The independence debate has been getting ever nastier and it’s time for all sides to take a breath, writes Bill Jamieson
From the very first, the battle over the independence referendum was always going to be a feisty and keenly fought affair. But with five months of the campaign still to go, I am concerned at the growing atmosphere of anger and menace around the indyref battle. And I am not alone in my fear that we are storing up huge trouble ahead, whichever way the vote goes on 18 September.
This is not just dividing Scots from the rest of the UK. It is increasingly dividing Scotland, and in a most acrimonious way. Scary assertions, accusations of “bluff, bluster and bullying”, threats of debt obligation denial, impartial forecasts dismissed on flimsy assertions of bias, and vituperative language and abuse on social media: all this – and with the final frenetic weeks still to come.
Public indyref debates are increasingly looking like bear pits. The assumption that hissing and jeering audiences make for good television is thoughtless. To most outside Scotland – and many within – it creates an appalling impression. The recent TV encounter between Johann Lamont and Nicola Sturgeon (now universally referred to as “the stairheid rammy”) points to growing difficulties of TV interviewers in keeping combatants under control.
Yesterday in the Scottish Parliament, senior business leaders, invited to give evidence, were berated and shouted at by nationalist MSPs.
Both sides bear a measure of responsibility. The impression, to put it no stronger, that Westminster’s refusal to countenance a currency union may have indeed been no more than a bluff will have angered many in Scotland. If true (it has been strongly denied) it is demeaning. A decision of such importance for our future is not one to be played with in this way.
On the other side, Bill Munro, the head of Barrhead Travel, one of our most successful Scottish companies, was subjected to a volley of threats and abuse after he advised staff in a letter to vote No. Angry nationalists let rip with calls to boycott the company and compared the entrepreneur to Robert Mugabe. The tirade of abuse included threats that the firm would go bankrupt. A line has been crossed here between fair rebuttal and menacing nastiness. More of this and we could be on the way towards a Caledonian Kristallnacht.
I mention all this, not just because it is all getting fractious and ugly, but because it is storing up big problems ahead. If there is a narrow No vote as polls currently suggest, there will be a large group of very frustrated and disaffected voters on 19 September – and it will not settle back down to the “status quo ante”. SNP MSP John Mason, asked at an Edinburgh University Business School debate on Tuesday what the SNP would do if there was a No vote, said the party would fight on – a prospect that did not warm everyone in the audience.
If it is a Yes vote, I do not see, after all the insults and recriminations, the negotiations on independence being conducted in a spirit of give-and-take and compromise. A “velvet divorce” may be the rhetoric. It is likely to be anything but. The building mood looks too poisonous for that.
In an independence referendum debate in Edinburgh on Monday organised by the business advisory firm Thrive, Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp for the Yes side put his case is an able and informed manner. But fears were expressed over how these divisions would heal in the event of a close vote. After such an intense campaign, can they be healed?
Sandy Finlayson, senior partner of corporate advisory firm MBM Commercial, warned of the danger of Scotland repeating the tragedy of Ireland. “This issue,” he declared, “is creating the biggest schism in Scotland since the Reformation.”
That may be over-dramatic, but I have no doubt – and a growing number have no doubt – that the mood is turning sour.
There has been much criticism of the negativity of the Better Together campaign. But there are dangers, too, on the other side of over-hyped expectations that independence will fulfil all the aspirations and deliver all the goodies promised. There is much Scotland as a nation has failed to do with the powers it already has. To effect social and economic uplift requires a behavioural transformation and better life choices. Without that, constitutional change per se can do little.
And an independent Scotland will start life with truly serious challenges – a debt and deficit overhang for one. Too many unfunded promises and commitments are being made. But the mood makes no allowance for disappointment.
Fortunately, there is little sign that this ferocious debate has had any significant adverse impact on Scottish business. We are enjoying our fair share of recovery. But there is growing concern over the scale and depth of uncertainty now being faced. And the area most vulnerable to persistent uncertainty is business investment and expansion. Companies now have a potent motive to shelve and defer critical decisions on their future planning until the independence issue is settled. And such is the intensity of the battle now, 18 September may be less the beginning of the end than the end of the beginning.
It is not independence per se that troubles business so much as the uncertainty straight ahead.
A key reason the debate has become so heated is frustration over the lack of answers on major issues. These include what currency we might have, our membership of the EU, tax and welfare arrangements, pension payments and business regulation.
These are not trick questions. They are not anti-independence questions. But for anyone doing business, it’s vital to know what the answers are. Yet no-one can answer any of these questions for sure – not the Yes campaign, not Better Together, not the UK government, not the Scottish Government. On all of these we are, in effect, flying blind.
The closer we get to 18 September, the greater and more urgent these questions become – and the greater the potential for uncertainty to inflict material damage on our well-being and prosperity.
How are we going to put this country back together again? We may need our own version of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission before all this plays out. More immediately we certainly need a greater respect for our differences and a cooling of temperament and rhetoric. Somehow over the next few months, we need as Scots to find the words and deeds to stop us flying apart.