The first ‘yes’ campaign volunteer knocked on my door towards the end of last year. She was a member of the Scottish Socialist Party. I glanced at her dog-eared tally sheet — in my old block of 40 flats, only three residents had said they would vote no. In this neglected pocket of Edinburgh there are men who roll up their tracksuit bottoms to show off their prison tags. It is made up of decaying towers and pebble-dashed tenements. The people here are going to vote for change. Who can blame them?
Now that I have moved to a more genteel suburb outside of the city, a further three yes activists have attempted doorstep conversions. I have heard appeals to my head, my heart and my wallet from nationalists who are as dogged as Jehovah’s Witnesses. What motivates them to plunge into a cause that was, until recently, the preserve of a marginalised few?
One factor is consistently overlooked. Like most Jehovah’s Witnesses, my door-knockers tend to be converts. They have a born-again zeal that propels them on to the streets to share their faith. Their appearance demonstrates that a disengaged electorate is ripe for conversion to the nationalist cause.
Alan Bissett, a prominent ‘yes’ campaigner, made a recommendation recently. ‘On the day of the referendum, “yes” folks should be on the streets giving out not leaflets or flyers, but flowers.’ That’s what Moonie proselytisers used to do in airport terminals.
Without these converts, the dream of Scottish independence would be confined to SNP apparatchiks and a small slice of the voting public. Without all their campaigning, the words ‘End London rule’ would languish in faded paint on motorway flyovers.
Most of the converts I have spoken to cite political disengagement as the reason they support independence. They have finally found relief from political boredom. They want change and the referendum offers a quick fix.
Alex Salmond knows that old-timers don’t shout the virtues of their cause through a megaphone. It’s converts who aggressively seek recruits. They give themselves completely to their new obsession. Which is what makes them so valuable — and volatile.
The ‘zeal of the convert’ is a measurable phenomenon. A 2007 Pew survey of all American religious believers found that converts were more ardent than non-converts both in their beliefs and their practice. The early Christians were nervous of converts. St Paul is explicit in his first letter to Timothy: a church elder ‘must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil’.
Converts to many creeds, political as well as religious, tend to be excitable and angrily dismissive of non-believers. That helps explain why some Scottish nationalists behave so horribly on the internet. We call them ‘cybernats’ with mock affection, but at times their bile can be so bitter that I wonder if we should drop the cute nomenclature. (After J.K. Rowling’s £1 million donation to the Better Together campaign she suffered the kind of abuse that would make a prison guard blush.)
These new nationalists remind me of Ukip supporters. Nigel Farage is embarrassed by the gushing devotion and crazed invective of ‘cyberkippers’. When asked about them in private, he murmurs that they tend to be — you’ve guessed it — ‘recent converts’.
The new believers are both an asset and a problem for the ‘yes’ camp. The campaign has a disciplined and professional public face, yet it is constantly embarrassed by its loony fringe. Nationalists with hair-trigger tempers make for disastrous headlines. Yet the sheer energy of these converts is undeniably an asset. They will knock on doors until their knuckles are raw. They will spend every spare hour traipsing up worn tenement stairwells in pursuit of a percentage point. They are not discouraged by polls; being true believers, they dismiss them out of hand.
After two televised debates, bookmakers put the chances of a Unionist victory at 84 per cent. But the quasi-religious determination of the ‘yes’ campaigners is the wild card. Scots who never usually vote in elections — like my former neighbours — are going to turn up in numbers that are impossible to determine.
What will become of the new nationalists in the event of a ‘no’ vote? The most committed ‘yes’ campaigners will still be wound up like spring pistons. It is hard to imagine that this energy will quietly dissipate if they don’t get their way in a fortnight’s time.