In July The Guardian newspaper asked several Scottish scribes for a short piece on the subject of the up-coming referendum. There’s some bullshit there, believe me, and to be fair, it isn’t all written by Welsh. But try this: after saying that in his own experience of USA and Ireland, Welsh doesn’t know anyone in either country who would go back to rule from London. Ergo, apparently, Scotland will never regret going it alone. I don’t mind bullshit, but I like it germane. USA and Ireland are such entirely different examples, historically and geographically, that they have nothing to do with the present debate.
More sense came from the former Episcopalian bishop, Richard Holloway. Intending to vote AYE himself, he says that whether it’s AYE or NAW in September the nationalists have already won: the day after the referendum Britain will never be the same. If NAW, Scotland will have far more powers within the Union – a good thing – and a thorough shake-up of the English regions will begin, also a good thing. In fact, if it’s AYE, the nationalists and all of us lose – they can’t keep their promises or realise their ambitions, and they won’t be able to pay the bills. We sure need protection from the worst of England, but independence is not the answer. To mix the metaphors, voting AYE is buying a pig in a poke, or jumping off a cliff.
The televised debate between Salmond and Darling, heart vs head, dreaming vs paying our way, will be interesting. It comes up next Tuesday. Salmond has far more to lose. But there will be no killer blow, no knock-outs. These are two seasoned operators going through their paces. There has certainly been a feel-good factor in the country around the Commonwealth Games, and I join in congratulating Glasgow and everyone concerned for putting on an excellent occasion for sharing, for supporting UNICEF, for simple fun. Shame it can’t last longer. The Nats certainly want some of the energy and star-dust to rub off onto them, but the Games are no reason for voting for independence. I do not lack ambition for Scotland. I want a robust identity, a good body politic, and a lot of self-determination. But what the independence crowd would have you believe is that in this world of interdependence, we can have all things our way, that they can promise the outcome of negotiations before they start. They are selling us Brigadoon.
They mock little Englanders. Nigel Farage and UKIP, they say, are dangerous people who want out of Europe. Agreed: Farage’s policies are crazy. And it’s easy to agree that David Cameron puts himself and the country into a hopeless position when he says he must negotiate terms for continuing membership (which the rest of the Union will never agree to) or he’s going to pull out. Risible. Futile. Dangerous. And how, pray, are the policies of the little Scotlanders who want out of the United Kingdom, qualitatively different? We are all in complex relationships with our neighbours and trading partners; ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’ are relative terms, not absolute.
It’s impossible not to agree with a senior figure in Scottish health on two important matters that were raised with him in a radio interview recently: firstly that people who feel they have some good measure of control over their lives are more likely to be in better health, generally speaking. As far as I know, that is not much more than a statement of the obvious. Secondly, that our beloved National Health Service is being broken up and hived off to privateers in England (and, tragically, Wales is being dragged along, although Welsh instincts are the same as ours), and we need protection from that. But it is impossible to say that this is a reason to vote for independence. Certainly, the SNP centralising tendencies and control-freakery deny any sense of real participation and control. This is a reason to maintain existing NHS devolution and negotiate more. And that will come. The monolithic politics of the United Kingdom is broken. London doesn’t have sway over regional matters any more.
And by the way, the history of London / English abuse of Scotland over the centuries is no sort of case for voting for independence. Yes there are, and always have been, problems with the Union. There would be problems with whatever dispensation we live under. And there are positives too. Do they think Scotland could have industrialised so successfully if we had been independent? Do they think we could have built up such a robust health service on our own? To find fault and give no credit is an easy game. A case for divorce that doesn’t honestly recognise indebtedness for the good times and puts all the blame for the bad times onto the other party is a fundamentally bad analysis, and the ensuing separation is doomed to result in real and bitter regrets as the realities sink in.
I have spoken to plenty of people, including young people, who are fully convinced of their own righteousness and fully persuaded of Scotland’s invincibility. It worries me. But we have to decide YES or NO, on 18 September. It requires a brute decision, there is no room for caveats on the ballot paper. I’m shocked that the Electoral Commission approved the form of the ballot paper.It will read ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’, to which the answer is YES or NO. ‘Country’ is a loose term, capable of nuances, with romantic associations. My home ‘country’ is Redesdale, the first valley in England south from Carter Bar, the Border point near Jedburgh. Should my ‘country’ be ‘independent’? Scotland has always been a country. The ballot paper should refer to an ‘independent state’. And it should read as a proposition, not a question, to which the voter crosses the box saying either ‘I AGREE’ or ‘I DO NOT AGREE’. The option of a cross in the ‘YES’ box on the ballot paper gives far too much momentum to those campaigning to agree with the question. The Nats aim to catch the irresistible ‘Yes we can’ slogan of the first Obama presidential campaign. And it’s all too easy to cast the other option, ‘NO’, as negative.
It worries me that the independence people are playing a pretty dishonest campaign, as though this is some election which we can reverse in four year’s time. Afterwards there will be all sorts of incriminations about things said, promises made, and facts hidden during the campaign, but the outcome is not reversible. It will be too late, there can be no re-run. And by the way, if the bowling club wants to change its constitution, normally two-thirds in favour is required. In this case, fifty per cent + one will carry the day. That’s democracy, of course. But it’s scary.
On the plus side, it has to be said that Scotland is an interesting place. People are talking to each other, discussing the issues, often with more heat than illumination, but nevertheless, engaging, and it’s all to the good. It’s certainly preferable to dull defeatism and complacency. Scotland is edgy, buzzing. And I sincerely hope it remains part of the United Kingdom. The real job is to be involved in Britain, not to go it alone.
Oh, and what this blog is supposed to be about: yes, the book is coming on fine, the day it sees daylight is getting closer. Ah, you thought I meant publishing my programme of August walks? Yes, that’s getting closer too. The second is closer to the first. There will be no walks till after I get back from Wales in mid-month.