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Scotland on the eve

15 September 2014

Scots hold the United Kingdom’s future in their hands. No wonder nerves are fraying, says David Hayes


None of the above: former British PM Gordon Brown speaks during a “No” rally in Glasgow last Friday. Andy Rain/EPA

None of the above: former British PM Gordon Brown speaks during a “No” rally in Glasgow last Friday. Andy Rain/EPA

Tak! Ja! Taip! ! Igem! Ano! Kyllä!

It was a benign swarm onto the steps of St Giles’s cathedral in central Edinburgh, scene of a famous incident in 1637 when a local woman, Jenny Geddes, flung a stool at the minister in disgust at his anti-Presbyterian heresy. The fury of that episode, taught to every Scottish child in the days – not so long ago – when the national sense of distinctiveness and superiority took religious rather than political form, had dissolved into the cheers and smiles of a band of mainly young, blooming, multinational Europeans holding up placards, and in some cases children, blazoned with the equivalent in their language of a single word: Yes!

The friendly gathering on 9 September fused several key messages of Scotland’s pro-independence campaign: optimism about the country’s future, confidence in its growing diversity, the dynamism of the national brand, a positive attitude towards the European Union. It was yet another confirmation of the slickness of the “yes” side – so far ahead of its often dour and clumsy opponents that if this were a boxing match, mercy would long have mandated a halt.

The cameras clicked and whirred, for this was of course a media event. Fortuitous sunshine buoyed the mood. The “new Scots” – an artful coinage of the governing Scottish National Party, or SNP, now seamlessly extended from Pakistani-origin settlers to east-central Europeans – chatted and networked. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, SNP leader and ebullient captain of the independence ship for two decades, answered reporters’ questions with practised ease.

When the crowd began to disperse, a passer-by, a neat lady with a shopping bag, paused to ask a couple of glamorous new Scots what was going on. There was something in the scene, here, at the corner of the High Street in this, the heart of the Old Town, that stirred the memory of a tale. As they parted with a lilting “cheerio!” it came back to me.

In the bubbling early days of Czechoslovakia’s “velvet revolution” in November 1989, as people power was creating an infectious sense of impending liberation, a group of Prague medical students met up to mingle with the crowds. They were wholly in spirit with what was happening; one had grown up in the shadow of his family’s experiences following the Red Army’s invasion of 1968. As they wandered in the relaxed atmosphere of Wenceslas Square, they met an elderly lady pushing a wheelbarrow. She asked them if they were students, and then pulled back the cover to reveal a stack of bottles of plum brandy. These were made by my husband, she explained, using fruits from our garden in a town outside Prague; he buried them there in 1968, saying they would be dug up and drunk only when the country was free. Now he is gone, but she had brought them by train that night, judging that this was the moment. Would you care for some, children?

1989, 2014. A measure of social change is when what was once unimaginable becomes reality. In these protean days in Scotland, people are not just arguing for or against the independence that seems – tantalisingly or horrifyingly – in sight, but seeking language or reference points that might render what is happening more meaningful. No wonder words such as “historic,” “seismic,” “epic” and that old favourite, “tectonic plates,” abound. No wonder too that in these last moments of a three-year campaign, referendum precedents (Quebec) and comparisons (Catalonia), or examples of state division (Czech Republic and Slovakia), are so often invoked. No wonder especially that both the would-be gravediggers and last-ditch saviours of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are squeezing the last drop of hyperbole from an already strenuous effort.

At the same time, a little distance from the high-energy, impassioned rhetoric and sheer visibility of campaigners and their paraphernalia is salutary. Beyond the epicentres of activism, restraint rather than excess is evident. In homes and quiet corners, above all within individuals, there is thought, doubt and quiet calculation, as well as settled conviction. Pollsters suggest up to 20 per cent of voters are still undecided. A word I have heard from two acquaintances is “swithering.” All this makes the referendum even more intriguing and less predictable. It also, arguably, nurtures in the Scots a sense of their own already-achieved sovereignty, as a people and as private citizens. That may prove even more important in the longer run than the referendum result itself.

