Bullying and Bluff on the Road to Referendum

In this unnecessarily long campaign, both nationalists and unionists have peddled negative and exaggerated arguments

Allan Massie

Scotland may vote for independence on September 18. At the time of writing, this still seems unlikely, but the No, or Better Together, campaign has suffered a wobble. An unidentified senior minister reportedly said that an independent Scotland might be able to enjoy a currency union with the rest of the UK, something which a united front of George Osborne, Ed Balls and Danny Alexander had ruled out. In saying so, the  minister implicitly supported the Scottish National Party’s assertion that the unionist parties were engaging in bluff, bluster and bullying. According to one opinion poll, 45 per cent of Scots agree with this. That is a higher percentage than currently intend to vote for independence.

Much of the unnecessarily long drawn-out campaign is on this same level of claim and counter-claim: the nationalists holding out the option of a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey (or oil wealth) if we have the courage to cross the Jordan; the unionists threatening doom and economic disaster if we Scots are rash enough to say Yes to independence. Both sides exaggerate as was perhaps only to be expected when we are venturing into unknown territory. In the White Paper Scotland’s Future which the SNP Scottish government published in November, we were told 1,500 times what an independent Scotland “will be”, rather than what it “might” or even “would” be. The second part of that paper was less an argument for independence than a SNP manifesto for a first post-independence Scottish election.

The Better Together camp has exposed many holes in the nationalist argument. Yet the more success it has had in doing so, the more it is charged with being negative. It is of course negative. “No” cannot be anything other than a negative word. Paradoxical as it may seem, the No campaign’s demolition of nationalist claims and its exposure of the element of wishful thinking in the SNP’s arguments have been followed by a rise in support for independence. It seems that, for some people, anyone questioning the case for independence is, ipso facto, anti-Scottish.

Yet there is another plausible reason for the rise in the likely Yes vote recorded in the polls. The SNP has managed to shift the terms of the debate. It is now at least as much about the present state and possible future condition of the United Kingdom as it is about the prospects for an independent Scotland.

The argument goes like this. The UK isn’t working effectively, and certainly not in the interest of Scotland. It is dominated by the over-powerful City of London, and policies are framed to satisfy the City’s appetite. The prospect of another Conservative government — or another Tory-dominated coalition — means that Scotland will continue to suffer cuts in social welfare spending; only by voting for independence can we be freed from austerity and Tory rule.

The feeling, or belief, that it is the UK, not Scotland, which is in crisis, runs deep. The historian and journalist Michael Fry, English by birth but Scottish by choice, himself a former Tory candidate, recently wrote that he would be voting for independence in order to “get rid of a decrepit UK with its hopelessly outdated policies, especially its ridiculous pretensions to be a great power, and its subjection of internal freedoms to these external delusions”. Fry is not saying anything unusual. Scotland, which contributed disproportionately to the British Empire — and gained disproportionately from the empire too — is now in a thoroughly post-imperial state of mind. The Trident submarines, based in the Clyde, are the unpopular symbol of these “ridiculous pretensions”. There are a great many Scots who like the idea of being a small state that would not engage in foreign adventures like the Kosovan, Afghan, Iraqi and Libyan wars. Pull up the drawbridge: Oxfam yes, Nato no — though, at present anyway, the SNP would have us remain a member-state in the Nato alliance, albeit one that had expelled Trident from our waters. It is not clear that this is a tenable position; it is quite clear that it is a widely popular one.

The argument that independence would free Scotland from Tory rule is equally popular, though also absurd. Independence would be for life, indeed for beyond the lives of voters in the referendum, not just for the next five or ten years. To vote Yes on such short-term considerations would be ridiculous. Nevertheless many will do so. People cannot reasonably be expected to look far ahead, and there is little doubt that more will vote Yes if opinion polls suggest that the Conservatives are likely to win the general election in May next year. Conversely, the Union will be in less danger if it looks as if Labour will form the next British government. The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party has been becalmed in the doldrums for a long time. Paradoxically, independence might be in the Tory party’s interest; yet its remaining supporters — some 400,000 of them — remain staunchly unionist. A considerable number of Labour voters will no less perversely choose independence.

It hasn’t proved difficult for the leaders of the Better Together campaign to pick holes in the nationalists’ case. It is proving much harder for them to put forward a positive case for the Union and to demonstrate just why we are indeed better together. This isn’t surprising. Defending the status quo is always difficult, for it is natural for people to be more aware of its deficiencies than of its strengths and advantages. Grievances speak more loudly than contentment.

