Andrew Wilson: A ‘yes can-do’ attitude would raise the level of independence debate

THERE’S a very amusing scene in Yes Minister’s first series, from 1980, where Jim Hacker runs into the former minister for administrative affairs, Tom Sergeant, who talks through the techniques used by Whitehall to stop things.

THERE’S a very amusing scene in Yes Minister’s first series, from 1980, where Jim Hacker runs into the former minister for administrative affairs, Tom Sergeant, who talks through the techniques used by Whitehall to stop things.

The stalling technique concluded with the three “difficulties” that would kill any policy: “Technical, political, legal. Now legal are the best sort because he [the permanent secretary] can make these totally incomprehensible and with any luck this stalling technique will have lasted for about three years, and you’ll know that you’re at the final stage where he says ‘Now minister, we’re getting very close to the run-up to the next general election – are you sure you can get this policy through?’ ”

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Life, of course, imitates fiction. Look back over the last few years and you will find quotes from a remarkable number of politicians, lawyers, QCs, academics and commentators asserting – not without some justification but just without much relevance – that the plan for a referendum on Scottish independence was, at least technically, illegal.

That debate raged for months in a deeply tedious way that was as palatable to the voting public as a wasp and soap salad. In the end, of course, democracy trumped all and we have an unequivocally legitimate test of the opinion of Scotland. The outcome will be accepted and life will progress. I have yet to see the list of The Great retracting their views.

Now that this dog won’t bark, the caravan has moved on to the similarly old and achingly tedious assertion that “Scotland could be kicked out of the EU” with the added spice of “and if it isn’t then it will have to join the euro”.

Now this debate has ebbed and flowed for decades and people of great eminence and of little have pronounced on it. In the end a lawyer’s opinion – whether sought or unsought (and I will gloss over that controversy, which is another column ­entirely) – will be just that, an opinion. As with the referendum, it strikes me that the political and democratic imperative will always win the day.

Would the EU really want to kick out a state that has been a member for many decades and a likely positive contributor on many fronts? I find it inconceivable. We can also, surely, assume that London will support Scotland’s position for a host of reasons not least self-interest. Is anyone suggesting otherwise?

What we do know is that the EU is likely to welcome Croatia into its number next summer. If you read any of the international analysis on Croatia you’ll also discover that no-one (and I mean no-one) expects it to join the euro in the foreseeable future.

Sweden joined the EU in 1995, post the Maastricht Treaty (which is the basis of the assertion) and has no formal “opt-out” as such (unlike the UK and Denmark). But it still voted in a referendum in 2003 to opt out of the euro and its democratic opinion and national economic context is respected. In the EU but not the Eurozone. That’s the precedent.

Just as Yes Minister showed, this is all just the standard tactics of conservatism to block any idea of progress and reform. Like a frog being boiled, doing nothing is deadly but seems easy enough at the time and regret comes too late. Reform and progress carry risks too but the upsides are far more attractive if we believe in ourselves.

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The world is full of people willing to throw rocks at a good idea while they sit croaking as the water simmers. Remember large swathes of the elite of the medical profession opposed Bevan’s NHS but that worked out in the end, didn’t it?

What the debate should really be about is what sort of Scotland do we all seek. How high is the summit of our ambition for our children and how can we unite to get ourselves there?

I am certain there is a positive and ambitious case for how Scotland can get better within the UK, we just have yet to hear it above the cacophony of people shouting “can’t”.

I have grown into my now middling years hearing that we are subsidised, the oil will run out soon, we won’t get in the EU and (hilariously) we don’t have the quality of people to lead us, best stick with London. And much, much more.

Enough please, surely. We have to be bigger and better people than this.

The SNP needs to do more to answer detail so they can earn a right to a debate on principle. But so do the conservatives who wish to stand still.

History, ancient and modern, offers precedent and evidence of the vacuous nature of this process cant. It’s a tactic the media will collude with because it’s easier to report stramash than big ideas. But that isn’t good enough.

There is quality on both sides of the ­debate and I yearn for that to shine through. It is indeed “game on for Scotland”, so it’s time for all sides in this choice to raise theirs. «