No matter the outcome, referendum will not end our obsession with constitutional politics, writes Bill Jamieson
Our Date with Destiny! Our Defining Moment! Just 364 days to go! I cannot believe we have fallen for this febrile fancy and hype. Over the past few days, the sirens have sounded on the countdown to Scotland’s “Day of Reckoning”. On BBC Newsnight, Kirsty Wark chaired a heated debate staged on the Border to mark the start of the Year of Decision. An “Undecided” audience voted two to one for independence to the strains of a lone bagpiper playing Highland Cathedral.
And on the BBC Radio Four, Jim Naughtie interrogated Nicola Sturgeon with the zeal of a David Attenborough despatched to some distant land to explain to English listeners the mating call of a rare and exotic species.
The common assumption behind this feverish hysteria is that Scotland is poised on the brink of a Fateful Choice, that after 18 September, 2014, we will plunge into some dark unknown, that life will Never Be The Same. Really? Whatever the outcome of the referendum, political life in Scotland will not “change profoundly”. It will not change very much at all. Be ready for more of the same.
This is not the end of our relentless obsession with constitutional politics. For there can never be an end. It is certainly true that, over the past two years, “independence politics” has been engaged with keen intensity. Each day, e-mails and counter e-mails hurl through the air. TV studios stage set-piece battles between the Yes and Better Together camps. Businesses and civic organisations hold hustings and member meetings. And across newspapers and the internet, the battle rages. It seems that, since 2007, we have argued over little else.
But, in truth, Scotland’s constitution, its decision-making machinery, its place in the wider world, has been a central feature of our political life for decades. My own initiation into Scottish nationalism? It was as a speaker in a school debate in … 1959.
What do we imagine political Scotland will find to do when 18 September is over? We have grown accustomed to having the eternal issues of political life subsumed into questions over their constitutional relevance. Welfare, taxation, the economy, have all been bent to this issue and wider matters filtered through this prism. Visitors to Scotland find it difficult to familiarise: like adjusting to a pair of bottle-glass spectacles, or being fitted with blinkers.
Will it be all over when we awake on 19 September? Consider the outcomes. In the event of a Yes vote, it will not be “over” at all. We will embark on years, yes, years, of haggling with the rest of the UK(rUK) over the terms and conditions of separation, sharing the pound, the degree of rUK Treasury oversight on Scottish tax and fiscal policy, a Scottish voice in monetary policy and Bank of England decision-making and, of course, conditions attaching to our European Union membership. Against this, the years of argument leading up to the referendum will seem like foreplay.
How will UK debt be divided up? When do we get the oil money? Who gets to sit where in the embassies? When do we get our Scottish tax assessments? When will Trident be sent packing? Will there be border controls? On and on it will go, a constitutional equivalent of the Wagner Ring Cycle – with no intervals. Many will relish this. Others will puzzle over the minutiae of difference between the negotiated outcome and DevoPlus.
Now consider the aftermath of a No vote. Once the sense of anti-climax subsides, there will be a marked reluctance to return to status quo ante. Whatever else the independence campaign has done, its aspirations cannot be poured back into the bottle and the stopper slammed on. Those for whom “indyref” has been the stuff of life, that has daily pumped adrenalin into their bloodstreams, will be like junkies suddenly deprived of their fix. Delirious trembling will set in. Hands will reach for the alternative medicament, the Methadone of “DevoPlus”. Constitutional politics will quickly resume.
Is it likely – likely at all – that the SNP will fold its tent, declare Game Over and shuffle off to the Glen of Tranquillity Retirement Home? Think again. La lutte continue. Polls show that the SNP stands every prospect of winning the next Holyrood election, even if it loses the independence referendum.
Puzzled outsiders scratch their heads and wonder how this can be. It’s because of this: the SNP is an aspirational party. Its commitment to Scottish interests is beyond question. Leftist though it is, it is not Labour, Old or New.
And even its fiercest critics concede that it has brought competent and capable figures to the forefront of political life. John Swinney, Nicola Sturgeon, Fergus Ewing and Fiona Hyslop are prominent among those who have brought distinction, skill and intelligence to Scotland’s government. And presiding over them is a First Minister who remains far and away Scotland’s most outstanding politician: no other party leader commands such recognition and presence. Early retirement and gentle pottering with the hybrid teas for them? Think again.
For at least one in three Scots, self-government and the assertion of difference with the rest of the UK has never been, and will never be, a question of being “£500 better off”, but part of our self-definition and our aspiration for greater control of our affairs.
Add to this the potency of the SNP’s grievance machine – its ability to turn the daily reality of hard choices into yet more slight and subtraction, and it’s more likely to be a case of: “Once more into the breach, dear friends…”
It would also be mistaken to assume that the “£500 question” settles the issue one way or the other. The famous refrain of the Proclaimers was “500 miles”, not “500 pounds”. More money in our pockets – or, more likely with the SNP, more public spending and voter-friendly welfare perks – may be a determining issue for the referendum. But it does not make constitutional politics go away.
The wider dynamics and tensions that have made the issue of Scotland’s governance so compelling look set to intensify. The megalopolis of London will continue to pull away from the rest of the UK. The sense of the other regions of the UK being left behind, defenceless against the relentless magnetic pull of London, will grow. And, in Westminster itself, major constitutional issues such as the future of the second chamber remain untackled and will compel greater attention on some form of federal solution.
That is not a background that suggests constitutional politics is going to subside any time soon. These issues will persist, as Scottish assertiveness has always persisted, long after the “decisive” vote on 18 September, feeding and fuelling a desire for change.
18 September, 2014, a finishing line? A closure? An ending? None of these. Either way, the road ahead points to DevoPlus. That is why our “Date with Destiny” is less the beginning of the end, than the end of the beginning.