These first weeks of the New Year have been dominated in Scotland by an escalation of the debate over the possibility of Scotland declaring its union with England at an end. In general, I welcome this new intensity because, not only has it finally intruded into the Gormenghast cogitations of Westminster, but it has also raised international interest, culminating in the Burns Day gathering of fifty journalists from two dozen countries to hear Alex Salmond launch the referendum consultation in the Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle.
I see this as historic and stimulating stuff but recognise that others—especially unionists—are unhappy with it all. Ordinarily, I would have sympathy for an opposing view. But, knowing the history of the last forty years, I see the unionists as having played a rather loaded game to date, absconding with all the oil in the ’70’s, rigging the ’78 referendum, disemboweling Scottish heavy industry in the ’80s, foisting the Poll Tax on us, stalling the Claim of Right and, even in the shadow of the 1999 Scottish Parliament, filching 6,000 square miles of rich seabed East of the Forth into English control.
So, for me, this year’s debate does not start out on a level playing field. From Paxman to Osborne, there is a continuation of history, a similar readiness to use any means—fair or foul—to derail aspiration not to be part of this state called Britain.
I recognise that many people may consider UK troops in Helmand, two aircraft carriers with no aircraft or four Trident submarines at Faslane to be sensible deployment for the second-rate power Britain has become. I recognise that many English feel strongly that Brussels has taken too much power to itself, that too many foreigners have come to these shores and that John Bull glares out from the beetling cliffs of Albion, daring Johnny Foreigner to make his day.
But I share none of those views and, truth be told, find them all rather odious.
But, unfortunately, such attitudes are defining how this independence debate is shaping up. On the one hand, I witness a Scottish Government who explain their position, move steadily towards a goal that was part of their manifesto and receive a barrage of hysteria from unionists. They appear to have lost balance of judgement and moral compass in debate when it comes to the lengths, if not depths, they’ll go to in discrediting not just independence but those who believe in it.
Much has been said by unionists of the need to make a positive case for the union. That is something I would welcome but there is little sign. Anas Sarwar on BBC’s GMS made it plain that there is no reason to doubt Scotland’s viability as a country. My hopes rose that reason was prevailing. Almost immediately he then launches into dire predictions of how Scottish firms could not compete across a new border with England.
In a reversal of the ‘Braveheart’ romanticism so often flung at independistas, most unionist arguments—especially those coming from the rump Tory flank—reek of a frenzy to discredit that would shame the worst tabloid journalist. A romanticising of Britain by selective re-telling of its history combines with a venom towards those seen to threaten it. An example is ToryHoose, whose bias finds expression by lashing out at others.
“The SNP are not, as they may sometimes seem, just made up of social democrats; but are a mixed band of far left, socialists, left wingers, right wingers, and even some of those on the hard right. They are republicans, monarchists, free marketers, Europhiles, euro sceptics, moderates, extremists, some are anti-english, some are anti-British, some want indy-lite, others only want devo-max.”
Apparently, being such a rag-tag, representative cross-section of the Scottish public who have the audacity to agree with one another is reprehensible. ToryHoose offer no explanation why such a fragmented mob are not at each other’s throats, let alone could win an election. It’s not ToryHoose’s opposing view that bothers me—I actually respect their position and would welcome articulation. It’s their venom I decry. It clouds their understanding of (or any desire to understand) the perfectly normal non-baby-eating people to whom they are so venally opposed.
Contributions to the debate to articulate a non-SNP perspective are largely being made by people from civic Scotland, certainly those distant from the clueless and idea-free zones that currently encompass all three opposition parties. Canon Kenyon Wright recently pitched in with an eloquent plea for “devo-max”. Perhaps the most balanced take on the whole debate that I’ve seen so far came from Gerry Hassan’s recent blog.
“This moment requires a calmness and consideration to allow Scotland and the UK to have a reasoned debate and discussion. So far both the British political classes and media, and a large part of unionist opinion in Scotland has shown no indications that it has the capacity or qualities to do so.”
There is certainly a place for passion in this debate. But when either side allows their own bias to assert a moral ascendancy over the other, then reason becomes an early casualty, usually followed by truth. Salmond said from the start “we have no monopoly on wisdom”. We also have no crystal ball to answer the increasingly shrill insistence that the SNP define every step and defang every threat into the future. But it was not emotion that drew the conclusion that Scotland would be the sixth-richest country in the world.
To parry such powerful arguments, unionists cannot afford to rely on dirty tricks deployed since the seventies; they clearly haven’t worked. Nor can they believe just more hand-wringing negativity is an option—it has all but done for Labour. They need someone of stature, strength and ideas who’ll deliver Britain’s Gettysburg Address or they have no cause worthy of the name left.
Every athlete about to compete, every businessman about to launch a new venture, every swain about to pop the question sizes up the situation, draws on their every fibre of life experience, looks to their best capabilities and launches all of them into the moment. These focal points are life itself—the turning points that define the worthwhile. The life of a country is no different.