GORDON Brown’s entry into the independence referendum campaign tomorrow, at the launch of Scottish Labour’s pro-UK campaign in the referendum, marks the return to the fray of one of the biggest beasts in modern Scottish politics.
It also marks the entry into the independence debate of an idea that has not had much of an airing so far, but which is a very real consideration in the mindset of many voters. It may not turn out to be a decisive factor, but it may be a factor nonetheless. It can be summed up in a question: are Scots prepared to walk away from British politics?
To committed Scottish nationalists, such a question is baffling. Why ever not, they ask. Why wouldn’t we? That is because they are, well, committed Scottish nationalists. In their minds they have drawn a line, roughly along the River Tweed, that marks the boundary of their political concern. They want a constitutional solution in which nothing that happens south of that line need concern us Scots any longer. This is, indeed, the point of independence.
The trouble with this position is that it does not accord with the world view of a large number of Scottish voters. The SNP itself has acknowledged this. In recent years it has moved to a position in which it talks up “the social union” within the UK – that rich amalgam of shared cultural experience, family connection and common endeavour in these islands. This social union, says the SNP, would still exist after independence and would in fact be even richer. Only the political union would disappear. The question Brown’s speech tomorrow will pose is whether majority opinion in Scotland is comfortable with the idea of one without the other. Will Scots really not care whether the Tories or Labour are in 10 Downing Street? Will they not mind how their friends, family and colleagues south of the Tweed are being governed? The SNP position assumes that when the results of a UK general election are coming in we would be as dispassionate about the outcome as we would be about the results of a general election in, say, Ireland or Belgium. It would, after all, have nothing to do with us. Does this ring true?
These are the buttons Gordon Brown will be pressing in his speech tomorrow, and whether they find a ready echo in the opinions of the Scottish electorate is one of the many unanswered questions in this campaign. His case will be that yes, Scots do care about who resides in 10 Downing Street, and they will want to continue to have a say in that decision. Again, committed Scottish nationalists will find this notion – that Scots might pass up the chance of autonomy so as not to abandon the English to the Tories – simply ridiculous. But they would be wise to factor it in to their playbook.
This is because both the Yes and No campaigns are planning for a moment in this campaign when the voice of the rest of the UK is heard, and when Scousers, Geordies, Londoners, Brummies and the Welsh say to Scotland: “Please don’t leave.” This is exactly what happened on the eve of the Quebec referendum on independence in 1995, when tens of thousands of people from all over Canada gathered in Montreal to plead with the Québécois to stay. Analysts believe it may have been a crucial factor in a contest ultimately decided by 0.58 per cent of the vote, with independence campaigners on the losing side. When the centre-left of the rest of the UK says to Scotland, “please don’t abandon us to the Tories”, how will Scotland respond?
The year 2013 is the officially endorsed Year of Natural Scotland, a celebration of everything about our stunningly beautiful countryside that makes Scotland an attractive place to live and visit. And so it comes as no surprise that among all its other glories, some of the many burns that drain down to the west coast harbour colonies of some of the rarest mosses and liverworts in Europe.
These plants often inhabit the steepest areas of the burns where water cascades down across waterfalls and throws a nourishing mist up into the air in which these bryophytes – to give them their collective name – thrive. But many of these locations are also where the power of water could be harnessed to help provide the renewable hydro energy that Scotland needs to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels to provide electricity.
As we report today, the government’s countryside agency has made a start on mapping where the rarest plants of this type are to be found. Biodiversity is important, and it is right that some of these areas should be protected. But if Scotland is to build a future in which renewable energy plays an increasingly crucial role – and, given our climate, hydro power is a key way forward – then we must make the most of our natural assets in sometimes difficult ways, even if it involves a trade-off with other environmental concerns.