Bill Jamieson: Testing times in referendum run-up

Social union with those south of the Border will be tested to destruction in the run-up to the referendum, writes Bill Jamieson

EU funding has allegedly gone to Scotland rather than places such as Liverpool, above. Picture: Getty

From the outset of the independence campaign, the SNP has stressed the value and importance of the “social union” between England and Scotland. The ties that bind – of family links and friendships, shared interests and endeavours, mutual co-operation and respect – would continue as before.

Indeed, these qualities would be more likely to be strengthened by a recognition of our differences and opting to go, in constitutional terms, our separate ways. Meanwhile, supporters of the Better Together campaign believe that our commitment to the social union and the enormous value we place on it will increasingly come to the fore in the final months of the independence battle.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

But as the battle has raged with growing intensity on several fronts over the past few weeks, I fear it is the social union that will be stressed and tested to destruction. Many Scots did indeed feel bullied and patronised when the three unionist party leaders lined up two weeks ago to say a shared currency union was not on the negotiating table.

Yet from the SNP side the denunciation of everything and anything Westminster does is wearying. We are summoned to oppose and confront on all fronts. Looking at the language of the debate in the past few days – “Scare Force One”, “talking so much hooey”, “abysmal track record”, “bluff, bluster and bullying” – I do now wonder at what the exchanges will be like when we come within a few weeks of the vote on September 18.

If this is to be, as the Yes campaign insists, a “velvet divorce” it is looking less like one with every week, and more like a bitter and acrimonious parting of the ways – and one from which an amicable reconciliation looks increasingly unlikely. A worrying straw in the wind as to a potential political backlash south of the Border came this week when John Healey, a former Labour minister, asserted that “vast sums of EU money” which should have gone to areas such as Sheffield and Liverpool have gone to Scotland. The accusation is that £656 million from the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund in Brussels “are being sent on the orders of the UK government to Scotland over the next six years”. Insulting and absurd though such claims must be to Scottish ears, this is the Pandora’s Box that a fiery politics of division opens up. I sense we can expect more of this.

My fear is that this is not a temporary squabble or angry patch that will quickly subside and be forgotten. The temperature keeps rising. Just a few months ago the earnest hope was that more “facts” would become clear and that uncertainties would be dispelled. But the long-awaited publication of the white paper has clarified very little in voters’ minds.

Indeed, since its unveiling, deep uncertainties over key areas such as what currency an independent Scotland would use, the terms and conditions over its use, our continuing membership (or not) of the European Union, the arrangements governing the payment of pensions and social security benefits and now, this week, the future stewardship of North Sea oil – the gushing font that is to secure our aspirations as an independent nation – are wreathed in even greater confusion. There is no settled core of hard facts. Instead there are ever more disputatious interpretations – and ever more heated passions.

Indeed, it is more likely that, as we move towards the final months of the battle, the more neutrally minded analysts and economists are likely to withdraw. Many business leaders already feel sufficiently intimidated to stay well clear of giving their opinion. Is this the inclusive debate the campaign was supposed to encourage?

It would be easy – and not unreasonable – to regard this as the natural and inevitable course of politics. If you don’t like the heat, stay out of the kitchen. No-one’s forcing you to listen, still less to join in. But there is a problem with this whichever way the vote goes on 18 September. If it is Yes, can it be a reasonable expectation that both sides will enter detailed negotiations on the division of assets and liabilities in any genuine spirit of give-and-take and compromise? I doubt it. It is more likely we are toughening ourselves up for an altogether more confrontational battle in the period after the vote.

This is shaping up to be no velvet divorce at all, but its opposite. The insults and the put-downs of the referendum battle become less easy to forgive, still less forget. There will be demands for a second referendum on the outcome of the negotiations. Has Scotland secured a good deal? Could we not have done better? The biggest victim will be the social union.

Now suppose it will be a narrow vote for No. There is actually much of a positive benefit that could flow from such an outcome. I do believe it will open the way for more devolution, not only for Scotland but for the other nations and regions of the UK. There is a growing view that our economy and our politics have become too London-centric; that there is scope for a constructive rebalancing that would help address social problems that are in every way as acute in the north-west and north-east and south west of England as in Wales and Scotland. This could be a pivotal moment for our social union across the UK, an opportunity that could be of inestimable value.

There is another narrow No vote scenario: that the SNP becomes frustrated and embittered, and pledges to continue its battle for Scottish exclusivity with greater ferocity (“one more push”). On this view the vote on 18 September resolves nothing: it is just a staging post along the road of ever more intense constitutional wrangling. The social union, once the strongest tie, becomes our weakest link.

The real and present danger is that the referendum vote, whichever way it goes, will result in permanent and bitter political division, both within Scotland and across the rest of the UK. Many voters south of the Border will almost certainly demand a say in any formal currency-sharing arrangement if, as Alex Salmond insists, Westminster is bluffing.

The political temperature is rising: the Yes campaign hits out angrily at English arrogance, bullying and bluffing. At the same time, any appearance that Scotland is “free-riding” on the pound and enjoying defence and security benefits without contributing to the costs could sow further division and prompt a fracturing of the social union.

A velvet divorce? None of this looks at all velvet to me.