The big beasts

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 23 June 2014 in Editor's note

Is the contribution of world leaders and figures relevant in the constitutional debate, and will it influence the people of Scotland, for whom it concerns?

President Obama, Hillary Clinton, the Pope… they don’t come much bigger than this. But what does it tell us about Scots and the view of Scots that it takes the so-called big beasts and ones that don’t even live here to be brought out to assist us in a decision that we are a told will be all of our own making?
When Obama intervened in the independence debate with his carefully worded support of the historic and special relationship the US and the UK has shared – one that incidentally took us into a war in Iraq – I, for one, took exception to the view that if the so-called leader of the free world thinks sticking with the Union is a good idea then we should all sheepishly fall into line.

I bristled at the comments made by the likes of a former special adviser to John Smith and John Reid that the First Minister should not somehow have the right to an opinion that differed from Obama. And cringed as the Better Together team went into overdrive in its infantile cut and paste approach to propaganda to produce suspiciously speedy ‘Nope’ [not ‘Hope’, gettit?] leaflets featuring Obama’s face. Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander welcomed Obama’s comments, saying they would resonate with many. But with whom? Who was this meant to persuade?

This is a President who, to all intents and purposes, has failed to live up to the expectations of his own electorate, a man that has presided over the continued operation of Guantanamo Bay, and a leader that could yet still encourage us back into a war in Iraq.

Alex Salmond’s message to President Obama was: ‘Yes, we can’. And why shouldn’t the democratically elected First Minister of Scotland ask the President of the United States to reflect on his remarks when the US has no place in a debate about our constitutional future?

And then Hillary Clinton, a woman tipped to become the next President of the US, dived in by expressing her hope that Scotland wouldn’t leave the UK. Johann Lamont seized on the comments to wield them as a weapon in the war to win the female vote in the referendum.

“When a woman like Hillary Clinton speaks out, she is always worth listening to,” said Lamont. “She stands for change [although clearly not this one] and her call for Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom – coming so soon after that other great democrat, President Barack Obama, did the same – shows what true progressives think.”

But other than a concern for US foreign policy and the UK’s support and assistance in that along with a place to house nuclear weapons, what has Clinton ever done for us? In my view, what she had to say smacked more of self-interest than any substantive analysis of the pros and cons of the independence debate. By what measure was it ‘progressive’ and ‘worth listening to’ – by whose reckoning? It depends how you weigh up, and indeed weight, the arguments for and against. But to simply sweep up comments by both Clinton and Obama as being progressive simply because of who they are is, in my opinion, lacking in credibility. To paraphrase that ‘old’ 1984 presidential candidate, Walter Mondale, where was the beef?

I admire many people for many different reasons but that doesn’t mean I would slavishly apply their logic, their reasoning or their concern to every decision I make.

And then we had the Pope who made the most innocuous reference of them all but which made the obvious headline – ‘the Pope says Nope…’

Less traction has, of course, been made of the Chinese leader Li Keqiang’s comments who, speaking at a joint press conference with David Cameron during an official visit to the UK, said he wanted a “strong, prosperous” Britain and a “united United Kingdom”. But then, given China considers the Dalai Lama a separatist and a traitor for advocating Tibetan self-rule, it is hardly surprising that sometimes even big beasts have to be kept in their box.

Meanwhile, veterans of Scottish politics at Westminster – Reid, Rifkind, Robertson, Brown, and now Blair – have been touring television studios near you to remind you that experience is all. It’s been too easy in the last few weeks, as the big guns from home and abroad line up to shoot down the idea of independence, and the Twittersphere has become a sewer blocked with the rantings of stupid people’s views to assume that the ‘Yes’ side consists of freaks, trolls and fools while the ‘No’s’ represent statesmen-like characters whose opinions are measured, intelligent, and are imbued with a generous modicum of sense, gravitas and global authority. The message is clear – who would you trust to run the show?

But the reality is, as ever, somewhat different.

And of course, it’s no accident that the ‘Yes’ supporters are being largely depicted as a bunch of misfits tweeting vileness spewed from the rank recesses of their dirty little minds. It doesn’t take the skills of investigative journalism to look at the profiles of some of these people to see that they have a handful of followers and few real friends. In normal life, you’d walk away, but Better Together retweet and generate outrage and then claim an orchestrated campaign from the very heart of the Scottish Government. It’s absurd.

Jim Sillars is a doughty campaigner and a man left tragically with too much time on his hands following the death of Margo. But the referendum has given him a new lease of life; golf and a villa in the Algarve have given way to town halls, community centres and supermarket car parks – the man is on a soapbox and a mission. And as someone who is usually so ‘glass half empty’, he tells me with conviction that ‘Yes will win’.

Almost every night he is speaking to the folk in the schemes, the working classes, the dispossessed. The undecideds. And he says, that despite the best efforts of the twitter trolls, who he accuses of doing the work of MI5 for them, of smearing ‘Yes’ and gifting Better Together a chance to point and sneer, ‘Independence – what, with them?’ that these people are turning to ‘Yes’.

So do the interventions of the political behemoths make any difference? Will they sway the undecided or simply remind us of a system that had gone wrong, of expenses scandals, of entitlement, of war?

Iraq still haunts modern politics and Tony Blair’s intervention is a ghost from conflicts past that could yet cost the Labour Party the Union. People are waiting for a black swan moment in this indy ref debate and the big beasts could do less to inspire us to stick with a union and more to remind us of its mistakes. And that’s the problem with big beasts; they can’t always be relied upon to be trained to heel.

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