Whatever the outcome, every account will surely have to pay attention to the depth and quality of people’s engagement in the long campaign that preceded the vote, of which that Edinburgh event is but one example. For this has been an extraordinary period in Scotland’s history, one in which tens of thousands of citizens were moved to participate in the process of deciding their nation’s future. In cities, towns, villages and on islands, in churches, libraries, schools, bookshops and cafes, in conference centres, seminar rooms and lecture halls, many Scottish people have immersed themselves in a rolling national conversation. In the course of it, as Nic Maclellan’s engaging article on old and new Caledonias suggests, they have come to redefine the question as being about democracy and foundational values (“what kind of society?”) as much as about national independence per se.

There’s so much more: a daily social-media flood, effervescent website and broadcasting start-ups (such as Referendum TV), a wealth of books both partisan and academic, teeming letters pages, as well as heavy-duty coverage and comment from the major newspapers and broadcasters, the latter hosting nightly debate between leading players and experts, often with further audience involvement. An event at the Scottish Hydro in Glasgow on 11 September saw 7500 school students (with voting age reduced to sixteen from eighteen by the SNP government) pose sharp questions to a politicians’ panel. Scotland’s writers and artists are also in the thick of it, veterans of earlier campaigns joined by a younger cohort, many of whom have enlivened the whirligig with an exuberant brand of cultural politics (Lady Alba’s glorious videos and Greg Moodie’s witty comic strips, as well as the National Collective’s Yestival tour, are among many examples).

And on the streets, the activity continues with the rival camps’ work of delivering leaflets, doorstepping, canvassing, persuading, information-gathering and feeding back into the database maw. Here, in face-to-face encounters, what campaigners like to call the “air war” and the “ground war” meet. Some 97 per cent of Scotland’s eligible 4.3 million voters have registered (in a system where voting is non-compulsory). The residential qualification means that 720,000 Scots living in the rest of the United Kingdom are unable to vote, while 590,000 non-Scots (470,000 British, 120,000 from the European Union, half of those Poles) can do so.

The whole thing is kaleidoscopic, transfixing, certainly unprecedented, for that reason alone groundbreaking, a privilege to witness. No wonder, as it nears the climax, a certain note of self-congratulation has crept in, with frequent references to the nobility of a democratic experiment that – for all its high stakes and divisiveness – has been conducted in a civic and peaceful manner. That is not always true: there has been ugly street brawling and rancid internet abuse (particularly of influencers such as J.K. Rowling who have, most thoughtfully in her case, declared for “no”).

In addition, the arid flavour of some daily political debate was showcased by the two televised clashes between Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, and Alistair Darling, former Labour chancellor and head of the anti-independence side, which turned into shouting matches. It may be significant that the negative behaviour is associated overwhelmingly with men, underlining the case that an upsurge of public meetings, many organised and peopled by women, has been the best part of the campaign.

These rough edges are regrettable, if hardly surprising. After all, the referendum is more than a great festival of democracy, even if it has also become that: it is a brutal clash of competing sovereignties (Edinburgh vs London) and political blocs (rival “Scotlands”), where the great interests of state, business and citizenry are in play, as well as raw matters of identity and belonging.

All this said, the note of pride is understandable, not least as an affirmation of value: these are the standards Scots expect of each other. The fact that no one anticipates disorder in the aftermath, even if the result is close (as polling trends suggest), underlines the point that in terms of politics and social trust, Scotland is a lucky country.

The pace was always going to accelerate in the last days. It took a poll to turn the switch. Over the last three years the Scots have in turn ambled, walked and jogged towards 18 September 2014 and the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Throughout the whole period the “no” side enjoyed a clear, and often substantial, lead, though several polls in August recorded a narrowing. Then, a survey by YouGov published eleven days before the vote found “yes” voters ahead by 51–49 per cent (excluding “don’t knows”).

