I live in a relatively new housing estate in central Scotland. Like many recently built housing estates our area neighbours extensive social housing. The local primary school has a great mix of children and parents talk at the gates or in the playground when dropping off or picking up children. For nearly two and a half years the referendum was scarcely mentioned. But when the schools went back in August the referendum campaign was up and running and entering the final weeks, and people started to talk.
“have you had anyone at your door?”
Uniformly, across parents from social housing and those from the new estates the answer was no. This confused me. I thought it was just us. That our estate was identified in these demographic mapping exercises as clearly supporting one side or the other and consequently not worth bothering with. But it wasn’t just us. It was everyone. The media talked consistently of a massive ground campaign by yes supporters, contacting areas never previously canvassed for opinion. But not where I lived. Not in central Scotland. Not in a council area with two SNP MSPs. And watching the media something struck me. This massive ground campaign was filmed in one or two geographical areas.
Now I knew there were activists for the yes campaign in the area. indeed, one neighbour was an early adopter of the YES car sticker. But he did not have a window poster (in my area in a one and a half mile radius of my house they did not appear until the final week after an unfortunate incident earlier in the campaign, and it was the yougov poll showing yes in the lead that prompted window posters although even then no more than a handful with “no” outnumbering “yes” (disregarding the enthusiastic homes, one on each side where three posters appeared in the windows of one home)). So where was the campaign?
I know some people are uncomfortable knocking on doors (I did it myself for a party in the late 80s and early 90s when enthusiastic and devoid of cynicism and am conscious that forcing yourself into someone else’s personal area requires you to be in a particular mind set) and would have expected lots of leaflets. But we didn’t even have that. Over the more than two years of the campaign we had (up until the final week) five leaflets that had no been delivered by the Post Office. One was for yes, four were for no. When these leaflets were delivered the person did not knock at the door, did not want to engage. On two occasions I tried to go out to speak to the leafleter (partly out of a desire to get information, partly out of mischief given that I had some questions I has been trying to persuade someone to ask the politicians throughout the campaign) the leafleter rushed off. Once I recognised the local SNP councillor, who – following my cheery shout – darted round the corner as if attempting qualifying for the Commonwealth Games relay squad. We were getting hardly anything, but there was the Yes activist in the immediate area. What were they doing? Where were they going?
When I raised this at my work, in central Edinburgh, I expected colleagues to regale me with multiple tales of canvassers. But no. Despite people living across different parts of Edinburgh only one of my work colleagues (from a sample of ten I had chatted about it with) was canvassed. One, living in the city of Edinburgh had, apart from royal mail deliveries, never had any leaflets from either side.
This seemed bizarre.
But then I spoke to my parents in Dumfriesshire. They were canvassed four times by one side during the campaign, never by the other. Four times. Now, as a long time apathetic former activist four time seemed unnecessary. My mum and dad were pretty clear in their vote. They had been clear in their statements with the canvassers. When I canvassed (Admittedly more than twenty years ago) we usually relied on the first response, would note probability, and may go back as a check potential swings, or to encourage our supporters. And once identified it was about getting those supporters out to vote. But if the yes side was canvassing avowed no voters four times I had some queries. The media proclaimed the database of the yes campaign and the SNP hugely impressive. What sort of database needs you to go to the door of someone supporting the other side four times? What was the record keeping really like? And why, when I knew so many areas were uncanvassed, was the same series of streets in a small town in Dumfriesshire, being done four times?
The use of resources seemed inexplicable. Moreso, when told by parents that a team of sixty canvassers descended on their home town in the final weekend of the campaign for another go at the same streets in an area near the border that was nothing like SNP or pro independence territory – while I lived in central Scotland in a town with two SNP MSPs and had never had anyone at the door.
That weekend 6,000 yes supporters attended a protest at the BBC protesting against BBC bias and the temerity of the political editor of the BBC asking political questions. And we got another no leaflet. And no one from yes came to the door.
On the night that thousands of yes supporters rallied in George Square in Glasgow, less than half an hour away on the train was a sizeable chunk of a Scottish town – where ultimately over 100,000 people voted – where the yes campaign had never made any contact. The night that the rally took place in Glasgow I saw my neighbour, the yes activist. It was at the train station as he left for Glasgow and I got home from Edinburgh. Knowing that I watched pictures of the rally, and videos appeared, I was reminded of Kinnock’s rally at Sheffield. It looked like a victory rally. That night we had a no supporter at the door.
The following day I saw a car with two saltires drive round our estate. The driver stopped and dropped off boxes at my activist neighbour’s home. We did not get a leaflet until much later that night. Just after the one from no arrived.
I voted early on 18th September, completing my referendum journey. As I wandered round I reflected on questions I had raised with friends that were activists that had gone unanswered, questions that had been asked to representative bodies for the campaign based on readings of directives and other legislation that had been answered with one line emails, I reflected on my childhood weekends, on my family, and my job, and my home, and I reflected on a twitter exchange which exemplified a feeling that neither side really understood the emotions of the other and lacked any empathy. I got my ballot paper. I marked my cross.
That night I went to the local corner shop. I passed the car with two saltire driving around. The shopkeeper and I chatted about the number of people who had voted. He closed early to go to vote himself. I returned home and saw the car with the two saltire driving around my street aimlessly. What was the driver doing? Given there had been no canvass if this was a get out the vote operation where was he going? I stood at the door and watched it drive past my door three times in five minutes as it followed the loop of the road. Going round and round in circles.
I closed the door and waited for the results.