noticeable than that between the Yes and No sides. We face, according to the refrain which continuously showers down on to us from above, the most important, historic decision in generations. For many people it seems impolitic to confess that this decision is, for them, well, a bit boring. Nonetheless, an Angus Reid survey in August 2013 reported that 20% of respondents were “bored” by the referendum (more alarmingly, only 28% felt “engaged” by it); a month later a poll commissioned by Lord Ashcroft found 61% of respondents denying that the referendum was “a priority,” with the damning implication that it had no relevance to their eternal priority of the economy; whilst a TNS poll conducted this July found that 63% of respondents had “given up listening to the debate…”
It may appear that the SNP have planted their flag on the top of boredom mountain, but I’m sceptical that the No camp are not within sight of the peak. It is hardly a very sensible or noble feature of the referendum debate, but I’ve observed that Yes has an allure for some people, predominantly young people, for no other reason than that they just want to see what will happen if the UK breaks apart. This is exactly the same reason that some kids will put a live toad in the microwave and gloat over its demise like Bond villains – sheer ghoulishness!
But this is outrageous! Young voters are all princes and princesses and they are entitled to the strictest of deference. Whenever they are marched out into the media – left, right, left, right, chins up! – they always solemnly weigh up the merits of independence, they never allow their little heads to be perturbed by such a momentous political issue, and they never, ever utter anything which is controversial or even remarkable at all! There are no two words which are used more dishonestly in the British media than “vox populi.” Vox-popped adults always tend to be empty-headed and look slightly scary, because this apparently reflects our prejudices about the demos. Vox-popped young people are sleek and startlingly intelligent, but in a manner which is reassuringly harmless. Their minds are unpolluted by anything trivial, but they are simultaneously the perfection of Miliband-esque blandness.
In reality, many young people are fucking crazy. About one in four of them think that the CIA orchestrated the destruction of the Twin Towers. One in four of them think that Britain would be “better off with fewer Muslims” whilst 15% of them “don’t trust” Jewish people. For their part, one in eight young Muslims “admire” al-Qaeda. The teenaged flight of fancy into Syrian crusades, ISIS adventures or, let’s be honest, British army missions across Afghanistan bespeaks a generation which does not have the firmest grip on reality. It might be natural for young people to be risk-averse, or for them to value established authority, and many of them do: in fact, an April poll found 64% support for No amongst 16-18 year olds. I could be idealising young people just as ineptly as the SNP had done when submitting them as natural nationalists, whose property rights over the future must automatically make them Yes men.
Yet I’m probably using young people to personify an irresponsibility which is familiar to all of us, flitting around our ears like the tiny red demon in old Disney cartoons. To take this irresponsibility away from the kids and make it profound, perhaps it conveys Edgar Allan Poe’s great theme of the “unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself – to offer violence to its own nature – to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only.” Young people, in my experience, seem to express this irresponsibility most readily, and at times with a chilling innocence. But the macabre thrill of watching a 300 year old political system meet its end is most likely to stir any breast which is immature and unsophisticated, rather than just teenaged. You could even argue that teenagers, being normally risk-averse, are not mature enough to attain this level of immaturity
Let’s assume that this immaturity is out there, lurking beyond the opinion polls and possibly hovering like a malicious aura within the private sanctum of the polling booth. Now let’s move on to the implications. It would mean that every “Better Together” scare – all that scrambled dread about EU membership and currency unions – would paradoxically add to the glamour of Yes. Capital flight, the dramatic suspension of EU subsidies to Scottish agriculture, a run on banks and pensions, the refusal to honour the national debt, would all crank up the party to maximum volume. We would float in a rapture of international standoffs and helter-skelter markets. No longer would we be languishing in that oppressively suburban world where a 1% rise in interest rates constitutes prestigious political drama.
The point that I’m labouring to make is that Unionism, if it is to survive, has to come up with something which is significantly more attractive and exciting to ordinary people than a slide into anarchy. No’s case against Yes is often the same moral case that was made against Hurricane Katrina: it will bring a moderate dose of apocalypse, and many of the things that people take for granted will be wiped off the map. This overlooks the reality that the status quo in New Orleans was not so tremendous to begin with. Katrina would have washed over a technologically advanced, super-industrialised society and petered out. If Scotland had already invested in education and new technologies, and found some enduring vision of its place in human history, then it would sail blithely through the gloomiest of economic weather. Sturm and Drang can and should be clapped back into that teacup where it has always belonged.