Joyce McMillan: ‘It won’t work’ is not good enough

Independence debate is fully joined and hell mend unionists who have nothing positive to offer

THURSDAY morning and I am listening to a BBC Radio Scotland debate on the Scottish Government’s proposals for the forthcoming independence referendum, announced with a fine flourish on Wednesday afternoon at a press conference in the Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle.

The tone of the four assembled radio voices – for the four main Scottish parties, with Patrick Harvie of the Greens apparently lost in transit – varies a good deal. Stewart Maxwell for the SNP sounds confident and cheerful, while Annabel Goldie of the Tories seems relieved to have given up the burden of leadership, but the Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie is his usual dour and downbeat self, and Anas Sarwar, for Labour, sounds about as cheerful as a professional mourner at an old-fashioned funeral.

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And whatever their tone, it becomes increasingly clear, as the programme wears on, that the three speakers for the unionist parties currently have only one message for Scottish voters – that if we listen to the siren song of Alex Salmond and his nationalists, then dire consequences will follow.

In the course of the programme, we are told that independence would be too risky, too expensive, and much, much too complicated to negotiate. We hear that complete independence in the modern world is impossible in any case, that the whole process would create too much uncertainty, and that we are, in general, just not quite up to it.

Now, for all that any of us knows, some of these predictions could turn out to be true.

One of the most comical features of the great independence debate so far is the sound of sceptical voters demanding “facts” about how an independent Scotland would turn out, as if Mr Salmond had a hotline to astrologer Mystic Meg.

What’s almost certain, though, is that if the unionist parties carry on with this relentless litany of negatives, the vast majority of voters will simply stop listening to them long before the two-and-a-half year referendum campaign is over.

And even if their campaign of fear and negativity is successful in achieving the “no” vote they crave, it will leave Scotland – the day after the referendum – with no prospect of a better future, and no idea at all of how it should move forward.

If the independence debate is to remain alive, therefore, and is not to become a huge turn-off for the vast majority of voters, it’s now absolutely essential that unionist politicians start developing their own positive vision for Scotland’s future in the UK, start advocating it, and fight for its inclusion in the coming referendum as if they cared more for that positive vision than for the momentary pleasure of inflicting a possible yes-no humiliation on Mr Salmond.

Nationalists will argue, of course, that there is no longer any such thing as a progressive unionist position, and some in both the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties seem determined to prove them right, insisting that the Scots simply spend the next two years choosing between outright independence, and the UK as it stands.

The last time anyone checked, though, all three of the unionist parties were in fact strong supporters of full fiscal autonomy for the Scottish Government, and of various forms of “devo max”.

Among the disingenuous arguments now being advanced for denying Scottish voters a third choice in the coming referendum is the assertion that these other options are “confusing”, and that no-one knows what they mean.

In fact, though, every Scottish politician knows that “devo max” means a system in which Scotland raises all its own taxes, and pays a subvention to London for those areas of spending – defence, pensions, some aspects of social security – which remain undevolved.

There is also a well-worked out proposal for “devo plus”, put forward by Reform Scotland, under which Scots, like citizens of American states, would pay some of their taxes to Holyrood, and the rest to the central government at Westminster.

In addition, there is the traditional Liberal Democrat proposal for a fully federal UK, which could help meet what seems to be an increasing demand for some kind of English parliament, to match the elected legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

And the notion that all or any of these ideas should be kept off the table for the next three years, while we focus exclusively on debating complete independence, seems at best ridiculous, and at worst downright undemocratic, particularly when, as some shrewd observers have noted, the kind of “independence lite” now being proposed by Mr Salmond – with retention of the monarchy, the pound sterling, and close military co-operation – is not nearly so different from devo max as some nationalists would have us believe.

The problem with Britain’s unionist parties, though, is that over the last dozen years they have gradually become so unused to developing and advocating genuinely progressive policies that they now seem almost incapable of responding in kind to Mr Salmond’s hopeful vision of an independent Scotland.

In the 1990s, the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties formed a powerful alliance with Scottish civil society to campaign for what was seen, at the time, as a huge and radical constitutional change in the British state.

Today, the Liberal Democrats are silenced by their Westminster coalition with the Conservatives, while Labour no longer knows where it stands, in the battle for democracy between citizens and overweening financial power.

These parties can, in other words – if they wish – maintain their flawed and petty decision of recent weeks to deny the Scottish people a full constitutional debate on all the options; and to insist that we simply choose between Mr Salmond’s Scotland, and David Cameron’s union.

If they do, though, it will be the worse for us, and the worse for them.

And once the dust of the referendum vote has settled, whether the answer is yes or no, voters will turn away from them in boredom and disgust and back towards the party which – whatever its flaws – at least dared to dream of a better future Scotland, and to sketch out a road map of how we might get to that future, from where we are now.