“Women do like honesty more than men” says the lady next to me, and it’s clear from the start gender generalisations are not going to be for the faint-hearted tonight, “I wish somebody would just admit that this is a leap of faith”. She then moves to sit even closer to the front, evidently some people like to actually sniff their politicians, not just see and hear them. The leaflet on my chair calls itself my ‘free guide to the referendum’ but is clearly free and weighted, claiming with a rather nice play on words that “independence will be the best thing for generations”. I am sitting with two other mums from school, some of my only genuinely undecided friends, and then am excited that next to them is Mary Moriarty. I smile at Moriarty, one of my heroes, in a slightly crazed fashion and she smiles politely back. Check us out, I say to my mummy friends as Nicola Sturgeon and co are shuffling into position, check us out getting involved with politics.
And lots of other people are too. South Leith Parish Church hall is packed, there are people standing and they will stand for nearly two hours, I am moved to see women holding babies and children sitting on the floor. There is a crèche for kids too which seems remarkably inclusive and civilized. This is the “undecided Edinburgh women” debate, which sounds like a really boring and unsuccessful Beyoncé song. The atmosphere is serious, tense almost, this is a group of women who understand the gravity of the decision they are being asked to make. The Chair – on the poster as Vicky Allan of the Sunday Herald but to us another mum from the school gates – welcomes and introduces. We have Nicola Sturgeon and children’s author Lari Don for yes. For No its Kezia Dugdale and Cat Headley. If anyone is going to make any of the yessers in the room change their mind its Dugdale, and by the end of the evening we are all going to be feeling very sorry for Headley. She is a victim of what the Better Together campaign does so well (or badly, depending on which way you look at it) which is to wheel out any reasonably presentable and articulate woman between the age of 25 and 35 they can find . The young woman gets to feel special and better together get to feel young and hip, but its all a bit lacking. Blimey, I find myself thinking, I bet even I could be a better together campaigner.
Anyhow they had tossed a coin to see who was going to go first and Nicola had one. She immediately starts doing something she will do incredibly well throughout the evening: she helps us to imagine things being different. “If parliaments across the world looked a bit more like this the world would be a better place” she tells the room full of women of different age, class and race. You’re damn right love, the women think back. Sturgeon is not here to persuade that Independence is a “magic wand” but to offer us a once in a lifetime opportunity, because in a country that could be the 14th richest in the world it is outrageous that by 2020 children’s charities have predicted there will be 100,000 more children in poverty. She is clever and inspiring, and humble too, she has set a timer because she has ‘a tendency to go on’.
Next up is Kezia Dugdale who goes a little off piste by talking about feminism. She speaks good sense but I am unsure whether the act of describing oneself as ‘an unapologetic feminist” is in itself apologetic. Her impassioned arguments, that only 2% of engineering apprenticeships are taken by women, that there are 37% less people going to college than there were in 2007, all serve to make you think “yes, this is crap, that is why I am voting yes” rather than anything else. We don’t need in independence to improve childcare we are told, and if we were handing over our vote to Dugdale we might believe her, but sadly we all know that is not really what a No vote means.
Lari Don is next to speak, and she delivers the kind of touchy feely, arty farty presentation that I really like, but I know my undecided friend is not going to be into. Her business is imagining futures. She creates problems for her characters and demands they solve them themselves. Given the problem of 70,000 food bank users and a food industry worth 13 billion pounds; given the challenge of a quarter of people in fuel poverty in a country with 25% of Europe’s wind power resources, Don asks us to turn the page and ask what happens next? We choose between future N, where we let someone else find a solution, or future Y, where we work it out for ourselves.
Then its crunch time for Cat Headley, who I am sure is a very lovely and clever woman, it’s just for some reason half the room seemed to have a taste for her blood. “I am voting No because I don’t see any reason to vote yes” she says to the First Big Groan from the audience of the evening, and so begins a round of Not Really Getting The Point. Asking for serious answers to serious questions is not scare-mongering, its responsible, and the SNP would want independence regardless of what the answers to these questions are. (erm , yes). The SNP have wanted independence for 80 years, at times of war and peace, poverty and prosperity, oil or no oil. (erm, yes again). The Yes campaign either ignores the downside or believes it’s worth it. (ah, yes here lies the point. They believe it’s worth it because they believe in independence as a right and a freedom and something less tangible than facts and figures. ) We are warned that we can’t choose on the basis that everything we like will stay and everything we don’t will go and suddenly I am worried. You mean I can’t lose Boris Johnson and keep Cbeebies? Maybe it’s time for a rethink…
Then it’s time for questions. I don’t like questions. When I was little I used to hide in the toilets when it was the question bit when we had visitors in assembly. A lot of the questions here are just rants, they don’t have a question mark at the end. There is some boring predictable stuff about Alex Salmond and currency, but some crackers too. One lady tells us that the Quakers invented monopoly to show the folly of capitalism, she says that when someone has bought Mayfair and park lane they can always get shafted by picking the extra tax card out of community chest. I am with her when she talks about Land Tax, and I like her style. There are more questions about DEVO-MAX, which I assume is a bit like pepsi max but with a lot more calories. And then an impassioned speech from a lady behind me who sounds like she is crying. Look at me she says, I have found a babysitter and come here tonight and Nicola Sturgeon is hearing my words and what I am saying. No one in Westminster can hear me. I don’t trust MPs, they don’t go to debates, but I can take the 31 bus to Holyrood and see what’s going on. I am moved, and touched, and desperate to silence the little voice inside of me that is saying the 31 bus does not go past Holyrood…
Perhaps the most moving point of the evening was when the lady who used to run my kids’ gaelic playgroup stood up. Usually someone I think of as quiet and easy-going, she was passionate and articulate. “I have always been a labour supporter”, she said, “but Kezia you are asking us to vote no and then vote labour next. But we have been voting labour for years and that has not worked out or us, that’s not who we get. Why can’t we vote yes and then vote for you?”. We have been all pretty won over by Dugdale’s hard line on inequality and her apparently genuine socialist values, and here Nicola Sturgeon plays a master-stroke: She would love to be deputy to Kezia Dugdale. Suddenly everyone in the room is imagining a very different Scotland, with these women at our helm. Suddenly there is a world of possibilities, and we have a say. Which I suppose is the point.
But time is ticking on. My pencil needs sharpening, the crèche must send the kiddies home, and Vicky Allan’s face is a delightful shade of pink from too much heat and heated debate. I don’t know if the debate helped the genuinely undecided. But I felt inspired to see politicians behaving decently and thoughtfully, and to see my community so actively and passionately engaged in the shaping of its own future.