Brian Wilson: No mistake, bad things will happen

Alex Salmond launched the Yes campaign in May. Picture: Getty
Alex Salmond launched the Yes campaign in May. Picture: Getty
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Ignore these claims of a shared identity, for working Scots have more in common with English counterparts, writes Brian Wilson

Opinion polling will be one of Scotland’s few growth industries over the next two years. Its main characteristic is that, in order to be any use, it has to be politically neutral, since telling the clients what they want to hear does not add value.

Colin Fox had a walk on part in the Salmond fest. Picture: PA

Colin Fox had a walk on part in the Salmond fest. Picture: PA

In other words, both sides of the constitutional debate will be getting pretty much the same feedback about what the Scottish public is thinking and the ground this has to be fought on. Each set of strategists will understand exactly what its opponents are up to, even if the foot soldiers are not privy to the same information, provoking mutters of betrayal and complaints of being sold out to focus groups.

The immediate benefit of this shared information is to explain the intellectual contortions being performed on the separatist side of the argument, to offer reassurance that separating Scotland from the rest of the UK does not mean what it says. Beyond the hard Nationalist core, the polling tells them that their best tactic is a message of “no change” – which is something of a challenge when the actual objective is to rent asunder a small island and a 300-year union.

That also explains why last week’s launch event in an Edinburgh cinema was a bit of a second feature. It was a ritual that had to be gone through in which the converted linked arms with the converted, the Messiah made two speeches and a message could be beamed in from Sir Sean. From scenes like these, Auld Scotia’s grandeur springs… or not, depending on one’s point of view.

Incidentally, whenever Brian Cox appears in these events, I am reminded of the only occasion when I inadvertently found myself in his company. Disappointment would be too mild a word as the great man held forth at tedious length on the impossibility of living in Britain due to the punitive rates of taxation under a Labour government. What is it about these actors?

One useful confirmation that did emerge from Cineworld is that the various “independent” bodies set up by the SNP to guide Scotland’s destiny over the past five years were no more than publicly-funded front organisations. Up there with the actors were Sir George Mathewson, chief pilot of the good ship Royal Bank of Scotland and chairman of Salmond’s “independent” economic advisers, and Blair Jenkins, who chaired the “independent” Scottish Broadcasting Commission. There will be more to follow.

Anyway, these events are a lot less relevant than the participants like to think because nobody who knows the polling believes that sceptical Scots are in a mood to be told by wealthy actors living abroad or political hangers-on what they should think or how they should vote. The battleground is more economic than thespian, less Braveheart than hard heads. At least, that’s what the polling says.

And that is why the SNP, having already become more monarchist than the Last Night of the Proms, are now more devoted to the Bank of England than the gnomes of Threadneedle Street themselves. It’s not long since Alex Salmond was going to lead us into the euro, denouncing faint hearts who had stayed outside it. Then they briefly tried to float our groat. But now it’s back to reliance on good old pound sterling – the ultimate symbol of reliable Britishness.

What’s more, according to no less an economic authority than Nicola Sturgeon, we are to have special Scottish seats on the key committees of this (by then) foreign bank so that they will think about us when taking key economic decisions on which Scottish jobs, Scottish mortgages and Scottish pensions will depend. It is all complete and utter rubbish but it is what the pollsters tell them they must say.

So how should the anti-separatist campaign respond? Everyone says it must be with a positive message. Personally, I want to communicate the positive message that working people in Scotland will always have more in common with their counterparts in Newcastle and Liverpool than with the Mathewsons, Souters and Murdochs on whose endorsement nationalism depends under the phoney banner of shared Scottishness.

I find it slightly puzzling that Colin Fox, leader of the Scottish Socialist Party who had a walk-on part at the Salmondfest, takes a different view. But at least he introduced a note of realism in his acknowledgement that Alistair Darling had responded to the launch by “focusing entirely on the economic benefits to Scotland of staying in the United Kingdom” and that those who favour independence would have to come up with some answers about why people would be better off.

But who is to provide them, since it was certainly not economics that united the Cineworld coalition?

So it is pious to pretend that positives and negatives can be conveniently compartmentalised for the simple reason that one man’s positivism (eg towards the United Kingdom) is another’s negativism (if he wants to break it up). Those who oppose separation need to fight squarely on what, for the time being, appears to be majority ground – that the best interests of most Scots are better served by remaining as a small nation within a larger state.

Every effort to close down debate about the negative consequences of deciding otherwise must be countered forensically and with evidence-based argument, a lot of which will come from what is going on elsewhere in Europe. Five years ago, the separatists might have got away with pretending things would go on pretty much as before, because there was stability and growth throughout our continent. That context has changed dramatically. Bad things happen disproportionately to small economies.

Would Scotland have been any better placed than Ireland to withstand a self-inflicted banking calamity of even greater proportions? Would Scotland have the same economic stability as the UK to maintain low borrowing costs – or would the “lethal consequences in a crisis” for an isolated Scottish economy, warned against by the economic commentator Martin Wolff, become the realistic prospect?

The inescapable objective of those who favour separation is that they would turn the rest of the United Kingdom into a foreign country, with a relationship to Scotland the same as that of Belgium or the Irish Republic. Rump-UK would owe no loyalty to Scotland or vice-versa. It would take its decisions in its own interests rather than ours – and since the SNP have spent 40 years telling us how different they are it is a bit late for them to change their tune on that one.

For true believers, political and economic separation from what is left of the UK is their proudest aspiration. For their leaders who follow the polls, it is now the reality to be massaged out of the debate.

I don’t think that is going to happen.