Posted by: Peter Smith
Peter Smith is a TV journalist @STVNews. He is a former Broadcast Journalism student at Cardiff and also a winner of Royal Television Society’s Young Talent of the Year. He can be contacted @PeterAdamSmith
The referendum is finally here and, for me, it has been a joy to cover as a journalist.
It sounds cliched to talk of history in the making, but that is exactly what this is: a chapter for the history books developing in front of our eyes. The UK – one of the world’s ‘great powers’ – is on the cusp of a vote that could remove one third of its land mass and, crucially, the original partner in the formation of a United Kingdom between Scotland and England. Or it could prompt the beginning of a move toward a more federalist Britain with greater autonomy being removed from Westminster and handed to the Home Nations.
I have followed the story every step of the way, first on Scotland Tonight for about two years and then on STV News in the latter stages of the campaign. I have relished the chance to be involved with this story – probably to quite a sad degree, in fact – but if it were happening in a foreign country I’d wish I were there to cover it. It is happening right on my patch as a journalist, though, which is about as good as it gets in my line of work.
One of the brightest sparks to come from this campaign is the quite incredible level of involvement in political debate we are seeing right now. Superficially, you can see it from the displays in people’s windows: ‘No Thanks’ or ‘Yes’ posters against the glass; Union flags or Saltires hung out for the world to see. It’s in the air and it is utterly contagious. Everywhere I have been for the last month has involved some kind of referendum conversation. In the 5-a-side football changing rooms the chat was about currency. On the train there was a disagreement about what kind of taxes we might see if Scotland votes Yes. A young mum was asking her friend in a cafe about the future of the NHS if Scotland votes No.
People in Scotland and many others across the UK are just now thinking more deeply about our relationship with politicians, states, the constitution, and unions than I’ve ever known. I have just reported how the four corners of Glasgow are responding to the referendum, and the level of engagement everywhere I went was a joy to behold (though, admittedly, some were more informed than others). Two of the four areas have previously had shamefully low voter turnout rates for elections, but now it is as though people who were lost to politics have just wakened from being comatose and they are, all of a sudden, asking important questions. They want to hold power to account on both sides of the campaign. They are wondering if life and society could be better after all and asking which path before them is better for that. They’re thinking about their future and the next generation. They’re asking about our reliance on oil and what happens when it runs out, and they’re probably more clued up about such matters than many democracies at this point.
Glasgow city centre at the weekend was absolutely electric – unlike anything I have ever seen in any UK city before. There were little debates between strangers on every corner, bands playing for the crowds, adults and teenagers waving banners, sporadic chants, and – even rarer for Glasgow – the sun was shining.
I filmed it on my phone because I was both in awe of the scenes on Glasgow’s busiest street and nervous something was going to go wrong. I thought people would resort to blows because of the sheer numbers. But, to my amazement, it was amicable. The debate here has been peaceful but passionate. In Glasgow, the open debates took place under the watch of the late Donald Dewar’s statue.
Another great part of the debate is that this peak of engagement is unlikely to go away when the referendum comes to pass. We will be left with 97% of the electorate registered to vote (that’s more than 4 million people and a new record in Scotland). An entire lost generation is once again empowered quite simply because of the debate going on here right now.
There is widespread involvement, politicians have had to work for every single vote, and journalists are asking tough questions. This is, as I understand it, as good as it gets for a thriving democracy.
Whether Scotland votes for independence or chooses to stay in the UK, this era is, of course, not without its flaws. People are bound by their human nature and you can’t change the fact some people in Scotland, like everywhere else, simply don’t know how to do debate without resorting to abuse. These people – as well as those who abuse politicians and journalists – will be the same no matter what the topic of debate.
Perhaps what is now at stake has increased passions for those who have campaigned for independence their entire life, and for those who have been proud citizens of the United Kingdom and want to maintain that with their every fibre. That’s not, in my view, a reason not to relish a time like this that, in terms of potential ramifications and overall engagement, is a bona fide part of history in the making.
My memory of this referendum will be a fond one. For example, I won’t forget the man in Springburn, north Glasgow, who approached me while I was filming to say he’s never voted in his life but this is too important not to vote. He told me how he’s been a drug addict and never felt like he had anything to say about politics but this is different.
Then there was the homeless man on Ashton Lane, in Glasgow’s west end, who, when he found out he could vote, packed up his begging bowl and left his post immediately to go and register. The smile on his face when he realised he had a say in this was poignant.
