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Saturday, 22 February 2014

Let's not fall out over this

On a night out in Glasgow a couple of months ago, a friend-of-a-friend threatened to hit me because he perceived that my views on Scottish independence were somewhat at odds with his own. By 'somewhat at odds' I mean that I told him that I was undecided about how to vote in the referendum and presented some aspects of what I would regard as the case against independence (there are, of course, good arguments in favour of it, but since this chap was already making some of them quite forcibly, I felt obliged to present an alternative view). Sadly, my equivocation on this matter seemed to offend his braveheart sensibilities to the extent that he felt the best way to ‘win’ the ‘debate’ was to threaten violence. Yes, I mean actual physical violence. And this was an educated man in his forties. I was reminded of that old PG Wodehouse line about it not being difficult to tell the difference between a little ray of sunshine and a Scotsman with a grievance.

Now, I understand that this fellow's reaction was more about his personal issues than about his politics, but I do find this episode depressingly symptomatic of some of the grislier aspects of the referendum debate. You’ll often get the same kind of response (albeit without the threat of physical violence) on internet discussion boards if you express doubts about some aspect or other of the post-referendum Utopia envisaged by Yes campaigners. It’s as if people don’t want to hear the counter arguments and would rather shut the debate down when the ball isn’t rolling their way. The debate, such as it is, appears to have taken on some of the characteristics one would normally associate with discussions about religious faith, where the most important thing is not to win the argument; the most important thing is to have faith, because your faith that Scotland will be better off after a 'yes' vote over-rides any questions or doubts.

The SNP’s white paper set out a vision for Scotland as a modern, low tax, small-government, business-friendly wee country. But at the same time, it said that we're also going to retire earlier, have bigger pensions and have a bigger welfare blanket within a public sector-driven economy. Nobody has satisfactorily explained how that can possibly work. Is it that unreasonable to ask how the new Scotland is going to be able to ignore economic rules that apply to every other country? All of those questions about passports, jobs, currency, embassies etc. have to be addressed. It simply isn’t good enough to expect us to vote first and worry about the details later.
The No campaign, by way of contrast, tends to fall back on the "we’re all doomed!" line of argument, which is just as abject. We won’t get into the EU! We won’t have a proper currency! We’ll go bankrupt once the oil runs out! Businesses will flee in droves! There would clearly be hurdles to overcome, but I find it hard to believe that an independent Scotland couldn’t be made to work, one way or another. But before I commit, I’d like to have a clearer picture of what kind of country I’ll be living in after a 'yes' vote. Will it be significantly different to the one we live in now? Will we better off? How do we quantify the ways in which we will be better off? Will my children and their children and their children’s children be better off?

The overall standard of debate has been poor and both sides really need to up their game, but there is one crucial difference between the Yes and No campaigns. The ballot paper will be quite clear; come September 18th, we’ll have the option of independence or the status quo. The Yes team makes a lot of noise about their opponents not having a plan, but the truth is that the No campaign doesn’t need a plan, beyond pointing out the various downsides of breaking a 300-year old arrangement. A 'no' vote (or an abstention) is a vote for the status quo. And, all things being equal, the status quo will prevail if people think that change might make them worse off than they are just now. The onus, therefore, is almost entirely on the Yes campaign to convince the electorate that Scotland will be better off making that change.

In some ways, Mr Salmond is as cunning as a fox wi’ two heids, but he does give the impression that not only does he want us to vote for independence, he’d also like a say in how the rest of the UK gets to respond to that vote. It would be more dignified to accept that, if Scotland votes to break up the union, we’ll have made our bed and what’s left of the UK will then make whichever decisions it thinks are in its best interests. That ‘reduced’ UK will have no requirement to take into account anything that Scotland would like or wish for. And why should it? Former members of a club don’t get to have a say on what goes on in that club once they have left. The Yes team should stop making accusations about bullying and just stick to answering the questions. Apart from anything else, do we really want our country to be led by the kind of people who cry ‘bully’ when arguments don’t go their way?
And yes, I know that voting for independence is not the same as voting to be governed by the SNP, but since Mr Salmond is the sine qua non of the Yes campaign, it is not unreasonable to focus on his pronouncements. He needs to be able to address -and not just deflect- concerns that his version of independence looks a bit like a teenager choosing to leave home, but reserving the right to go back to mum and dad’s for meals, to get some washing done and maybe also tell them what they can watch on the telly.

I hope that we can keep this referendum focused on ideas and not on emotions because, whatever the outcome of the vote, we’ll all still be here on the morning after. So let’s acknowledge that we all care about the kind of country our children and grandchildren grow up in. Let’s appreciate that two people can review the same information yet reach entirely different conclusions.

And let’s agree not to hit each other if we don’t see eye to eye about the best way forward for our country.


  1. I would echo much that you say here: I expected far better of both campaigns and am amazed that I am still undecided as February draws to an end. I want us to vote FOR something rather than AWAYFROM, but am aware that my own greatest, certainly emotional, driver at present is the desire never to be governed by the Tories again! The Yes campaign has not convinced me with its 'It'll be all right on the night" approach. I cannot close my eyes to Ukraine and so many other states where people who were neighbours end up going far beyond the threat of violence you mention. And with two sons and five grandchildren in England ....... am I really comfortable with jokes about borders and passports! My Dad taught me never to discuss politics or religion! As you argue, the two seem strangely similar in this debate! But intelligent people have to keep debating.

  2. Nationalism -at its core- is about the politics of difference and I think that is what is giving this campaign rather an ugly edge. You are absolutely right to state that intelligent people need to keep talking, but I think it's going to be quite a battle to drown out all of the noise.