In truth almost nobody is defending things just as they are. There is widespread agreement that further constitutional reform is desirable. When Ruth Davidson was elected leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, she spoke of drawing “a line in the sand”. Devolution had come so far and should go no farther. This position has been abandoned. All three unionist parties now propose that more powers be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Even so, their proposals remain vague and provisional. They cannot be otherwise, for, while independence may be a matter for the Scottish electorate alone to decide on, any future measures of devolution will require the agreement of the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom and will be dependent on an Act of the UK parliament in Westminster. Refusal to countenance further devolution would cost the unionists votes; proposals for such devolution may not win many, but should prevent support from seeping away.

Alistair Darling, the leader of the Better Together campaign, claims that “we are the ones who are being positive about the case for the United Kingdom. The nationalists are consistently negative and will consistently do anything to shoot down anyone who speaks out against them.” He may be right, at least inasmuch as the nationalists’ view of the UK is even more negative than the unionists’ view of the prospects for an independent Scotland. Nevertheless it is the unionists who are criticised for negativity, even by some of their own supporters. The nationalists offer hope of a brighter future, while the unionists say “steady as she goes”. This is sensible, but less than inspiring.

Meanwhile the campaign is becoming nastier. This may be in part on account of its excessive duration — and we still have four months to go. Much of the unpleasantness, but not all, is confined to the social media, and its vile anonymous fringes. Each side thinks the other worse. The truth is that strong and sometimes disgusting feelings are expressed, and menacing language used, on both sides. The SNP’s deputy leader, Nicola Sturgeon, is said to have received death threats; a Labour MP, opposed to independence, has been told he will be “hung [sic], drawn and quartered”. The owner of a travel company who emailed his 650 employees warning them that independence would be bad for their business, was met with calls to boycott his company. Other business people opposed to independence are prudently keeping their heads below the parapet.

The acrimonious tone now developing is worrying and deplorable. Whatever the result of the referendum, we all have to live together afterwards. Likewise we have to live, one hopes in friendship and concord, with our English neighbours, whether we remain part of the same state or not. Bitterness now will not be forgotten quickly, harmony difficult to restore. This is why sensible people, looking ahead, hope that the outcome is clear-cut, with a substantial majority for the winning side. A 51-49 result either way would be profoundly unsatisfying. Negotiating the last weeks of the campaign is going to be a test of character.

Having insisted that the right to vote in the referendum should be restricted to those on the Scottish electoral role, Alex Salmond is now seeking to present it as a contest between the Scottish and UK governments. Hence his demand that David Cameron should debate with him. Cameron has refused to do so, insisting that the question is for Scots to decide. This is not, I assume, because he fears he might lose such a debate, but because, in the Edinburgh Agreement, he accepted Salmond’s terms, and is determined that the Scottish First Minister should not be granted the opportunity to present himself as the defender of Scottish interests against an English prime minister. So any debate should be between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling.

Thus far most of the argument has been about detail, and certainly there are people who say they want more clarification about matters such as the currency, arrangements for taxation, social security and pensions, EU membership, defence, the future of North Sea oil and gas, energy policies, etc, before they make up their mind.  There are doubtless many whose votes will be determined by such matters, but I suspect they are in quite a small minority. Most voters will no more read the small print than they read party manifestos at a general election.

David Hume, the greatest of Scottish philosophers — perhaps the greatest of British ones — lived in what is still often called the Age of Reason. Nevertheless he wrote: “We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” By the “passions” he meant what we might rather call “sentiments” or “feelings”, and it is certainly these, rather than the exercise of reason, which will usually determine people’s political opinions. I have no doubt that in most instances, it will be the passions — sentiments and feelings —which will lead people to vote Yes or No. They will vote Yes if they feel themselves to be Scottish and not British; No if they are happy in a dual identity; Yes if the thought of change pleases them; No if it doesn’t. And in both cases they will leave the detail to take care of itself.

At present, despite that recent wobble, the Better Together campaign remains in the lead, albeit by a narrowing margin. The danger for it is not that the nationalists will suddenly pull attractive rabbits from a conjurer’s hat, but that, in the last weeks of the campaign, they will make a stirring appeal to Scottish national sentiment, one to which many now wavering or lukewarm may respond. But the unionists also have historic sentiments to appeal to, and sentiments of cross-border family connections and friendship too, feelings not lightly to be discarded. Sentiment is powerful and the unionists have a particular appeal to two groups: women voters, who are perhaps more conscious than men of these bonds of family and friendship, while also more sceptical of politicians’ promises and of the benefits of political change; and the young belonging to what has been called the Facebook generation, whose outlook is global rather than national or parochial. Interestingly, mock-referendums in schools and universities have produced substantial majorities in favour of a No vote. This suggests that if the nationalists don’t win in September, they may never do so.

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