12 May 2014
As Scotland’s date with destiny approaches (129 days and counting from the publishing of this article), the Yes campaign has succeeded in tipping the balance from an apparently foregone conclusion to a race that is either side’s to win. Regardless of your view on the referendum, it cannot be denied that this historic event is causing divisions across society.
Both sides would do well to remember Bill Clinton’s prescient comments last June that the way the debate is carried out is as important as the outcome. Wisely refraining from taking sides, admitting that he did not know enough about the domestic constitutional situation, he added: “You just have to run up the pluses and minuses and do it in a way that doesn’t tear the place apart while you’re trying to reach an agreement.”
If only it were that simple. Thus far, it has been all but impossible to lay down a concrete set of pros and cons, since neither side of the debate seems able to agree on any issue; social, economic or political. Behind closed doors however, with regard to certain issues such as sharing a currency or oil revenues, there is some hushed overlap.
But I have observed for over two years now, as the rhetoric, arguments and debates become ever more vitriolic and it has been a highly unpleasant experience. Thankfully, I have personally not suffered any worse than de-friending on Facebook (petty, but a shame nonetheless). Both sides are equally to blame for this. Fortunately, if independence is the outcome, it will have been achieved by a (hopefully) peaceful, democratic, legitimate political process. But in terms of the debate as well, the means are as important as the ends. Both sides have employed dirty tactics to try to achieve their respective ends. Better Together has been accused of scaremongering on a variety of issues, while Yes Scotland has been accused of covering up some hard truths in the pursuit of independence “at any cost”. The Scottish people deserve better than this. The unionists cannot dismiss the “Yes” campaign by demanding answers to every possible question about how an independent Scotland would be, as that is for the people in an independent Scotland to decide. Equally, the nationalists cannot use this as an excuse to dodge genuine concerns about the impacts of independence or to sugarcoat their answers. Scotland risks being divided along this Yes/No line for a long time after the referendum and this divide is bound to have negative effects on the social fabric of our society.
In the result of a “Yes” vote, it is possible that there will be a feeling of resentment among the minority who voted to remain within the United Kingdom. It is difficult to say how – or even whether – this will be manifested, as most attention has been focused on the economic impacts of independence. However, the nationalists have done well to minimise this possibility by assuring the Scottish people that institutions such as the monarchy and the BBC would remain in an independent Scotland – a so-called “social union”.
In the result of a “No” vote, having come so close to their goal – and it will be close – the nationalists will be eager to have another shot, possibly within the next 20 years. And if the trends of the last 15 years continues, it is more than likely that at a second attempt, the “Yes” vote would carry the day. The unionists face a dilemma in this respect. Rather than “killing nationalism stone-dead”, as infamously predicted by Lord George Robertson, devolution has led to an upsurge in nationalist sentiment and ultimately to the referendum in September. Would further powers for the Scottish parliament make independence practically an irrelevance, a step not worth taking? Or would a further increase in autonomy whet the appetite of the Scottish electorate for full independence, having being given a taste for it? All the pro-Union parties have promised more powers in the case of a “No” vote – to do otherwise would seem politically suicidal. But the Yes campaign argues that there is very little logic in Westminster handing more powers over to Scotland – by doing so every party creates a bigger rod for its own back. As such, their argument is that the only way to ensure more powers for Scotland is to vote for independence. This too though, is a kind of scaremongering – vote “Yes” or be doomed to Groundhog Day. In any case, it is clear that there is a malaise within the constitutional make-up of the United Kingdom and that in the case of a “No” vote, the status quo will not be acceptable.
Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, there will be a significant proportion of the Scottish population who feel disenfranchised. Of course, that is the nature of democracy – not everyone can be happy with the result. But this is not a mere election. Whatever the outcome may be, it will have a permanent effect. And this leaves far greater scope for extended bitterness on the losing side. Either way, the 18th September 2014 will not be the end of this saga, but the beginning. It is essential that all Scots – regardless of what we think is best for Scotland – make that a good beginning.