The impact was electrifying, in London in particular. There, leading political and business figures had long been vocal on the issue, usually in the form of stark warnings of the dire consequences of independence. Much of the city’s media had been assiduous in reporting and reliably partisan in comment. But from the outset, the rooted assumption of a decisive “no” victory discouraged concentrated attention. The YouGov poll, released on Sunday 7 September, put an end to that, at last catapulting the referendum and its implications – the very break-up of the UK state – into England’s public mind.

Even at the best of times, high melodrama is the default mode of Britain’s political-media circus, Corporal Jones’s war-cry from the beloved Dad’s Army sitcom – “Don’t pani-i-I-I-C!” – ever just a bad news cycle away. In a febrile week, the instinct for once seemed to match the events.

It began with megaphone headlines on the Monday morning (most a variant of “Ten Days to Save the Union,” though the Sun went for “Jocky Horror Show”). Tuesday brought the latest forecasts of financial meltdown in the event of a “yes” vote, desperate pleas (including from the Telegraph and Mail) for the Queen to speak out in defence of the union, and – in the spirit of a celebrity-led “let’s stay together” appeal – calls for English civic buildings to raise Scotland’s national flag. On Wednesday, prime minister’s question time in the House of Commons was delegated so that the three party leaders (David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband) could fly to Scotland and declare their passion for the union, though in separate meetings. By Thursday, leading banks were pledging to move south within days, and a hundred Labour MPs were deployed on the streets of Glasgow to no evident purpose. And along the way, a royal pregnancy was announced – which a legion of the fervid instantly had down as a cunning ruse to fix the vote.

It was almost too exquisite that Saturday night would bring the end of the annual season of promenade concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall (the “last night of the proms”), a BBC occasion characterised by celebratory patriotism of both a Union Jack kind and, increasingly in recent years, a four-nation-embracing one. Never, with five days to go, was the uplift or consolation offered by the rousing climax of “Rule, Britannia!” (written by a Scot) and “Jerusalem” more needed.

How, though, could a political, national and state crisis be at once so serious and so surreal, so melancholy and so absurd? And yet it was. Like Jules Verne’s fabled green ray, which illuminates the heart in the moment of its setting over the horizon, never did Britain reveal more of its lovable, familial, painful hope and glory than in these last few days’ chaos.

From the frenzy emerged a daring political gamble, with the complex figure of Gordon Brown at its centre. Brown had left Downing Street in 2010, his reputation as New Labour’s “iron chancellor” tarnished by a chaotic three years as prime minister. But he retained the loyalty of many in Scotland’s Labour bastions, as well as the paternalism and cadences of his Presbyterian heritage. On Tuesday he seized the pulpit with a plan and timetable for the delivery of further substantial self-governing powers to Scotland if its people chose to stay in the United Kingdom.

Brown had long championed “Britishness” as a union of social solidarity. His latest book. My Scotland, Our Britain: A Future Worth Sharing, is both a paean to that vision and a statement of the case for distinctive Scottish institutions and purpose within a generous multinationalism and globalism. (The “clean break that nationalists propose,” he writes, “is a nineteenth-century answer to a twenty-first-century problem… We are better off when we make the most of our interdependence.”) Now he was standing up for “home rule [for Scotland] within the UK” and declaring that the entire process – consultation, white paper, draft legislation – would be completed by late January 2015.

All initially was fog. Was the glowering Gordon a concussed victim of the London–Scotland collision or – it barely seemed possible – actually driving the train? Soon, the murmured agreement of cross-party grandees made clear that he had indeed been handed the controls. Scots understood the bizarre logic, for it was intrinsic to the campaign. The binary question – “Should Scotland be an independent country?” – had excluded from the ballot paper the Scots’ preferred choice of more powers for their devolved parliament in Edinburgh, which had been established in 1999. Such “devo-max” (or “devo-plus”) had frequently been promised to them during the campaign as an inducement to reject independence. Now, Brown – the most (even the only) articulate exponent of an ethical-political view of the United Kingdom – was being deployed to underwrite the devo-max guarantee, swing the vote, save the union, serve the Scots, and renew Britain’s constitution. Not yes!, not no!, but… voilà!

