Dani Garavelli: Unholy mess will make next vote much easier

James Fraser from Dunblane carries his distinctive standard at a pro-EU demo overlooking the parliament last Wednesday. Picture: Scott Louden
James Fraser from Dunblane carries his distinctive standard at a pro-EU demo overlooking the parliament last Wednesday. Picture: Scott Louden
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THE only source of consolation in these dark days is the prospect of another chance to cut our ties with Westminster’s ship of fools, writes Dani Garavelli

Voting Yes in the 2014 independence referendum – a decision I took in the dying days of the campaign – felt like boarding a ship bound for the New World; it was risky, there would be rough seas ahead and I wasn’t sure the destination would justify the voyage. It smacked of treachery too. If the vessel had set sail, I would have looked back with guilt at English friends and relatives left standing on the quayside.

If the SNP cannot deliver a victory now - with a popular leader at its helm and a legitimate grievance - will it ever be able to deliver it?

Next time round – and it may not be long now – voting Yes will feel more like grasping for a lifeboat from wreckage-strewn waters. The destination might remain uncertain, but anywhere would be better than the cesspool created by Leave’s victory. As for those we’d abandon, my conscience would still be troubled. But I no longer consider myself “British”. Watching England tear itself apart is a nightmare, but being lumped in with a country in the grip of xenophobia is too great a sacrifice to make.

Recent events have transformed the landscape. In “affluent, No-voting East Renfrewshire” – as my home-patch is almost always described – the shift is palpable. Staunchly unionist friends are beginning to think the unthinkable: that cutting loose from the UK may be the only way to protect their interests. Already suffering the financial impact of the Brexit vote, they’re concerned about the economy. But more than that, they’re questioning their identity. Most have an affinity with Europe; they have worked there and now their children harbour ambitions to do the same. Forced to make a choice between the UK and the EU, it seems possible they’d choose the latter.

As for me, I am not a “nationalist”. I would no sooner wave a Saltire on “Freedom Square” than I would take up needlepoint. Last time round, I found some of the Yes camp’s behaviour antagonistic and cringeworthy. But threatened with the prospect of being dragged out of an alliance that has preserved peace and protected employment rights, I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and get stuck in.

In the same way, I have no allegiance to the SNP. I have often criticised the party for its poor record on education. Yet Nicola Sturgeon’s conduct has been faultless. Non-triumphalist yet steely, she is the only UK leader who has a strategy / an interest in anything other than her own career / an ounce of decorum. Whether reaching out to residents from other EU countries or fighting Scotland’s corner in the European Parliament, she has been – as writer Rachel McCormack put it – “the only thing standing between me and heavy medication”.

Admittedly, it’s not difficult to shine when measured against the rag-tag band of self-serving Tory schemers and Brexiteers: Farage, Johnson, Gove et al who treated the referendum as a game and the country as a pawn in their power struggles; nor against Corbyn whose reputation for “decency” has been shattered by his refusal to stand down or discourage his supporters from abusing his critics.

It’s not difficult to shine when measured against Cameron, who got us into this mess then abdicated all responsibility; against George Osborne, who hid when the country needed reassurance; or against Theresa May who failed to raise her voice in the Remain campaign and is now capitalising on its failure.

But Sturgeon hasn’t made a single misstep: by putting an independence referendum back on the table (but attempting to negotiate a separate EU deal for Scotland within the UK first), by working to build a cross-party consensus and by setting up a panel of those much-maligned “experts”, she has underlined the cultural gap between Scotland and England.

Her efforts in Brussels may not have gained her much ground (France, Spain and others appear to have spurned her advances) but she has increased awareness and understanding of Scotland’s invidious position across the Continent, leading to sympathetic coverage in some European newspapers.

Back home, the mood music is changing too. The Daily Record appears to be moving towards independence, as are leading figures from the No campaign, such as Simon Pia and Mike Dailly. All this normalises the idea of separation, so that when Sturgeon’s attempts to secure EU membership for Scotland within the UK fail – as they are almost certain to do – a Yes vote will seem less unconscionable to once-resolute No voters and those who are undecided.

There is work to be done. The Yes campaign would be on stronger ground if it could settle the currency question. And it needs to settle nerves over the economy. But independence is an easier sell in a climate of despondency.

And really, what’s the alternative? Last week, the country was screwed by greedy men who staked the lives of the least well-off on a cynical bet. Soon more of those men and women will choose a new leader from a shortlist of candidates which – as Dorothy Parker might have put it – runs the gamut of political thinking from A to B. We have Gove, the back-stabber; May, who once said the benefits of net migration were “next to zero”; Stephen Crabb, who voted against same-sex marriage legislation; Andrea Leadsom, who abstained; and Liam Fox, who resigned in disgrace after allowing a pal to attend MoD meetings without security clearance. And we have a Labour Party in no position to hold any of them to account. Call me a pessimist, but I can’t foresee a happy ending unless we take the initiative and write it ourselves.

I know there are independence supporters who believe a vote before the UK’s Brexit negotiations are concluded is too great a political gamble. But I wonder. If the SNP cannot deliver a victory now – with a popular leader at its helm and a legitimate grievance – will it ever be able to deliver it?

If we do find ourselves in the throes of yet another referendum campaign, we should, at least, learn lessons from the last one. There should be zero tolerance of hate speech that risks spilling over into real life. And opponents should make more effort to understand each other’s points of view. It was the dismissal of Leave voters’ concerns that hardened their resolve; it was the failure to build bridges that left the country broken beyond repair.