Allan Massie: Nothing negative about not saying Yes

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The Better Together campaign is regularly accused by its opponents, the Separatists, of negativity. Quite right too; the campaign is negative.

It is calling for us to vote No to the proposition that Scotland should be an independent state. There is no more negative word in the language than “no”. This is something that any child learns, often reluctantly.

It’s up to those who want change to make the case for it. They have to put forward a positive prospectus. They have to convince us that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. It’s enough, however, for their opponents to say “not from our point of view”. Suppose a car salesman tries to persuade you that you need a new car. He has to extol its qualities and try to convince you that your present one is no longer good enough. But you don’t have to find reasons to defend the car you have in order to resist his persuasion. All you need say is, “I’m quite content as I am, thank you.”

This is the position of most Scots unionists; we’re quite happy as we are. We don’t actually require to say anything else. We don’t need to make an argument in defence of the Union. All we have to say is that it suits us well enough. Furthermore, we may add that we realise that no argument which we advance will have any effect on those who identify themselves as Nationalists and are certain that breaking the Union is a good thing. They are in the position of the salesman who has a new car to sell and is convinced, even honestly convinced, that you would be better off buying it. But we don’t have to believe them. So it’s easy to say “no”.

There are, however, the people in between, those who haven’t yet made up their minds, and wait to be persuaded one way or another. Here the separatists enjoy an advantage. They are talking about the future, of which we are all ignorant. They can tell us the sun will shine more brightly tomorrow in a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. This may invite the reply, “sez you” or “I don’t think!”, but there is no way in which their assertions can be disproved, so long anyway as they remain vague, general, and full of optimism. If, for instance, you assure me that September’s weather will be beautiful with an unbroken succession of sunny days, I can’t prove you wrong in advance. I can only express scepticism.

Scepticism is what the Better Together campaign has offered, and scepticism is a sensible response to anyone promising a golden future. Scepticism has meant that questions have been posed about matters concerning which the undecided may already have doubts. This is why the Better Together campaign has asked about pensions and social security arrangements post-independence; why it has asked for clarification of the relations that there would be between an independent Scotland that retains the pound and the Bank of England which controls the money supply; why it has raised questions about a host of matters – defence, terms of membership of the European Union, the long-term future for North Sea Oil and energy supplies.

Asking such questions, and seeking clarification, may rile the pro-independence camp; they may condemn this approach as negative. Perhaps it is indeed negative, but it is also necessary.

The Separatists demand that their opponents should make a positive case for the status quo. Unionists think this unnecessary, even though some of them are ready to suggest modifications that might usefully be made to the Constitution – devolution of further powers to the Scottish Parliament, even a move towards a federal or quasi-federal or confederal United Kingdom. But, if they are honest, they should also admit that making an attractive case for the status quo is more difficult than making an attractive case for change. Those who offer change can promise that things will be not only different, but better, much better. In contrast, it’s not very exciting to say, “vote for us and keep everything much the same”. Yet this essentially is what the Better Together camp has to say.

In their favour, one should point out that they have been saying it quite effectively – so effectively that Alex Salmond has withdrawn from his more exposed positions, withdrawn so far that he now seems to be arguing for a more limited independence which won’t be so very different from the current state of things. But it means he has made concessions to the Better Together case.

Actually it is difficult to make a positive case for the Union. It’s a bit like making a case for your marriage – and indeed the Union is a sort of marriage. Your marriage is something you live in, something to which you have become accustomed. It has its constraints as well as its pleasures and rewards, but occasionally even the most devoted husband or wife must wonder how different things might have been if he or she had taken a different fork in the road. The thought may be thrust aside as an idle dream, but, if asked why marriage is good, most of us could offer only rather vague generalities, and might end up by saying, it feels better than I can imagine not being married would be. One might admit that marriage is not always easy before asserting that nevertheless it suits.

In Rob Roy, Sir Walter Scott has his Glasgow merchant, Bailie Nicol Jarvie, say, “there’s naething sae gude on this side o’ Time, but it micht hae been better – and the same may be said of the Union…”

Nevertheless the Bailie approved of it because of the benefits it had brought. And this is still the position of those of us who believe we are better together. The Union has the decent familiarity of a long-lasting marriage in which the partners rub along together, for the most part content. Or to put it another way, it’s like an old house we have lived in for a long time. The roof leaks in places and some of the doors and windows don’t fit very well, but we’re comfortable and don’t wish to remove to the brand-new bungalow that Alex proposes to build. So we say No. Negativity rules, OK.