Bill Jamieson: A clear need for honesty on future

The language gets more fiery with ever week and a 'velvet' divorce looks less likely. Picture: Jane Barlow
The language gets more fiery with ever week and a 'velvet' divorce looks less likely. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Dialogue on what shape a post-Yes vote Scotland will really take is as incoherent as a BBC soundtrack, writes Bill Jamieson

Aarg mumble mumble blurff garl surrble morrisons sausages brufff sourpuss brownies murble carbury schweppes garble burble…

When it comes to the social union there’s nothing quite like the BBC’s rendering of Jamaica Inn to remind us of our rich cultural diversity. The weather’s miserable, the mist relentless, the characters dour and the dialogue utterly impenetrable: the very attributes that English folk are wont to apply to Scotland are splendidly caught in the BBC’s dark rendition of Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall. All those jibes about Rab C Nesbitt requiring subtitles are turned about on what was supposed to be a no-expense-spared showcase period drama.

The subsequent viewer uproar has brought comfort on several levels. First, it was not just me going deaf. Second, it was not set in Scotland. And third, it was not some strained BBC attempt to recreate regional eccentricity but a technical fault. Someone, it sounded, had stuck a sock over the microphone.

Little wonder Alex Salmond cavils about paying the BBC licence fee.

Yet while he proposes a separate Scottish Broadcasting Corporation, how ironic he should speak on St George’s Day on the virtues of the social union.

One of the many paradoxes in the independence battle can be found in the evocation of the social union as evidence of the ties that bind between Scots and English; that there will be no existential break between the two countries. Yet a central pillar of the case for independence is that there are vital social and cultural differences, and indeed, that the politics of Scotland are already sufficiently distinct as to merit independence. Listen to Alex Salmond, or Johann Lamont or Patrick Harvie: there’s no mumble whisper blurff in this drama. It is quite distinct from the rest of the UK.

Why should this matter if we already have our own parliament? It matters on this perspective. Politics today is as much about issues of identity and belonging as about economics and finance. It is the sense of heritage, history and belonging that defines borders – not economics. Were this not so, the nations of the UK would comprise the global city state of London – the pulsating megapolis with its multi-national, multi-ethnic population and booming finance and service industries – and the rest of the UK. London’s economy has had a different dynamic from the rest of the UK for centuries – yet it is bound to the rest of the country by language, law, culture and history.

Here is another paradox. With every year cross-border trade surges to new levels as integration marches on. “Globalisation” is transforming the world into regional blocs. The era of the nation state is surely over. Yet the number of individual nation states continues to rise. In 1946 the United States government recognised 76 sovereign states. Today that figure is 194. Identity and belonging matter as much as ever.

The fact is that, despite 307 years of union, large numbers of Scots feel culturally and socially distinct from the rest of the UK. Alistair Carmichael, the Secretary of State for Scotland, said recently there is “no such thing as homogeneous Scottish values or homogeneous English ones”. But large numbers of Scots feel deeply attached to this sense of difference. Those on the Right cite a distinctive history, law and culture. Those on the Left point to a greater sense of social solidarity.

We were certainly long distinct in matters such as the church, the law and education. But here we encounter another paradox. Most of these historical and cultural differences have faded. Scotland, like England, has become more secular. Differences in our education systems are much less pronounced. And our social attitudes have more similarities than differences. Yet, to the puzzlement of many in England, Scottish nationalist feeling has intensified, and a majority may now vote for independence.

What, then, of Alex Salmond’s championing of the social union? It may be an attempt at reassurance – that ties of friendship and family will continue as before. How comforting that a Scottish Government would not seek to determine who may and may not be our friends and family.

A more plausible explanation for the rise in support for independence may be that it is precisely because Scotland and England are now less different than they used to be; and that people turn to nationalism as an assertion of lost identity. It is a rebellion against a levelling sameness and assimilation: a plea for identity that now also has resonance across much of Europe.

Whatever the reason, it may be this that helps explain the striking paradox I have come across in recent weeks, of the marked difference in the concerns of professional and business groups in Scotland and those of the general public. The apprehension of business and financial audiences in meetings about the implications of independence is no less real than the positive emotions displayed in public debates and TV audiences.

The rise in poll support for Yes may be reflecting the appeal to Scottish hearts, distinct from the raging argument on economic facts – the appeal to our heads. Thus, when Better Together, with its emphasis on the economics, looks into the mirror of public opinion it sees no reflection in the glass.

So what will prevail on 18 September – our hearts? Or our heads? The hope in the No campaign is that as we approach the date our heads – and concern for budget and economics – will prevail. To the apprehension of many in business facing a louring black cloud of uncertainty, it is all being left perilously late.

And judging by the rhetoric deployed against Westminster in recent months, the merits of “social union” clearly do not apply in this sphere. The language gets more fiery with every week and tough and prolonged negotiation would seem to be in store: a “velvet” divorce looks less likely.

Here the dialogue on what the future holds grows as indistinct as that in Jamaica Inn. What if these negotiations do not all go to plan, or that North Sea oil revenues fall as the OBR predicts and there is a glaring budget deficit? What if, as the NIESR suggests, an independent Scotland may have to adopt a fiscal stance tighter than that of the UK?

The truth is that a troubling counter-factual may lie ahead rather than ever greater spending largesse. If we do not work towards a greater honesty about these problems, we may be voting for a future about as clear as that mumbling, bumbling soundtrack on Jamaica Inn.