Brian Monteith: Questioning future isn’t negative

Wanting to know what may lie ahead for Scotland is not being negative, writes Brian Monteith

Picture: Neil Hanna

There is a great misunderstanding being put around about what is negative campaigning on the future of Scotland. If a politician, or more often than not the security veil that is called the First Minister’s or Yes campaign’s spokesperson, is asked about what the Better Together campaign has announced then the Pavlovian retort is barked that it is nothing other than “scaremongering”.

It can be a statement about the potential loss of jobs in the financial services industry – in which Scotland has a huge stake – but the inconvenient truth exists that the majority of our customers live in England. That’s being negative.

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It can even be a simple question, or five, about what will become of our pensions, our currency, our borders, our welfare benefits or our universities (there are many more) – such questions are also branded as “scaremongering”. Merely asking a question is being negative.

Frankly, I find this utterly ridiculous. I have often argued from these pages that Unionists should explain to the peoples of all nations within the United Kingdom that there are positive benefits from us living and working together and how there remains great potential for us going into an ever more challenging world supporting each other – but it would also be foolish to ignore what complications might arise or what costly problems might confront us if we were to stand alone.

This does not mean that Scotland as a nation would fail, it simply means that Scotland would, by definition, be different, and everyone who has a vote should be aware what the opportunities and costs might be. If one side is keen to suggest that irreversible change means no change – as our First Minister is so keen to do – then it is part of the great Scottish debating tradition that this is critically challenged, dissected and weighed up. Such a process is positive, not negative.

Until last week much of the work of the Better Together campaign had been spent raising questions and suggesting difficult problems – that have largely gone unanswered – and this has been labelled “scaremongering”. As if raising a concern about jobs, pensions, benefits, access to movement of goods and people – and more – is of no value. Representing such public scepticism sounds to me like a positive approach, but no, it is to be called negative.

And yet were we, next year, to vote for Scotland being a sovereign country outside the United Kingdom – not a British Crown Dependency like the Isle of Man as Alex Salmond might have us believe – our people would have great justification in being very angry if they found that within a few years what they were told to expect did not materialise and that nobody had thought to warn them or ask difficult questions.

So being negative – in as much as asking uncomfortable questions and posing problems that need to be answered is negative – is a positive requirement of campaigning. Indeed it is a patriotic duty of all those who hold Scotland’s interests dear to so behave. The reverse of this is, I suggest, also true; those who seek to avoid the difficult questions, who wish to give loose answers – and respond by name-calling opponents as “scaremongering” and negative are in fact the true enemies of Scotland’s future. They are the real “parcel o’ rogues” that are deserving of the nation’s condemnation.

Nevertheless, for all that the aforementioned is straightforward common sense that the Scottish public appears to understand, it still remains the case that true unionists, not 90-minute part-time unionists who argue for Britain’s interests one day and then seek to diminish them for short-term advantage the next, need to put the case for the United Kingdom day after day, week after week, year after year – irrespective of any impending referendum. That is being positive in mind and deed.

So I say hosanna to Alistair Darling for making his speech last week where he laid out the most positive case yet for Scotland being at the heart of the United Kingdom. There is, however, a weakness in the No campaign’s approach – and it is this: it will almost invariably seem negative.

The reason for this obvious truth is that Scotland is already in the United Kingdom. Just imagine if Scotland was standing alone, outside the United Kingdom, and we were considering a referendum to join it. The opportunities for positive campaigning suddenly would be enormous.

Our banks and insurance companies would be open for business, naturally seen by households in Dorset or Dagenham as part of the national fabric of the United Kingdom – rather than risky and unknown foreign newcomers.

Our shipyards would be able to bid for all new Royal Navy vessels without the disadvantage of being foreign like German or French yards are – offering huge job opportunities.

Our universities would suddenly find that they could charge all those English, Welsh and Northern Irish students for their tuition fees (as they do now) instead of giving them free. Our brilliant university researchers would suddenly have access to a huge well of grant support beyond their dreams (just as they access now).

We would be able to take down the border controls outside Berwick and Gretna that had existed because Scotland was no longer in the Schengen agreement and reduce our EU membership payment (thanks to Thatcher). We could use the same currency, not having to convert our money just to visit the races at Doncaster or meet relatives in Bradford.

The rest of the UK, be it inside or outside the European Union, would be our largest trading partner with complete and unsullied access to labour, goods and services – and vice versa. What’s more, we would have untold opportunities to shape the United Kingdom and the world from the bigger stage that we could – without a second thought by anyone in England – play upon. Like Scots shaped the BBC or Bank of England.

That (and more) is a positive case – but the reason it is not sold that way is because we have all those benefits (and more) already. To mention losing them is called “scaremongering” and is being negative. To appreciate why we must cherish and explain them is the positive side of our pound coin – but either way it is our common currency.