Brown described his model as “near to federalism,” implying that disadvantaged England, neglected Wales and ignored Northern Ireland could also be part of a grand deal. Several Conservative MPs, properly concerned with the English interest, wondered aloud why their prime minister was outsourcing government policy to a former Labour leader, and when the London parliament would have a say. Scotland’s independistas were scornful, but the relief of their opponents in the Better Together coalition was palpable. Labour voters in urban central Scotland were fuelling the “yes” surge, halting it was urgent. Gordon’s offer – “for the right kind of change, beyond the status quo” – was a lifeline.

The weekend brought some respite, with most polls restoring the “no” side’s slender lead. The only certainty was that the Scots would decide the immediate future both of their country and of the United Kingdom as a whole. Here was another campaign incongruity, namely the central government’s infirmity in an argument which so profoundly affects the state’s core interests. Sure, David Cameron, his chancellor George Osborne, London mayor Boris Johnson and their political allies – from Barack Obama to Tony Abbott – can advise, warn or cajole the Scots. Financial behemoths such as Deutsche Bank and the Swiss UBS, newspapers and magazines such as the Financial Times and the Economist can alert or admonish. But national and democratic realities – and a share of global ones – render them all mere onlookers. The domestic humiliation of the United Kingdom’s power, and the ultimate vindication of its democracy, are inseparable.

How did both state and government arrive at this point? The answer lies in the political circumstances that from the start – in the “Edinburgh agreement” of October 2012 “between the United Kingdom government and the Scottish government on a referendum on independence for Scotland” – framed the referendum’s terms and ordained its central quarrel. The main players were Cameron, who entered Downing Street in 2010 at the head of a coalition between his Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, and Salmond, whose SNP turned its minority government in Edinburgh into a clear majority one in 2011. The SNP’s victory – shocking and unexpected to Labour, its main rival – gave it the authority to act on its existential purpose, Scottish independence, albeit earlier than it might have bargained for. Any London government would be horrified by that prospect, but Cameron had the ingrained confidence to believe that the Scots would balk at the final hurdle.

Electoral contingency, political expediency and personal animosity fused. The result was a straight referendum question that squeezed out the option of increased self-government short of independence. That intermediary choice, if approved, might variously have extended the Scots’ self-government to areas such as welfare, tax, pensions and oil revenues, while recasting the “block grant” funding scheme devised in the late 1970s. Instead, under the Edinburgh agreement, the Scots would face – as their Calvinist forebears might have understood it – only hellfire or salvation.

It is too much to say that the entire referendum experience was preordained by these conditions of origin. But the zero-sum nature of the decision – “yes” or “no” to independence – would shape it in four profound ways.

First, it forced Scots to reconsider their dual – Scottish and British – political nature, which many had long taken for granted or kept in balance (with “Scottish more than British” and “Scottish-British equally” scoring high in “Moreno” polls across three decades). True, there were assurances from the Scottish government that an independent Scotland would keep the Queen as head of state, sterling as currency, membership of the European Union, and other ingredients of a “social union.” Those Scots who wanted also to be, or at least feel, British could continue to do so. But the invitation to statehood inescapably meant a concentration of allegiance, a pull towards exclusivity. Whether liberating or amputating, this would always be for many an agonising choice.

Second, it confirmed that the Scots – or more strictly, the inhabitants of Scotland – held the United Kingdom’s fate in their hands, as well as their own. The union they had co-created in 1707, after all, was always open in principle to a democratic exit on either side. Thus when this possibility arose in practice in 2011–12 the English, who composed 85 per cent of the state’s population, were given no say in the matter. There were many justifications for this, intellectual, practical and moral; and the obvious retort was that the way for the English to secure voice was by emulating the Scots’ example of sustained political mobilisation. A referendum that gave only the Scots sovereign choice, however, reinforced England’s sense of constitutional unfairness and political weakness, and resentment and envy of the Scots.

