Independence debate sees boom in Town Hall meetings

'Better Together' Leader Alistair Darling (left) and 'Yes Scotland' Chief Executive Blair Jenkins (right) have both crossed the Minch recently to take part in meetings in Stornoway Town Hall (pictured below).
'Better Together' Leader Alistair Darling (left) and 'Yes Scotland' Chief Executive Blair Jenkins (right) have both crossed the Minch recently to take part in meetings in Stornoway Town Hall (pictured below).

Stornoway Town Hall and villages halls throughout the islands have seen a massive surge in public meetings as local interest in the independence debate builds.

The last 12 months have seen politicians and big names from the Nationalist and Unionist camps cross the Minch in attempts to convince islanders of their point of view.

But it’s not just the campaign Chiefs who have taken to stages across the Western Isles. Local politicians, students and business people have also stepped up in an attempt to answer questions and convince listeners that there is just one way to vote come September 18th.

It has been more than a year since I first attended an independence debate in the islands, organised by Sir E Scott School in Tarbert, Isle of Harris. All the pupils who took part will be old enough to vote in the referendum and gave the panel, made up of councillors, a run for their money on the debating stakes.

Since then every island debate and campaign meeting I have been to has been different and unique. However, all have had one thing in common - barely and empty seat in the house.

There are just three months left before a decision has to be made but the appetite for the town hall meetings appears to be stronger than ever.

Here at the Gazette we are getting ready to hold our own Town Hall debate at the start of September. Keep looking online and in the paper for more information in the coming weeks.

But, in the meantime, here is analysis of the campaigns so far from ‘Better Together’ Leader Alistair Darling and ‘Yes Scotland’ Chief Blair Jenkins - fresh from their Stornoway Town Hall performances.

An awful lot can happen in the last three months

Stornoway Gazette: June 12th 2014

“It’s been a very long campaign. One thing I would say for the future is nobody should have a two and a half year referendum campaign.”

That was one piece of advice the leader of ‘Better Together’ had while in Stornoway to mark the 100 days to go point in the Scottish Independence Referendum campaign.

But instead of appearing battle weary, the drive to see Scotland stay within the Union appeared to step up a notch in Stornoway Town Hall on Monday night.

Talking to the Gazette after addressing the packed out hall Mr Darling said: “We have built very firm foundations and have been consistently ahead of the goal but I’m not complacent about that because an awful lot can happen in the last three months.”

He continued: “People can see the finishing post, people can see polling day, and that’s beginning to concentrate the mind. People are deciding: ‘Well this is the way I’m going to vote,’ and obviously both sides will want to make their case and convince as many people as possible to vote for their point of view.”

The attentions of the former Chancellor of the Exchequer are now focused on getting people involved locally over the next few months ahead of the vote on September 18th.

“For our part,” he said, “we’ve got to motivate as many people as possible because I’d hate for this decision to be reached on a narrow vote, on one or something like that, which would leave a deeply divided country.”

As the official referendum period kicks off the need to engage communities directly is coming to the fore. The Leader of ‘Better Together’ saw the talk on Lewis as particularly important because of his family ties to the islands.

“I’ve been coming here since 1954,” he said. “It means a lot to me. It’s very much part of what I am. I’ve got multiple identities, like so many people in the country nowadays. This is an important part of it.”

‘Yes’ Chief predicts high emotion

Stornoway Gazette: May 29th 2014

The next stage of the independence campaign is in sight for the Yes Scotland’ Chief as September’s historic referendum fast approaches.

“I think what people are not yet fully anticipating or seeing, ” said Blair Jenkins on a visit to the Stornoway Gazette office last week, “is just how much emotional energy there will be around this debate in the final four, five, six weeks.”

He continued: “I think that if people now regard the Independence debate as quite a dominant issue in Scottish life, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

The former Director of Broadcasting at STV and Head of News at the BBC was in the Western Isles for a public meeting in Stornoway Town Hall last Friday, rallying the pro independence supporters, a key tactic of the Yes Scotland’ group.

A grassroots’ movement is how Jenkins described the campaign, and where he believes the Yes’ camp have the advantage.

“It was intended that it will be a heavily localised, grassroots campaign, on the basis that people are probably most influenced by conversations from people they know, like and respect, rather than what anyone says to them on the telly, ” he said.

“I think Better Together have a largely media based campaign, ” Jenkins continued. “There is much less sign of the local activity and campaigning in the way that we have focused on.

“I expect that will continue to be a distinction between the two.”

But as the referendum on September 18th draws nearer the Yes’ Chief is well aware that many of the public have so far chosen to sidestep the debate.

“There is no doubt that a significant amount of the population has made the decision that they are only going to tune in at the very end, ” he said.

“I think that what none of us can predict with any certainty is how late in the day significant parts of Scotland will make up their mind.”

But for others the national debate has been a stepping stone, a refreshing change to the political landscape, drawing young people, both pro union and pro independence, into the fold.

“I do actually think Scotland is going to benefit out of this, whatever the outcome in September, and I absolutely believe we’ll get a yes, ” said Jenkins.

“There is a longer term benefit to Scotland in the fact that lots and lots of people, and we’re talking about literally now tens of thousands of people, who might never have got involved in civic engagement, discussions of options in policy and politics, are now engaged.”

He continued: “There are some really smashing young debaters. That’s one of the real benefits Scotland’s going to get from this. People won’t just be passive.”

This appetite for change, according to Jenkins, is not just an island phenomena, but one which he has witnessed throughout the Scottish mainland too.

“I think a lot of communities around Scotland, post a yes vote, won’t just want to say: ok we’ll go back to sleep and let every decision be made in Edinburgh’, they’ll say: look we’re happy if you shape the big stuff but all the stuff that affects us locally we would like as much as possible to make our own decision here’.”

On that thought Jenkins added: “Scotland is going to be a very busy and interesting country going forward.”