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29 September 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 12:35pm

Conspiracy and paranoia reign in the grassroots Scottish independence movement

At a Yes rally following the Scottish independence referendum result, talk of conspiracy was ubiquitous. 

By Tim Wigmore

On Sunday afternoon, several hundred Yes voters today met for a rally outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. It was, as one speaker admitted to me, the political equivalent of “comfort eating”: self-congratulatory lauding of the bravery of Yes voters fused with anger at the grotesque unfairness of it all.

Fifty years ago, Richard Hofstadter attacked “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”. Hofstadter defined its practitioners as displaying “qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy”, observing that “the feeling of persecution is central” to the paranoid style. Without stretching the point, a comparison could be made to some of the most fervent independence campaigners in Scotland.

In the hour I spent at a Yes rally, talk of conspiracy was ubiquitous. Everyone I encountered believed that only some form of conspiracy had prevented an independent nation. At the mildest end, this was limited to anger at the media – especially the BBC – for bias against the Yes campaign, and failing to give equal airtime and respect to Yes.

But there was more. Much more. During my conversations I heard a collection of weird and wonderful conspiracies. One man simply insisted, “The result was a fix” – Yes had indeed prevailed in the popular vote, but it had been rigged, banana-republic style, to preserve the union. There were also dark allusions to postal voting, and allegations that thousands of postal votes had been sent by the No campaign to boost its votes. A string of fire alarms in Dundee on polling day were even put down to Westminster’s attempts to suppress the vote in Yes strongholds. The police were accused of destroying CCTV footage of Yes supporters being attacked by No campaigners.

It is always an easy game to find a group of oddballs from a political group and make them out to be representative of the wider movement. The paranoia and belief in conspiracy I encountered is certainly not representative of the 1,617,989 who plumped for Yes 10 days ago.

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But the mood of these Yes supporters is still deeply problematic for the wider independence cause. If this eclectic bunch is seen as being the only people who bother to keep the independence flame alive, it will put those lacking their penchant for conspiracy off. Floating voters viewing Yes campaigners as weirdoes to be avoided at all costs would be a disaster for the Scottish independence movement.

Unsurprisingly given that many outside the Scottish Parliament did not believe that the vote had been fair, no one seemed very interested in convincing those that had voted No to change their minds in the event of a second referendum. If, indeed, they wanted a second referendum at all: several people felt that the Scottish Parliament should simply unilaterally declare independence and be done with it all.

The emphasis was only on the heroism of those who had voted Yes; they represented what one poster called “Scotland the Brave”. The No campaign was depicted as more than just wrong: fundamentally and inherently dishonourable. Pictures of Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband – called “The three stoodges”- were on a poster at the front of the rally. The caption beneath their heads simply read “Traitors”.

No doubt all the tub-thumping made a few hundred Yes voters feel rather better about themselves. But it may have made a casual passer-by who, after prevaricating, voted No ten days ago less likely to regret their decision. “Don’t blame me I voted Yes” t-shirts don’t send much of an inclusive message. What, I asked one campaigner, do you say to those who voted No to convince them to plump for Yes in the future? “Open your eyes to all the lies.”