Third, it ensured that inside Scotland too there would be polarisation. The fractal geometry of Scottish politics since the 1980s – with four main parties and as many constitutional options – was eclipsed. With the referendum came a new arithmetic: yes-or-no plus first-past-the-post equals winner-takes-nation. For partisans, this was fine; for those with less fixed or more plural attachments, it left no practical alternative but to cohere around one or other camp. The process in turn created a reductive campaign dynamic: as positions were taken, doubts had to be stilled, voices amplified, opponents denounced, nuance crushed. The festival of democracy had its deep and unavoidable downsides.

Fourth, it handed the “yes” side a marked campaign advantage. The independence question fostered the movement’s most potent meme: that Scotland’s choice was between change, hope, buoyancy, self-determination, self-belief, boldness, the future itself, against – well, against their dreary opposites. It invited assent, of a kind that joins the political to the personal – many independence supporters refer to their “conversion” or “journey to yes” – while making dissent look garbled or embarrassed. This discursive leverage was reflected in the very names of the respective coalitions, Yes Scotland and Better Together. The latter, pro-UK campaign was desperate to escape “no,” yet in practice was trapped in negativity.

In the course of the referendum campaign, these four ingredients spiced an already simmering constitutional brew, bringing Scotland (and therefore the United Kingdom) to a true day of destiny. So far, the journey is all in one direction.

Many Scots are now expressing regret that devo-max was not on the ballot paper. If it were, most of what has made the campaign so vital would never have happened. The energy would have been distributed, not focused; the polite people succoured, the angrier ones marginalised; the harder questions avoided.

You can’t have everything, as the Scots once, when they were a religious people, knew in their bones. The political aspect of this truth will be part of the post-referendum reality, for neither decision will be without costs. How the experience of the last three years is processed – there is currently much talk of the need for “healing” – will raise questions of emotional as well as political intelligence.

There are many imponderables in these frenetic last campaign hours. The Islamic State’s murder of a Scots hostage in Iraq by (it seems certain) another British citizen creates binding horror and disgust, though so far any temptation to make this political – which would probably backfire – is being resisted. On a different plane, Rupert Murdoch’s weekend visit increases speculation that the Scottish edition of the Sun will come out for a “yes.” Rupert likes to be on the winning side, and has long indulged Alex Salmond. He also loves sticking it to the British establishment. Its apex, the Queen herself, while visiting Crathie kirk in the Scottish highlands on 14 September, after all used a sightseer’s jest about the referendum to utter some deceptively anodyne words: “Well, I hope people will think very carefully about the future.” That counts as a dreadnought in the “no” cause.

But beyond every influence, this is the Scots’ sovereign moment. In the very uncertainty that surrounds their impending choice, there is serious thought as well as noisy division. Are “we the people” ready for “yes” and all it entails: hard negotiation, a constitution, a new state, losses and hardship as well as gains and benefit – above all, perhaps, a profound change in Scots’ sense of themselves?

Or will the consumer-citizen Scots opt for “no,” many in the belief that they can extract a “three-for-two” deal from a zero-sum choice, like the dedicated shoppers they are? Perhaps, with Gordon Brown’s proposal, they already have. In that case, however, UK governments and peoples will have to get serious about federalism and a holistic constitutional settlement. As the Spectator’s political editor James Forsyth says in the magazine’s “Scotland, please stay” special edition, “a narrow ‘no’ would be a stay of execution, not a reprieve.”

When the treaty creating the United Kingdom passed into law on 1 May 1707, the bells of St Giles sounded over Edinburgh to the tune “Why am I so sad on this my wedding day?” The Scots’ complicated journey within the union has taken them far beyond such laments. Whatever they decide in the referendum, it will be with an eye more to the future than the past. The United Kingdom is living on borrowed time. •

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Contrasts: British prime minister David Cameron (right) with London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan at the launch of the Remain campaign’s battle bus at the University of Roehampton in London on 30 May. Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA/Pool

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