When the course of history is on the line, democracy is a raw, vicious and filthy business

A little light intimidation has always been part and parcel of the game

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When much the most eloquent Scottish advocate of preserving the Union took a vicious beating last week, it had – in a savage irony that will offer him no consolation – nothing to do with the referendum exciting such passion north of the border.

Just as Labour’s Jim Murphy, a Better Together chieftain, was suspending his campaigning over security fears, George Galloway was having his jaw broken and his stomach kicked in Notting Hill. That the alleged attacker was a Jewish man enraged by Mr Galloway’s trenchant thoughts on Gaza puts into perspective the level of menace steering the independence debate towards its close on 18 September.

So far, there have been no reports from Scotland of violence on the scale suffered by Mr Galloway, whose speeches on the matter have been by light years the best made by anyone on either side, and to whom we wish a quick recovery. Had the forensic genius who dismantled a congressional committee on Iraq debated Alex Salmond last week, the Better Together campaign would be coasting to victory.

Instead, it was left to Alistair Darling to make a dreadful error by presuming that the mantra about sterling that won him the first debate would work the same magic in the second. He sounded like a facile broken record and took a hiding on a metaphorical par with Mr Galloway’s.

So it was that a YouGov poll this week found the No camp’s lead sharply narrowed to six points, supposedly leaving the outcome too close to call. As always, the wisdom of the betting crowd is the most reliable electoral guide, and on Betfair the odds on the No vote remain about 1-3 (about a 77 per cent chance of victory).

Even if the punters are sceptical about the Yes surge, the No camp will be riven by the kind of panic that led Norman Tebbit, on “Wobbly Wednesday” after a similarly alarming poll in 1987, to grab Lord Young by the lapels and yell: “We’re going to lose this fucking election.” The Tories won a landslide. Yet whether or not that proves a referendum omen, there is no denying that this now looks like a competitive race, and the news has electrified a debate I find myself watching from afar with a mixture of contempt, terror and pure envy.

 

All the contempt is for the Better Together gang, who continue to hint at being SNP sleepers. The indescribably cretinous poster launched on Monday by Mr Darling must have been designed to help Mr Salmond. It features a couple with two daughters beside the legend: “I love my family. I’m saying No Thanks.” Does Mr Darling really believe that independence-minded parents who see it will have an epiphany and shriek: “Och, I did’nae realise before, but it’s crystal clear now, a Yes vote would mean I don’t love my kids, so I’ll be voting No or social services will take them into care”?

The dread, meanwhile, is that this brand of mesmerising idiocy will fuel such resentment that Mr Salmond could yet spring the upset. In which case, bereft of all the left and centre-left Scottish MPs who act as a brake on the shrill nationalism we see coming to the boil with the rise of Ukip, God have mercy on our Sassenach souls.

As for the envy, how can a resident of a country as beset by political lethargy as England fail to look upon the sheer vibrancy of this debate without feeling jealous? When Mr Murphy whines about intimidation, he sounds like the Match of the Day pundit prissily insisting that a mass brawl is the last thing the public wants to see. It is exactly what the public wants to see, because visible confirmation that the stakes are high is a visceral, vicarious thrill.

Electoral politics is a fantastically brutal combat sport. When the course of history is on the line, democracy is a raw, vicious, often filthy business in which the gentility and mannerliness Mr Murphy appears to expect becomes an overpriced luxury item. Without condoning violence or the threat of it, a little light intimidation is, to borrow from football cliché again, part and parcel of the game. The battle for and against Scottish independence is not a spinsters’ gathering in an Edinburgh tea room. It is a Gorbals tear up on a Saturday night – I know our Scots readers will enjoy the cheap stereotyping – after Celtic and Rangers have both lost.

This is no moment for anyone who claims to care desperately about saving the union to suffer a fit of the vapours because a few Yes-supporting diehards are being beastly. The Respect MP for Bradford West showed more stoicism after being hideously beaten and kicked than Jim Murphy at being threatened.

If Mr Murphy cannot grow a pair without delay, and if Mr Darling is determined to sabotage his campaign with insanely intelligence-insulting posters, they should go to the wounded warrior, and beg him to tour Scotland, on a stretcher if need be, as their proxy. His guts may be bruised, but Mr Galloway has more of them than the entire No gang put together, and even with a broken jaw speaks infinitely better about why the union should be saved than these asses could dream of doing with their jawbones intact.

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Scottish independence: Civility returns to the campaign as polls narrow further  

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