Wrestling with smoke

‘Is it going to be ok?’ How many times have I heard this, or a variant of it, from southern friends in recent months? They’ve never needed to be more specific than that. I’ve never needed to ask ‘is what going to be ok?’ The what has been obvious to us both.

And until now, the answer has always slipped out instantly and easily: yes, it’ll be ok. Don’t worry. It’s really only a question of how much we win by. Scotland isn’t going to bail out on you: we’re not made like that.

In London last week I bumped into a pal, a foreign correspondent of courage and integrity and a man who thinks hard about the world. He has been in the thick of it in all the global danger zones of the past few decades – Iraq, Syria, Libya, Lebanon, you name it – and recently returned from Gaza. The kind of mate you worry about. The kind of guy you’re proud to share a country with.

As usual, the first thing he asked me was: will it be ok? And I stopped, and I thought, and I told him: I don’t know. I really don’t know if it’s going to be ok. Very possibly not.

I can’t print his response, but I can tell you it was a word of no more than four letters. He was shocked, at first, and then, as we talked, he became sad, and then angry.

You might be rolling through these sorts of emotions yourself at present. I know I am. The first poll to give Yes a lead appeared at the weekend, confirming what has become apparent. The trajectory of the referendum debate has been a grim spectacle for those across these islands who continue to feel British, who see the good in Britain, who know we are more than the sum of our parts — who believe we are, to use a phrase now almost drained of meaning by its ubiquity, better together.

With 10 days to go, the vote is heart-stoppingly close. If I didn’t have a dog in the fight I’d be mesmerised. Instead, I’m chilled. Understand this: it’s a distinct possibility that the Britain of David Hume, Jane Austen, Charles Darwin, Clement Attlee, Keir Hardie, Winston Churchill, John Lennon, Andy Murray – make your own list — has only 10 days left. The difference between a Yes vote and a No vote is down to fractions, and the momentum lies with the separatists.

Friends closely involved in the Better Together campaign – not all, but some — have become fatalistic about the result. There are reports Glasgow will vote Yes. Dundee seems to be a goner. Fife is tight. ‘It’s slipping away,’ one pessimist tells me. ‘I genuinely think Scotland’s going to vote for independence. I can’t believe it’s come to this. I can’t believe it.’

How has it come to this? What has brought the most successful and mutually beneficial union in global history to the brink of collapse? Why do Scots – whose support for independence has rarely risen above 30-odd per cent through years of debating the constitution and little else – seem all of a sudden to be seduced by secession?

If this is the end, there will of course be decades of debate about the moment and its causes. It will be an event of great historical note – it’s not nothing, the United Kingdom. The final dissolution of a small-ish island that once had the flair and audacity to rule the world; the snuffing out of a bright lamp of civilisation, democracy, tolerance and solidarity; a burden wearily laid down by those who could hack it no longer, or who had just lost interest. There’s a book or two in that.

I believe the real No voters are those who will mark the Yes box in the polling booth – naw, they’re effectively saying, we don’t want this responsibility any more. It’s too hard. It’s messy and dangerous and we don’t always get what we want. We’ll leave you to it. No thanks, pal, we’re off.

The history books might record that the Better Together camp struggled to tell Scots a simple, consistent and convincing story and that this was because the raw materials it was working with were infinitely complex and flawed, battered and bashed and worn by the centuries. The ‘elevator pitch’ for Britain, the snappy soundbite summation of the case, was always going to be a tough ask. Even at the end, though our circumstances and influence were diminished, we remained one of the bigger guys, one of the decision takers in global affairs. Some of the decisions we helped to take went well, some not so well. As decisions will. Anyway, we always did our best. Regardless, we were given no quarter: everything was held against us, cheaply.

Britain is, in short, an easy target. Those with malign intent will not struggle to build a charge sheet: they need only let their eye pass unseeingly over the very many good bits.

Defence of the realm is not made any easier when the officers and troops you’re relying on are enemies forced temporarily, and reluctantly, to act as allies. The island story that the Labour Party recites is not the same as the one relayed by the Tories. Their respective narratives largely comprise wet-eyed reminiscences of legendary triumphs over the other. Both have been responsible for great innovations and advances in our society, but neither wants to credit its opponent.

This hand-to-hand combat is the way Britain has got things done, and with Scots at all times at the heart and helm. How strange that it could be the end of us, too. Pathetically, with the kingdom’s very future at risk, the parties could not even agree one big, generous offer of further powers in the event of a No vote. They may be reaching such a deal now, but it would have been far better done from a position of strength.

Talk has resurfaced that David Cameron will have to resign if there is a Yes vote. I’m not sure that’s fair – he’s had a good referendum and won’t be the reason for either victory or defeat. Be in no doubt, if the thing is lost it is towards Labour that we should turn our burning stare.

Founded by a Scot, dominated by Scots, dominant in Scotland, agitator for a Scottish Parliament and then deliverer of it: it’s all about Labour. In his speech at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, Donald Dewar said: ‘We look forward to the time when this moment will be seen as a turning point: the day when democracy was renewed in Scotland, when we revitalised our place in this our United Kingdom.’

But Dewar’s party, whether through arrogance or negligence, stopped looking forward. Instead, it turned its back. The few senior servicemen sent from Westminster to midwife the birth and nurse the infant through its early years were quickly gone. They left behind a lumpen rump lacking the boldness or the intellect, or both, to lead. Alex Salmond merely took his chance.

All Labour’s bright young Scots still headed south to Westminster, with ambitions to be Foreign Secretary and best buddies with a Clinton. Every Scottish Labour politician continued to blame the Tories for all society’s ills – it was an easy hit with the voters. The SNP and the Lib Dems happily joined in. And this England they all talked about: it made the hair on the back of your neck stand up. A foreign land of sinister experiments on the poor, of cackling toffs stubbing out cigars on passing immigrants, of warmongers obsessed with Jesus, George W and oil.

In this view, the Blair government wasn’t a necessary attempt to accommodate Labour values and modernity, it was proof that the worst of the English character had triumphed. Reform and innovation became dirty words. In 2010, when a moderate Tory/Lib Dem coalition came to power, it was treated like the Gestapo had taken over.

As the No camp has wrestled with this toxic legacy and tried to smooth out the contradictions, the separatists have made hay. Where Britain is real, and attacking it is no harder than hitting a cow’s backside with a banjo, an independent Scotland is a fantasy. Every Yes voter projects his or her own desires on to it, whether they be green, socialist, Nordic, atheistic-rationalist, whatever. The argument, whatever they say, is founded on a negative — a rejection of British solidarity – and supplemented by blind faith in… what, exactly? For Better Together, this is a problem: how do you land a punch on a phantom? How do you wrestle with smoke?

There are two distinct conversations going on in Scotland today. One is dreary and fact-based. It is concerned with national debt, currency, interest rates, mortgage costs, pensions, EU membership, the departure of key businesses, the severe austerity that a newly independent Scotland would almost certainly have to implement. It worries about how we can do our bit in a time of great global crisis.

The other is that nationalist fantasy, soundtracked and scripted by middle-class musicians, playwrights and actors, urged along by disenchanted, superannuated newspaper columnists, gleefully led by a pied-piper politician as cynical and self-interested as any of those he castigates at Westminster. Everything will be fine, the detail doesn’t matter, we’ll cross each bridge as we come to it, it’ll be alright on the night. Let’s just get out.

Well, it looks like we might be about to do just that. Ten days to save our Scotland, our Britain. Do what you can, friends, because it’s not ok. It’s really not ok.

(This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on September 8, 2014)

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