For a few years now, I’ve been campaigning at a Pensioners for Independence street stall in a douce town, situated in a local authority which had a higher than average No vote in 2014 and one of the highest Remain votes in 2016. We shut down twice during the Covid lockdowns but are back out fortnightly – in all weathers; cold and rain can get us the sympathy vote but the worst combination is wind and rain which play havoc with our leaflets in spite of our plastic cover weighted down with stones.
We get such a range of reactions to our banners and offer of leaflets and I can never predict from folk’s age or appearance whether their response is going to be positive, negative or neutral. Those who don’t express a view will shake their heads or say no thanks to the proffered leaflet but others will simply ignore us – as they have a perfect right to do. The banners which come from Grassroots Oban and Believe in Scotland can be read from across the street and we see some folk slowing down to do so though not everybody reacts.
Supporters, if they don’t stop for a chat, will smile or give us the thumbs-up or even a clenched fist which I take in the spirit of solidarity in which it’s offered. Some say that they’re glad to see us out campaigning, so even if we’re just raising morale a wee bit that’s fine with me. I got a morale boost myself in November when a COP 26 delegate from Brazil stopped at the stall to see what it was about; he understood almost straight away, saying, “You don’t have full control of your country”. And I thought, “If he can see it ……..” Occasionally I’ll be told by somebody that they don’t want a leaflet cause they already agree with us and, thinking of the boxes of the things I’ve got upstairs, I plead with them to take it, saying they can give it to a pal that’s swithering or put it through their neighbour’s letterbox.
Some independence supporters want a referendum right now, or want a UDI; recently, another was concerned about civil unrest if there was just a small majority in favour and in fact he was on the move from Yes to No.
We have some ‘regulars’ who always stop for a blether but far and away the folk with most to say are ex-Labour Party members who’ve seen the light. I now know when a five-minute monologue is coming and as an ex-Labour voter myself, I listen sympathetically. How I wish that the Scottish branch of that party would come to its senses: they could become a real party, maybe even permanently part of a post-independence coalition government, helping to enact the social justice policies they care so passionately about. Changing their rose logo into a sort of thistle is not going to make a huge difference, I don’t think, though I suppose it shows they’re at least thinking about their situation – or should I maybe be saying instead that they think their supporters are easily fooled?
Some of those who’re against us aren’t shy about letting us know. We’ve had a couple of shaven-headed lads in shiny suits (think Ruth Davidson’s “burly men”), who gave off an air of menace from 20 yards, shouting “Defend the union!”. We’ve been told we’re “lying” and also “delusional”, but these were shouted as the blokes ran past so we never found out what they based these charges on. In 2020, a young man came right up to me shouting, “What do you think of Derek McKay?”, as if the cause stood or fell on the actions of one person.
A few weeks ago, one elderly woman threatened to hit Janet with her walking stick when she was offered a leaflet; Janet is made of stern stuff and was neither put out nor put off by this. On the same day, a belligerent man demanded to know if Davie and I were “Republicans”. We both said that we were in favour of a Scottish republic and tried to talk about a post-independence referendum on the monarchy but it turned out he was referring to Irish Republicanism, after he’d taken a quick look at our banner comparing pensions in Scotland with those in independent Ireland and instantly seen red. Far and away the worst experience though, was with a well-dressed man who approached the stall as we were starting to pack up and told us that what Nicola Sturgeon needed was “a bullet right in the middle of her forehead”. Very taken aback, though I know this is par for the course on some online sites, I told him that was an appalling thing to say but he kept going and I had to stop listening and reacting. He then addressed only Davie who told me later he’d moved on to making racist comments.
I’m not that quick-thinking, sometimes coming up with a response hours later. One passing shout from a “Help for Heroes” supporter was “You won’t live to see it” and before this guy got up enough speed, Davie called after him, “But you will”. One woman came over in a great rage, snatching up leaflets and shouting that she wanted “some samples of propaganda” for her daughter’s school project. I should have told her to sit down with a dictionary first – and leave her daughter to do her own project.
