Brian Wilson: Don’t dump UK just to dump Tories

David Cameron and Alex Salmond shake hands on referendum agreement
David Cameron and Alex Salmond shake hands on referendum agreement
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Referendum vote must take a long-term view of what is best for Scotland, not push short-term change, writes Brian Wilson

Maybe they should have decamped from the comfort zone of St Andrew’s House and made it the Broxburn Agreement – an act of political humility to acknowledge that real people are facing hardships to which two years of constitutional chattering are insultingly irrelevant.

But in some eyes, such tribulations bring only opportunity. If Monday was the day for platitudes, then yesterday brought some valuable insight into the grubbier reality that lies ahead and we should be grateful to Mr Stephen Noon, described as “Yes Scotland’s Chief Strategist” for having set out his Chief Strategy with such clarity of cynicism.

Writing in yesterday’s Scotsman, Mr Noon intimated that, come the great day in October 2014: “Whatever the words on the ballot paper… the real question will be a choice between a ‘social contract’ Scotland or a welfare-obliterating Westminster.” Let me repeat: “The real question… whatever the words on the ballot paper.”

So, forget the idea that this is to be a solemn decision after aeons of high-minded debate about whether or not to end 300 years of shared history. Ignore the pious rhetoric about it being all for the sake of our children and our children’s children. Dismiss inconvenient questions of currency, pensions, jobs and security.

Before a ball is kicked, we have been informed – by the Chief Strategist, no less – that the highest aspiration of the separatist campaign is to turn the whole thing into an opportunity to express disgruntlement about the measures introduced by the coalition government which, by the likely date of the independence referendum, will have barely six months of its mandate left to run.

At that point, according to the master strategist, the Scottish people will so identify welfare cuts with “the Union” that they will rush into the arms of the benign Nationalists and their “social contract Scotland”, whatever that may be. “Facile” would be the kindest word to describe this intelligence-insulting drivel.

Rarely can a political campaign have begun with a slogan that basically says: “Things can only get worse – and that’s what our Chief Strategy depends on.” And by the way, that is why Alex Salmond is forcing Scotland to wait two years before we are allowed to vote, in the hope that things will get really bad. How inspirational is that!

Actually, I would be very happy to see the referendum fought on these terms – short-term opportunism in trying to turn discontent with a transient government into support for permanently breaking up Britain versus the patient explanation of why, while governments come and go, the unity of our small island and its peoples is a long-term commitment worth maintaining, and above party politics. The Scottish electorate, I think, are well able to make that distinction.

Throughout the era of universal franchise, the pendulum has swung between right and left in British politics – and it is worth remembering that, throughout much of the period, most of Scotland was not on the left. In order to make social progress, the working people of Scotland needed the votes of their fellow toilers throughout this United Kingdom – the Welsh, the Geordies, the Londoners.

We needed each other and we still do. The idea that Nationalism will extract Scotland from the United Kingdom and then create a Scandinavian-style nirvana combined with a low-taxation Irish Republic is for the kindergarten. And it ignores the political impact on people of the same classes and interests – including millions who think of themselves as Scottish in whole or part – in the rest of the UK.

The glib tongues of Nationalism now ask us to take for granted the great advances which were struggled for and won together in the UK – the National Health Service, the welfare state, education, the rights of working people. And they conveniently forget that, on the rare occasions when Scottish Nationalists might have had relevance to any progressive cause, their performance was less than glorious – remember their heroic abstention on the introduction of a national minimum wage.

People have lived through Conservative governments before and they will survive this one. Then, just as in every other part of Britain, most will sensibly conclude that the way to change the policies is to change the government, not change the constitution. They are two distinct decisions and if the master plan of the separatist campaign is to conflate them into one, then, ever anxious to help, I recommend an early return to the drawing-board.

I noticed one Nationalist cheer-leader crowing that “the SNP only needs to win once” at which point “independence means whatever Alex Salmond says it means”. That was probably intended as reassurance for the fundamentalists who might be growing concerned about all this “we will still be British” rubbish of very recent invention. For the rest of us, it is another strategic warning well worth noting.

To the Nationalists, there is only one finishing line that matters – and the end will justify their means in getting there first. At which point, the result would be irreversible. Be warned: “The SNP only needs to win once” is another good reason for the voters to distinguish between an election and a referendum, however much Mr Noon and his friends will try to persuade them differently.

Contrary to these peoples’ wishes, the “real question” will be the one that actually appears on the ballot paper and it will be about whether or not a majority of people in Scotland want to withdraw from the UK and establish a separate state. Mr Noon has performed a useful function by advising us that this is certainly not the primary question that his campaign wishes to address.

I have never doubted that devolution would lead inexorably to the event that is now set for the autumn of 2014 – a two-year delay that has no conceivable justification other than Salmond’s belief that playing it long must be to his advantage. So far, the opposite has appeared to be the case but we are only one-third of the way through the marathon and there will be many twists and turns along the route.

But on one point, I agree entirely with Mr Noon – no outcome should be regarded as a foregone conclusion. The Electoral Commission will need to do its job in order to ensure that the rules are fair. Each and every argument will have to be engaged in and won. The tragedy is that, for the next two years, so many other matters of far greater urgency and importance to people’s lives and prospects will be neglected or manipulated towards a single outcome.

Whatever else Scotland voted for, it was not for that.