A Divided Country: Intolerance and Compassion

Tom Wilson 16 September 2014

I have now been campaigning in Scotland for a week and, as the referendum gets closer, passions have hit their peak – leading to jubilant highs and extraordinary lows for campaigners and the Scottish people alike. What’s happening now is truly unprecedented in British political history.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the referendum is how it gives a modestly-sized, but very loud and visible, extreme on both sides such exposure. The Orange Order, a hugely controversial sectarian organisation rejected by Better Together, held a 15,000 strong march on the streets of Edinburgh in favour of the union. Meanwhile, the abuse and intimidation of No supporters and English and Welsh people by the fringes of the Yes campaign is a regular occurrence – and something I have experienced first-hand.

While campaigning with the Labour 'No' Battle Bus in Dundee, things very quickly took a turn for the worse: a Yes supporter followed me around in the morning, shouting at anyone who took literature and accusing the No side (and me specifically) of supporting child abuse.

Later that day, when a hurriedly arranged Yes rally crashed our stall and blocked off all access to the bus, I was told multiple times to ‘f*** off back to England’. The Scottish No campaigners were called ‘traitors’ and interrogated in an attempt to find out where they lived. Yes supporters photographed our faces, filmed us and abused those who interacted with us. This kind of intimidation and rhetoric chimes of that used by racist organisations like the BNP against people with roots in Asia or the Middle East.

As frightening as this was, it was not just the worst of politics I experienced in Dundee, but also some of the best. The man who had been following me in the morning was ushered off by a security guard from a nearby shopping centre, who afterwards turned to me and said he was a Yes supporter but abuse was intolerable. He offered safety for anyone who felt intimidated and needed a break. Other Yes voters often came up to No campaigners to check that we were okay after particularly nasty cases of abuse and threats.

The true divide in Scotland is not between No and Yes, but intolerance and compassion. Talk amongst campaigners is now often turning to Scotland post-referendum, particularly fears that violence and antagonism could last for months after the vote – regardless of the result. But the referendum has also brought out the best in people, and it is this that makes me hopeful that, no matter what Scotland decides, the tolerant and moderate wings of each side can come together to reject the threats, abuse and intimidation of the extremes. Otherwise, we could see Scotland itself split in two, not just the UK.