Allan Massie: Referendum fall out affects us all

Opposing views on independence may be sincerely held, but the final decision will impact permanently, writes Allan Massie

Changes are afoot, but short-term considerations should have no place in the debate over independence. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Opinion polls fall thicker than autumn leaves, and there is still a year to go till the real test of opinion. Whatever Scotland’s economic future may be, in or out of the Union, the Independence referendum has been good business for polling companies.

How much credence we should give to their results is uncertain, even if over the years pollsters seem to get it right far more often than they get it wrong. Nevertheless the more polls there are, the more there is scope for mischief.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

One thing looks clear at present: people are quite happy to have an SNP government at Holyrood, without being persuaded that independence is best for Scotland. Yet even this apparently clear picture is blurred by the fact that turn-out for all four Holyrood elections has been low, support for the SNP among those who choose to vote in such elections being higher than among the wider public. Meanwhile, the more the details of any scheme of independence are discussed, the more complicated the break-up of the Union seems.

The Scottish Government will soon publish its prospectus for independence, and perhaps it will address some of the knotty questions about the division of assets and responsibilities.

We are told it will be on the lines of the prospectus for the Scottish devolution referendum which Labour published in 1997. That, however, was concerned with setting out the powers and responsibilities to be devolved from London to Edinburgh, a much simpler business than dividing a state that has lasted for more than three centuries, years in which the scope of the state and government activity has been hugely extended. The devil of separation is in the detail: what, for instance, happens to the Royal Mail if we vote for independence?

Might it be privatised south of the Border, while remaining in public ownership here? The problem for the “Yes” campaign – for the SNP indeed – is that arguments over detail aren’t the arguments they are most likely to win. We know how things are now – people know their pension will be paid on a given date, and they know how much it will be. The figure may be unsatisfactory, but at least there is no uncertainty. Vote for independence and there can’t be anything but uncertainty. You have to take an awful lot on trust. Perhaps you should, but many are reluctant to do so, and are therefore hard to convince.

There are two different strands to the argument. One is a question of principle, the other of practicality.

The former is clear-cut. On the referendum paper we’ll be asked “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Yes or No? For many the answer is equally clear. They are Scottish and not British, except perhaps in the loosest sense. They have no doubt that we should resume the independent status we gave up when the Treaty of Union was signed in 1707 and the Kingdom of Great Britain superseded the old kingdoms of England and Scotland. I would guess that something between 20 and 25 per cent of the electorate hold this view, and nothing will budge them.

The principle is clear, and as long as Alex Salmond sticks to the assertion that we are a distinct nation who should have our own nation-state, and appeals to this sentiment, there is no way for the Better Together campaign to prove him wrong. All it can do is make a counter-assertion: that many of us are equally happy to have a joint Scottish and British identity, and are therefore content with things as they are. This is true, but it is a less stirring tune than the one the Nationalists sing. Few Unionists probably feel quite the same attachment to Britishness and the UK as their opponents do to Scotland. On passionate intensity the Nationalists win hands down, and will continue to do so right up to the vote a year from now.

That said, there are many who don’t feel so strongly about national identity. They may be quite comfortable as they are, happy to be Scots, even proud of being Scots, but don’t think the independence question of any great moment. They are just not interested. As Peter Jones wrote in this paper yesterday, “much of the lives of today’s 16- to 24-year-olds is spent in a space where nations and governments are completely unimportant – the internet.” Others are equally indifferent. “Don’t see the point of it.” [the referendum]

When it comes to the practicalities, the Yes campaigners are inevitably less certain. This is partly because, somewhat to our surprise, it has become evident over the last couple of years, that the SNP hadn’t really thought either hard or clearly about such important matters as the currency, membership of the EU and NATO. This was curious, given that winning independence has been the party’s reason for existence since it was formed some 80 years ago. Accordingly, without really having to do very much, the Better Together campaigners have put the SNP on the back-foot when discussing the mechanics and economic consequences of separation. If the SNP wins on “the vision thing”, it is losing badly on the nuts-and-bolts questions.

Unionists would be very foolish to suppose that the issue is settled. Opinion poll leads can melt away. The appeal to national sentiment in the last weeks of the campaign will be powerful; nobody should underestimate Mr Salmond’s tactical awareness and rhetorical skills. He signs off in letters “Yours for Scotland”, and this is surely going to be the message of the later stages of the campaign: “Who speaks for Scotland and the Scottish People?”

Yet he is going to be denied one thing he would like to have: a TV debate with David Cameron. The Prime Minister is clear about this: the two sides in the referendum argument are Scots with different ideas about the future of our country; they are not the UK government and the Scottish one. Therefore if there is to be a TV debate, Mr Salmond will be up against Alastair Darling, the leader of the Better Together cause.

Both sides have two responsibilities. The first is to admit, publicly as well as privately, that this is a once-and-for-all time. Short-term considerations should not apply. The second responsibility for both sides is to conduct the debate with decency and restraint. We are all going to have to live together afterwards, whatever the result.