Here is a piece on the separation referendum I have written for the Telegraph.
I have it on the authority of Alex Salmond no less that I am Scottish. He told me so – indeed he insisted on it after I suggested he didn’t really see south of the border Scots like me as ‘proper Scots’ – when I interviewed him for GQ magazine a few months ago. He had done his homework. He knew that both my parents, a crofter’s son from Tiree and a mother raised on an Ayrshire farm, were Scots. He knew that I play the bagpipes, and he knew all about my brother Donald, an ex-Scots Guardsman and now official piper to Glasgow University, correctly pointing out that he is a better player than I am.
Alas, despite being anointed a ‘proper Scot’ by the First Minister, I don’t have a vote in Thursday’s referendum but I do have a voice and have been using it to try to persuade Scots to vote NO, and I urge anyone with friends, relatives and colleagues in Scotland to do the same. Salmond told me – and if this is true it is a scandal – that in his discussions with the Westminster government about the referendum the idea of the whole of the UK having some kind of say was not even raised. Five countries not one are changed by a Yes vote – the UK, Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. We all have a stake even if we don’t have a say.
Salmond told me that the fundamentals of my relationship with Scotland would not change. But they will. I feel British first, Scottish second, Yorkshire – where I was born – third and English a long way behind. I cannot imagine feeling British if Britain does not include Scotland. Nor do I want to be of a different nationality to other members of my family. And I certainly don’t want to live in a place called rUK.
However, my sense of identity, important though it is to me, is as nothing alongside the other huge issues involved. I told Salmond that my mother was terrified of the idea of separation. He laughed and said that was probably because I was terrifying her. Ah Project Fear. He talks a lot about Project Fear, as though those two words can sweep away the huge questions that he still hasn’t answered and which clearly he can’t. There is actually quite a lot to be scared about if Scotland says YES to separation.
The currency, and Scots not knowing what theirs will be. Companies and capital fleeing the country, a foretaste of which we saw merely on the back of narrowing polls. Uncertainty about pensions. Uncosted promises of free just about everything. Uncertainty about NATO membership, EU membership, the UK’s place as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The inevitable constitutional knock-on effects for other parts of the UK. These are not trifling issues and despite this being a longer campaign than a US Presidential election, the uncertainties that were there two years ago are still there now. I tried my best for GQ. But he is a good talker and a damn fine wriggler and the interview was covered mainly for his favorable comments on Vladimir Putin and his concerns about Scotland’s relationship with alcohol. On the big policy questions he talked, he charmed, he wriggled and I never really pinned him down.
Now as it happens sadly my mother has since died – no, I am not blaming Salmond, she died of natural causes not fear – but in her final weeks and months I doubt we had a conversation when she didn’t say she just hoped and prayed Scotland stayed within the UK. She really really cared. I really really care. I care more about this vote even than those general elections I was directly involved in.
Salmond has – thus far – managed to frame the referendum as a choice between head and heart. Head is code for passionless number crunchers who cannot see beyond the end of a profit and loss sheet and a deficit calculator. Heart is code for him, Scottishness, passion, positivity, change we can believe in, Yes We Can. The fact that heads as varied as those belonging to central bankers, world-leading businesses and Nobel prize-winning economists are all warning that ‘no you can’t’, and that an independent Scotland could have disastrous consequences for jobs, prices, pensions and living standards is swept aside on a wave of YES balloons and Salmond soundbites.
The head v heart prism has allowed Salmond to claim a monopoly on passion for too long. But NO voters feel just as passionately as YES voters and they have to fight like their lives depend on it to get the remaining undecideds to vote No. To state the obvious yes is a positive concept. Change is often easier in a campaign than fighting for the status quo. In Scotland today, you see YES posters everywhere, NO posters barely at all. Partly that is because Salmond has used the extraordinary length of the campaign agreed by David Cameron to build an effective ground operation. Partly it is because of the reports of intimidation against people openly coming out for NO. Partly it is because despite his patchy record on social justice compared with Labour, he has draped that mantle around his shoulders too. Also, he has succeeded in making people in a country that is not terribly fond of Tories feel slightly dirty in being, rarely, on the same side of an argument.
So the posters tell a story but perhaps not the obvious one. So do the polls. The neck and neck polls a week ago were a godsend for Salmond, not merely because they suggested he could win, but because it meant that for days all the talk was of process rather than the fundamental and massive issues at stake. Salmond could parade as a commentator on the NO campaign, their every response dismissed as a sign of panic and meltdown. That there was some panic in what Salmond calls Team Westminster is beyond dispute, as is the considerable irritation caused by his attempt to portray YES as synonymous with ‘Team Scotland,’ the kind of hubris he has broadly managed to keep in check. But if next Thursday the NO vote prevails, it may well be that last weekend’s poll was a turning point in Better Together’s favour. Because it was the moment when not just Scotland, not just the UK but frankly the whole of the world woke up to the sheer bigness of this debate, the enormity of what is at stake. It galvanized businesses which had been hoping to keep their heads down as No cruised to a comfortable win to get them up above the parapet. As a result Salmond’s mountain of assertions began to crumble in an avalanche of inconvenient economic realities, and looking at the detailed data beneath the polls’ headline figures, it is the ‘do you think you will be worse off or better off?’ question that appears to have driven a shift back to NO in recent days, more people fearing they will be worse off in a separate Scotland.
There were polls galore over the weekend, and the most interesting thing was that despite the length and the passions of the debate, there are still a large number of undecided voters. There are usually three ways for don’t knows to go. Stay at home (less likely than in a general election given the debate is so alive and cynicism about political debate rather wonderfully suspended); go with momentum (which Salmond appeared to have last weekend, but which was stalled in all but one poll over the weekend); or go with the doubts about change and see a better future for Scotland in saying NO, especially now that the campaign has already forced what many Scots wanted in the first place – more powers for the Holyrood Parliament.
If the debate is all about process, like his rows with broadcasters or his calls for leak inquiries, Salmond is in with a shout. If the debate is all about the fundamentals, then, the issues are so serious, the doubts so big, the questions so unanswered I think most of the don’t knows will go to NO – with head AND heart directing the pencil on the ballot paper. With both head and with heart, I sincerely hope so. Because head and heart say YES would be a huge risk for Scotland and a disaster for the UK.