Bill Jamieson: Are we a nation of quitters – or boiled frogs?

Emigrants from the Hebrides boarding the 'Matagama' at Glasgow docks on their way to Canada in 1923. Picture: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Emigrants from the Hebrides boarding the 'Matagama' at Glasgow docks on their way to Canada in 1923. Picture: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
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Polls saying Scots will leave in their droves if there is independence are exaggerated writes Bill Jamieson

Is there really such a thing as a national breaking point: the moment substantial numbers of us decide we’ve had enough, we can’t take it any more – and decide to quit the country?

Many of us will have felt that twinge of political desperation at one point or another. But a collective move to the exit? A mass defection across the border?

And we are, or so we’ve told the pollsters, moving towards such a breaking point now. According to a poll released last weekend, some 17 per cent of adults – or about 700,000 people – would consider moving away from Scotland in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote in a second independence referendum.

A PanelBase survey of 1,041 people put support for independence at 41 per cent, up one per cent since its last reading in May last year. While the poll shows a continuing lead for ‘No’ once undecided voters are excluded – the ‘No’ support at 54 per cent and ‘Yes’ at 46 per cent – it’s the intensity of feeling among ‘No’ voters that looks to have curdled into something altogether more contentious than a simple absence of agreement.

Could it really be that 700,000 Scots would rconsider quitting the country? It’s more likely, surely, that many are simply giving vent to their weariness with the constant repetition of constitutional politics thought to have been resolved three years ago.

We might say we will jump ship. More likely is that we will behave like boiling frogs: stay in the pond even though the water gets hotter and hotter in the hope of a cooling-off before we’re boiled – or bored – to death.

It’s hardly plausible on close examination that so many of us would move. All our now mighty scepticism about the accuracy of opinion polls kicks in. There’s a world of difference between what we say we would “consider” doing in the heat of a family or workplace argument and what we actually do when the moment came.

And nowhere is the gulf likely to be wider than in the huge upheaval involved in moving home: all the costs of selling up, the hassles of packing and moving, of breaking family ties, of finding a new job and making sure life elsewhere really would be better off at the end of it all. A moment’s consideration of the practicalities would soon temper that initial explosive urge: “That’s it! I’ve had enough!”

We’re not alone in these catalytic spasms of mass defection. In the United States, presidential elections have often been accompanied by a chorus of the disenchanted who insist they would move to Canada if the candidate they disapprove of emerges the winner. It was particularly strong in last November’s Presidential election as liberals recoiled at the prospect of Donald Trump in the White House.

We won’t know the extent of any ‘Great Trump Trek’ for a year or so. But in previous elections some people did follow through with those angry declarations to leave. But was it really a mass movement?

That, as National Public Radio reporter Danielle Kurtzleben pointed out, critically depends on your definition of “mass”. There was a spike in the 2000s, when the number of people getting permanent residency status in Canada each year roughly doubled to more than 10,000 in 2008. Does this mean that the politics of George W Bush (elected in 2000) drove emigration to Canada?

There is no firm data on why people moved, and whether political disaffection played a large part. According to Joel Guberman, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer, the figures tell a different story: economics, not politics, explains the movement,

“There is,” he said, “probably a more direct correlation to the strength of the US economy than to presidents. It appears that the high is 2008-09” – (coincident with the financial crisis). “The worst years for the US are the highest exits, while very prosperous years are lower.” So he doesn’t buy the theory that politics is the primary force driving US movement to Canada. Mostly, he says, the threats to move to Canada never become more than that: just threats.

“Did we get an increase in phone calls? Sure. Does real activity take place? Not really. It’s a handful,” he said. “It causes a stir and that vocabulary starts being used, but does it materialize? Not really.”

He has practiced immigration law for more than 30 years, and his firm currently has 17 lawyers on hand, so he has handled a lot of clients trying to move into the country. How many Americans has he helped to gain residency in Canada? “I can count them on one hand,” he said. “Oh, it’s minuscule.”

As for the raw numbers for context, some 8,000 or 9,000 new Canadian permanent residents come from the US This is in the context of approximately 260,000 total new permanent residents in Canada each year – and nearly 320 million total Americans.

Nevertheless, here at home that poll response gave a strong enough reading of voter apprehensions over independence to give Scotland’s political class pause for thought. Has the continuing agitation for a second poll overlooked the risk of an anti-political backlash – that our tolerance of daily, non-stop constitutional division is being tested to the limits?

For it’s not just the possibility that a second vote would deliver a majority for independence, but the prospect of another bitter, prolonged and divisive battle that scunners many Scots. The radio rammies, the flaky assertions, the contentious statistics, the angry rhetoric, fiery TV studio debates and all other news relegated to the constant exchange of campaign propaganda points: little wonder many now feel trapped in an echo chamber of anger. Social media has worked to amplify the grievance chorus to an ear-splitting level. Tweets and texts and Google blogs create a surround sound of deafening disaffected dissonance. Little wonder so many feel, “We just can’t take it any more!”

So does this leave us as The Land of The Boiling Frog? A frog dropped into boiling water will jump out. But placed in cold water which is slowly brought to the boil it will stay in, impervious to the scalding ahead.

Bob Hair, a finance expert and head of the Edinburgh office of Cazenove Capital Management, wrote tellingly of this phenomenon in another context: Scotland’s tightening tax regime. He recently set out in Vision Scotland how Scots, now paying from this month, are paying an effective top rate of tax of 52 per cent (40 per cent tax at £43,000) plus national insurance at 12 per cent between £43,000 and £45,000. And by 2020 the difference between higher rate tax levels between Scotland and the UK is set to grow more marked.

If the steaming cauldron of constitutional politics doesn’t make us jump out, what about the growing tax burden relative to the UK? One way or another, Boiling Frog Syndrome looks set for many to be their fate.