Road to Referendum isn’t a Yes campaign tour, and I’m not a member of the Scottish National Party. The idea is to have open and hopefully open-minded discussions about the state of the nation and how to approach this momentous decision – which affects all of us in this windy little corner of Europe. The independence debate is now a very live one.
When I last toured Scotland with the first edition of Road to Referendum a year ago the climate was very different. A No vote seemed a racing certainty, and most of the discussions centred on how to ensure that Scotland doesn’t fall into a post-referendum slough of despond, as it did after 1979. Somehow, the game has got a lot more serious. And not just because the polls are closing.
But the good news is that the campaign has not descended into the pit of negativity that many forecast. People are not, on the whole, being pilloried, abused or victimised for supporting Yes or No. This is not the Ukraine. Nor has there been any outbreak of anti-English racism. The tabloid press is still uniformly hostile to independence, but it has not tried to whip up latent antagonisms. At least not yet. Tbe Sun hasn’t put another hangman’s noose shaped as an SNP logo on its front page as it did in 2007.
Nor, I am glad to say, has there been an eruption of anti-Scottish sentiment in England, apart from some sneering commentary after the Declaration on the Pound in February. England seems mostly content to let Scotland get on with it; they have other things on their minds with the irresistible rise of Nigel Farage, and the increasingly real prospect of a Brexit from the EU. A UKIP victory in this month’s European elections, which is now being forecast by polling organisation like YouGov, turns the entire EU debate upside down.
Last year, the argument was all about how Scotland risked being thrown out of the Europe after a Yes vote. This was always a disingenuous scenario because no one seriously thinks a European Union that has embraced countries like Bulgaria and Romania would black-ball an independent Scotland. But now the UK itself stands in the departure lounge from the EU, with the prospect of an in/out referendum in 2017. Yet the Unionists in the Scottish referendum campaign still haven’t realised the full significance of this: that there is now a greater risk of being forced out of EU by remaining part of the UK. As Alex Salmond launched the SNP’s campaign for the European Elections this week, Better Together spokespeople were still promoting the old Scotland-out-of-Europe line as if nothing had changed.
Metropolitan commentators, like the Times’ David Aaronovitch, were still trying to equate Alex Salmond with Nigel Farage, “peas out of the same hard pod”. As if Alex Salmond supported withdrawal from the EU, a bar on immigration, welfare cuts and scrapping green energy. Salmond was accused of cuddling up to racism by saying that UKIP leader has “a certain bonhomie”, which is something that has been remarked upon by just about every commentator from the BBC’s Nick Robinson down.
For a smear to stick it has to have some basis in reality. There are many legitimate grounds for criticising Alex Salmond, from his attitude to the banks to his tax policies, but suggesting he is a right wing UKIP fellow traveller is simply daft. As is the suggestion that the First Minister is a supporter of the Vladimir Putin. These things may go down well in the Guardian and the Telegraph, but no one in Scotland takes them seriously. Nor do Scots buy Lord Robertson’s astonishing remarks in his Brookings Institute speech last month about a Yes vote being a spring time for dictators.
It’s become a commonplace to say that Better Together has been its own worst enemy over the past year. The essential problem with the unionist campaign is not just that it has been negative, but that it has addressed the wrong audience: the London political and media classes rather than the Scottish voters. Scots are aware of Alex Salmond’s shortcomings. They should do – he has been first minister of Scotland for seven years, and yet remains extremely popular – far more popular than any of his rivals. Which means that when unionists accuse Salmond of being a racist, a friend to “oppressors and annexers” or a separatist xenophobe they are actually attacking the Scottish people who voted for him in such vast numbers.
Similarly, when the Tory Chancellor, George Osborne, flew into Edinburgh on a day trip and made his Declaration on the Pound, refusing to do any TV interviews, it went down very well with the UK press, which plastered the front pages with “crisis for Yes” headlines, but it didn’t do a great deal of good for the Unionist cause. Nearly half of Scots didn’t believe him, and most others just felt threatened by a member of a party that Scotland has comprehensively rejected. The 1707 Union was supposed to have been a partnership not an annexation, and the pound was supposed to have been the economic expression of that association. Now it is something that can be taken away if Scots don’t behave.
I don’t know what the outcome of the referendum will be – probably still a No vote in the end. Scots may not believe the pound threat, but many will not want to take the risk. If the UK Treasury and the Bank of England really want to wreck the economy they can. But what a miserable way to win a referendum.
Let’s hope that, over the next month, we can accentuate the positive starting with our event at the appropriately named Glad Cafe. . We all have to live with each other after September 18th. And what is increasingly clear to me is that Scotland will be a different country whatever the outcome.
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