The very British debate on whether or not to break up the UK is not a privilege we should take lightly, writes Allan Massie
Yulia Izotova was carrying a tray of sandwiches to a checkpoint manned by pro-Russian activists in the town of Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine when she was shot and killed. She was just 21. It is not known who fired the shot, but there can be no doubt that the gunman supports the interim Ukrainian government in Kiev and is opposed to the pro-Russian separatists.
One has two responses to what is happening in Ukraine. First, there is dismay and a sense of gathering horror. Even if you discount Russian involvement and the machinations of president Vladimir Putin, the country is evidently sharply divided; more blood will be shed and things are likely to get worse before they get better. Second, how fortunate we are to be where and what we are. We are debating the pros and cons of Scottish independence, about to vote in a referendum. Whatever the outcome, the result will be accepted – no doubt with dismay and even anger by some, but nevertheless accepted.
If the nationalists win the referendum, disappointed unionists in parts of the country where there is a majority against independence are not going to storm police stations (if there are any local ones left to be stormed) or seize control of town halls and council buildings. They are not going to take to the streets. There will be no pro-British militias, manning checkpoints on the A7 or A68. There will be no shooting. Negotiations over the terms of independence will get under way. Argument may be fierce, but it will be a war only of words. The British Army will not be massed on the Border.
Likewise, if we vote to remain part of the United Kingdom, nationalists will be disappointed. Some will be bitter. Angry speeches will be made. Nasty words will be posted on the internet. But again there will be no violent challenge to the result. The decision of the ballot-box will be respected. The SNP government will still have a majority at Holyrood and will go about the business of administration as usual.
All this is no doubt obvious. Indeed, it is so obvious that we take it for granted. And yet it is remarkable. People on both sides of the debate feel strongly. But there will be no Scottish equivalent of poor Yulia Izotova.
Alex Salmond has often observed that nobody (in modern times) has been killed or has killed in the struggle for independence. The SNP has sought to advance its cause by peaceful means, by persuasion and by means of the ballot box. This is as unusual as it is admirable. Look at the Basque Country, look at Ireland, and you begin to understand how unusual this is. The SNP has shown exemplary restraint.
The government of the United Kingdom has behaved every bit as well. It put no obstacle in the way of the referendum, and has promised to abide by the result. If there is a Yes majority, it will engage in the negotiations that will be needed to settle the terms on which the United Kingdom will be dismantled. Indeed, over the years the UK government has been every bit as restrained as the SNP. If we vote Yes, Mr Salmond will be unusual among successful leaders of breakaway independence movements; he will have spent no time in prison.
Some of us fear that, whatever the result, the referendum will leave a legacy of bitterness, especially if the majority either way is narrow. Such apprehension is probably well-founded. Strong feelings have been aroused, angry words exchanged. Divisions have opened up within communities, doubtless within families, too. The result will be resented by many. Nevertheless it would be foolish to exaggerate the depth of this resentment. The passions that have been aroused are weak in comparison with those evident in Ukraine. The divisions are not comparable to those still evident in Northern Ireland. There are no bodies to be uncovered, no murders to be avenged, no bereaved families seeking justice.
If Scotland votes for independence many unionists will be dismayed, but their fears for the future will be restricted to doubts about Scotland’s economic prospects; they will have no fear of being victims of boycotts or persecution. There will be no expulsion of unionists.
If we vote to stay in the United Kingdom, almost all nationalists will swallow their disappointment, seek further devolution and continue to campaign for independence and another referendum some way down the line.
Either way, we will all make the best of it. There will be no need for any form of Truth and Reconciliation Commission, precisely because no crimes will have been committed.
All this may seem obvious. Yet it is worth saying because we tend to take the obvious for granted, and in this case don’t remark just how unusual it is and how fortunate we are. When in 1861 the southern states of the US broke away and formed the confederacy, Abraham Lincoln fought a long and terrible war to preserve the union and force the rebel states back into it. The US was then only some 80 years old. Our Union has lasted for more than three centuries now, and yet we are contemplating its dissolution at the ballot-box.
There are reasons why this is so, why we are being given the opportunity to end it in this manner. The first reason is self-evident: the good sense and general decency of the Scottish, English, British – whichever you like – people. The second may seem paradoxical. It is the success of the Union that offers us the chance to end it by democratic means; violence or, if you prefer, the gun, was taken out of our public life a long time ago. Third, the nature of the Union means that we Scots have never been an oppressed people; we have taken our full share in its working and have few grievances.
To his credit, Alex Salmond doesn’t pretend otherwise. He merely argues that we can manage things better on our own. Some of us may think him wrong and remain convinced that we are better together. But we should recognise and be grateful for the tone of his language and the general tenor of the Yes campaign, just as nationalists should be grateful for the willingness of the UK government to put no obstacles in the way to independence if that is the choice of the majority.
And both sides should look eastwards towards Ukraine, and count our blessings that we are as we are, and the United Kingdom is as it is.