This came before I met a woman in Shettleston who told me she has made her two daughters register to vote for the first time because the decision is, in her eyes, about the future their children and her grandchildren will grow up in.
Even a political broadcast from the Better Together campaign prompted a pub debate about feminism from friends of mine I didn’t think cared one iota about such topics.
These brilliant stories across the country have been invigorating to be a part of and they far outnumber and outshine the shouty people on the streets and anonymous online trolls, annoying as they both are. That’s just one reason why these are great days for me as a journalist on this story.
Another reason is that few people will ever experience what we’re seeing in Scotland right now: the full might of a 307 year-old British establishment minus the tanks! I am half-joking, of course, but genuinely it is a sight to behold when PMQs gets cancelled and the leaders of the three main Westminster parties (plus Nigel Farage) unite. When will we witness a train-load of MPs being delivered to one city in reaction to a shock poll?
We live in interesting times. I am thoroughly enjoying it while it’s here and I will miss it when it’s gone.
There have been some unpleasant experiences on this campaign trail for some of my colleagues in the media, which is sad and completely unnecessary. A group of protesters made a banner about Nick Robinson, the BBC’s political editor, which was disappointing because no journalist should be singled out and targeted like that. I was pleased the NUJ called for a stop all intimidation of journalists in this campaign.
The group of protesters marched on the BBC Scotland offices to demonstrate against perceived bias. For context, it is also important to point out at least one BBC journalist who was there said he didn’t find it “intimidating” though others may disagree.
Still, any abuse or intimidation of journalists is absolutely reprehensible and, as an NUJ member, I passionately believe we should be able to operate without facing such misplaced anger.
It is also pertinent to add that Police Federation have today moved to calm talk that Scotland has any real concern over trouble boiling over because of a political disagreement just now. They said, “The referendum debate has been robust but overwhelmingly good natured.”
This reflects my own experience from working and walking the streets. Our population, like most parts of Britain, is generally passive and we don’t have a record of political violence since the Poll Tax riots.
Scotland has genuine schisms which long predate this referendum debate and will long outlive it. People were, in fact, targeted with violence over the Iraq War – politicians and journalists – and the UK Government’s decision to implement tuition fees resulted in actual chaos on our streets with two members of the royal family being attacked. In Scotland, conditions are positively placid in comparison, which is actually impressive when you consider what is on the line.
I have seen the murky quagmire of online abuse hurled without a second thought, but again such nonsense is not a product of, nor exclusive to the referendum debate. It is, unfortunately, increasingly common on social media. I have tried not to allow the nasty element to ruin my enjoyment of what is happening in the country just now.
Scotland, and the UK, have provided the world with a shining example of how to conduct such secessionist debates democratically and peacefully.
Journalists like Bernard Ponsonby, James Cook, Claire Stewart, and Laura Bicker have shone in this referendum campaign, and they have earned well-deserved praise from both sides and the neutrals for challenging the likes of Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling in debates and in interviews.
It has been a particular privilege to work alongside Bernard Ponsonby, STV’s political editor, throughout this time. To see why, just watch these interviews with the First Minister and with the Better Together leader. Few could have done a better job of holding each politician to account on behalf of the viewers and the country.
Everyone will have a different memory of this time. Perhaps it is a personal thing. For me it’s been incredibly inspiring. Thousands of people have wakened up to politics and are questioning authority – on both sides of the campaign. Millions are now registered to vote for the first time in their life. I’ve been out canvassing with both sides and it’s amazing to see such engaged debate. People are polite, yet brimming with energy and enthusiasm. It feels like Scotland has crossed a Rubicon. Those who politicians have made little effort to reach in the past will be having their voice heard from now on.
Interestingly, a United Kingdom that once ruled over a fifth of the world’s population with an Empire that spanned the globe is now facing a judgement, and the verdict could well be in the hands of Scotland’s poorest and most unpredictable voters who have never set foot in a polling station before. The UK is now fighting tooth and nail to keep Scotland within the Union. The implications of a Yes vote are complex and uncertain. Even a No vote takes us all into uncharted waters with the Westminster leaders pledging more powers but facing a possible backlash from MPs in the rest of the UK.
Whatever the outcome at the ballot box, this country has changed in the course of this referendum campaign. What we knew has now passed. What we don’t know is what comes next.
With so many twists and turns in the final stretch toward September 18th, and with so much at stake, I can’t see how, as a journalist, it would be possible to be jaded by this incredible era of British politics. This is a high water mark for me, and it will take something truly seismic to break that.