Belfast Telegraph

Scottish politics is getting uglier as polling day nears and there’s still the Orange Order parade in Edinburgh to look forward to

Suddenly, a dignified debate has turned toxic ....

By Hamish Macdonell

We have always comforted ourselves in Scotland, safe in the knowledge that our politics, however passionate, has always been civilised. It was almost as if we felt that football (particularly when mixed with religion) provided the necessary outlet for those who wanted to scream and shout and bawl at their opponents.

Well, not anymore. Scottish politics has become nasty, at least in part. There are increasing examples of it becoming aggressive, intolerant, vitriolic and frightening.

It is perhaps ironic that one of Scottish politics' most likeable and affable characters has become the focus of much of the abuse.

Jim Murphy, the former Labour Scottish Secretary, had been touring the country on a "100 Towns, 100 Days" campaign.

But, because it is just him, standing on a couple of Irn Bru crates with a microphone, he was easy to get at and some members of the Yes campaign did just that.

There is plenty of footage on YouTube to prove it, but, in several towns across Scotland, Mr Murphy was subjected to the sort of abuse that many of us never expected to see.

Sometimes, groups of Yes campaigners just surrounded Mr Murphy and yelled obscenities at him in an attempt to drown him out. On others, they invaded his soap box platform, pulling out the microphone jack so he couldn't be heard, gleefully popping all his No campaign balloons at the same time.

On one occasion – coverage of which has been posted online – it is possible to see how a pensioner is forced to climb on to the Irn Bru crates with Mr Murphy in a desperate attempt to avoid a manically finger-jabbing man who just shouts "quisling, quisling" at Mr Murphy from about three inches away.

(Mr Murphy has since been forced to suspend the meetings, citing "co-ordinated" abuse.)

We know that, from the outside, it has looked for some time as if Scotland has been involved in a profound and serious debate about its future and, to a certain extent, this has been true.

But, as polling day has approached, so tempers have frayed on the ground, sometimes alarmingly so.

I believe that one of the causes of this new, nasty politics has been the all-encompassing nature of the campaign.

There are now many, many people involved in this debate who have never been interested in politics before.

As a result, they are approaching politics as they would football, or religion, as something to confront with intolerance and shouting.

Some of these people don't know about the normal rules of politics, of freedom of speech and the right to speak and be heard and, as result, the atmosphere on the streets, in the pubs and clubs and in our town halls has become more heated, more intolerant and more abusive than it has ever been before.

But partly, also, people are getting worked up because there is now the general realisation that we have an awful lot riding on this.

A few months ago, the concept of independence was still quite theoretical. We could talk about it at length – and many of us did – without really being aware of the full ramifications.

But now we know: everybody knows what the effects will be. It is no longer theoretical – particularly since Alex Salmond won that last television debate – and, because jobs and houses and futures are on the line, people are agitated and angry.

They know it is going to affect all of us: us more than you, granted, but it will still affect you nonetheless.

So, who's going to win? It seems clear that the No camp is still in the lead, but Yes Scotland has established vital momentum since that last, all-important, debate.

Although the debate itself was hardly edifying and provided more evidence, I would argue, of the increasingly ill-tempered atmosphere that now pervades this country, it did give the first minister a boost in confidence.

Some observers would say that a boost in confidence is the last thing Mr Salmond needs, but he was undoubtedly battered by the brickbats that came flying in his direction after the first debate, which Alistair Darling won.

He really needed something to pick himself up and revive his campaign, and that happened. As a result, it is the No campaign that is now struggling, mentally and in confidence terms.

Mr Darling is shaken, his side are making mistakes and now the possibility of actually losing this thing is becoming real.

The Yes camp still has a long way to go but, if it can capitalise on the momentum it has generated over the last week, it could sneak it.

And, even though this is still the most unlikely result, it could happen. The key to victory for both sides, however, lies in the housing estates of urban central Scotland.

A pretty good rule of thumb for this campaign is that, the richer you are, the more likely you are to vote No and the poorer you are, the more likely you are to vote Yes.

There are many in the poorer housing schemes and tenement blocks of central Scotland who feel they have never benefited from the current system so, they argue, why not give something else a go?

Mr Salmond and his allies have targeted these, largely, disaffected Labour voters assiduously and this campaign may pay off.

The one big question that remains is whether all these new independence supporters will both register and vote on September 18, and no one really knows for sure.

If the Yes registration campaign has worked, then Mr Salmond will have unearthed the army of previously apathetic and disenfranchised voters he needs to win.

But if it hasn't worked, then we could well be faced with angry scenes on September 18 as hundreds – perhaps thousands – of potential voters turn up at polling stations all over Scotland demanding the right to vote, only to be told they needed to register first and, as the deadline for that has passed, they cannot do so.

There is one final event, though, that the No camp is looking at with some trepidation. Shortly before the referendum, the Orange Order is due to march in Edinburgh in defence of the Union.

The Orange Order may be colourful, its march may be well-meaning and all those marchers will undoubtedly be passionate about the Union.

But such a march will only hark back to the past, not the future. It will not only be seen as redolent of the politics of entrenched division and religious intolerance that Scotland had tried to put behind itself, but it will allow the Yes camp to portray itself as the more modern, the more optimistic and the more forward-looking of the two – and that may prove influential.

The No camp is still in the lead. That lead is narrowing, however, as more undecideds make up their minds and more poorer Scots decide to back Yes.

But whether this drift to Yes will prove fast enough, or substantial enough, to claw back the No camp's lead before polling day: well, we shall all have to wait and see.

Hamish Macdonell is a leading Scottish political commentator and former political editor of The Scotsman

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