Davie is also more patient than I am and says he likes talking to supporters of the Union as he feels he learns a lot from them and his quiet approach can be very calming. By no means though are they all angry, sour or aggressive or have faces like torn scones: some of the “regulars” I mentioned earlier are against independence but are happy to stop for a chat about the weather or to tell us about a cheeky waitress in a local cafe or to comment on the fact that we’re back out on the street undaunted.
Among those who say nothing in response are those whose negative body language is very revealing. There’s the sorrowful shake of the head, but my ‘favourite’ is the full body shudder at the very thought of Scotland becoming independent. It’s these completely closed minds that sadden me. If I saw a No stall, I’d be straight over to see what they had to say.
I’ve learned to try meeting the eyes of as many people as possible when proffering a leaflet because although the dominant person might say “No”, sometimes the other of the pair or another in the group will tentatively put their hand out and I hand it to them with a sense of satisfaction. Though it could be they’re just feeling sorry for me.
A fairly common response here to the offer of a leaflet is “You must be joking” but I had to laugh after getting a “Hell, no”. We can also get mutterings about “the SNP” and in vain do we tell these folk we’re not asking them to vote for a political party but are a group of pensioners, part of the wider Yes movement. The existence of this movement comes as a big surprise to some but the biggest shock of all came to a couple I spoke to on my first outing as a street campaigner who told me they’d never before met somebody who’d voted Yes. They’d started off by asking “Why does Nicola Sturgeon hate the English?” before telling me in detail about a Daily Telegraph article which seemed to be suggesting that she was most ungrateful and should be taken out for dinner, then taken by the hand and asked this! Where do you begin with these folk? I kicked off by saying I found the story slightly sleazy and was gratified to note that the woman started looking a bit uncomfortable, though not her partner – he was mystified.
There is much mis-information out there. We’re told that we “wouldn’t survive without the UK treasury” or that we “get our money from England” or that we’d be “completely impoverished” or we “won’t get any pension if Scotland was independent”. Do any of these folk ever wonder what happens to their taxes and N I contributions? Or how other small European countries manage to survive? Dave McEwan Hill from Yes Cowal had a letter in The National on 15 March about a woman who burst into their Forward Shop waving one of their leaflets and shouting that “Scotland can’t be independent. We get half our money from England”. He went on to say that “she wasn’t for having a debate” and he pointed out that “the independence movement still has some work to do”; he’s got that dead right.
“Do you have a degree in economics?” I was once asked imperiously by a woman who put down her two shopping bags and then told me she had a friend who was an economist and this friend of hers said we wouldn’t survive. Again, this was on one of my early days but I managed to keep the conversation going, resisting the urge to tell her about the degree I did have, and after several minutes we parted on quite friendly terms. I knew I hadn’t changed her mind but after a bad start, we’d managed to have an exchange of views.
Some passers-by will say they “like being British” or they “like things the way they are” or once, that the independence movement was “just populism”. We’ve had a few folk recently worried about Putin invading us on Independence Day plus 1, and just a couple of days ago, one bloke was insisting that we wouldn’t be allowed into NATO if we gave up those nuclear weapons at Faslane. I thought later of telling him to look at a map and see what a strategic position we occupied in north west Europe which was why NATO would want us, if we wanted to be in.
“But I’m English”, responded one woman who’d never heard of English Scots for Yes and nor did she want to. This was unlike one couple who were on the second day of their move to Scotland; both were independence-supporting and took the cards though they declined the offer of badges as they “hadn’t met their neighbours yet”. Their support put them in a minority: according to a recent survey by the universities of Edinburgh and Essex, 72% of English-born voters in Scotland are for No. We regularly get English supporters at the stall, though there’s no denying there’s much missionary work to be done.
Some folk on the Yes side need to get out from behind their laptops and off that social media and become much more aware of the range of views we get on the streets. Nothing is certain. There are many folk still to be persuaded out there. And it can be good fun.