Our neighbours in the south believe they should be allowed to vote in the referendum in 2014, says Ruth Wishart
SO I was chatting at the Book Festival to this very agreeable southerner, married to a prominent London-based Scot, who has recently bought a house here. She likes it. She likes us. She likes Edinburgh, especially the vibrant, buzzy Edinburgh of August.
She’s a mite bored with all this referendum stuff, though. What her adjacent friend went on to call endless Scots navel-gazing about nationhood, identity and all that. Why don’t we just get over it and get on with it was the sub text.
It’s a common theme this summer. There is among Scotland’s part-time, Festival-going expats the group now known as WILLIES (working in London living in Edinburgh) – a very tangible sense of irritation laced with bemusement.
They wonder, with an impatience few bother to disguise, why we are so collectively exercised by constitutional change when parts of the world are racing to hell in any available handcart, and the UK economy is making the average slug look a Jamaican sprinter. Why can’t we just relax back into team GB?
It is a theme echoed, coincidentally, by the other GB in his Donald Dewar lecture. Gordon Brown spent the best part of his talk extolling what he characterised as the distinctive Scottish virtues. Like the communitarian instinct. The kind of thing, linked to English tolerance and love of freedom, which made us better together. These Scottish qualities had informed and help shape modern Britain, he suggested.
He spoke with passion, fluency, and flashes of self-deprecating humour, but it was clear that he, too, wondered what was so very wrong with the status quo. Just look at the bigger picture, he urged. Look at our shared past. Think of our shared future.
Unfortunately the first two members of his audience to question that analysis were rather more preoccupied with our shared present. In essence, they wanted to know in what way the Scottish tradition had managed to inform and shape the worlds of Gove and Lansley, of Cameron and Osborne. These, the former prime minister responded, were just blips on the road. Temporary irritants which shouldn’t be allowed to derail the common journey travelled over the past 300 years.
And, in so saying, he unwittingly encapsulated what has in effect become a north-south alternative mindset, which is more geographical than party political, as witness the uneasy bedfellows leading the referendum’s No campaign.
Just 24 hours before Brown’s lecture, Henry McLeish, former Scottish first minister, and fellow member of the people’s party, was sketching out a very different scenario at the event he shared with veteran nationalist Paul Scott.
McLeish doesn’t bother to disguise his distaste for the Labour Party in Scotland making common cause with the Conservatives, a brand he still considers toxic, certainly north of Hadrian’s wall.
Viewing the debate from a Scottish base, McLeish seems at the very least semi-detached from those of his compatriots with a Scottish address but a political career at Westminster (though he’s fond of saying his granny would turn in her grave if he abandoned his Labour heritage – you do wonder if that late and estimable lady is already birling).
To his audience he made the case for a devo-max question to be included in the 2014 ballot paper, and robustly declared that the unionist cause was never going to be well served by extolling the joys of the status quo. The vote No for jam tomorrow, (copyright Alex Douglas Home 1979) was unlikely to be a trick you could pull twice he seemed to be saying.
But if London-based Scots politicians seem to have taken their finger off their home nation’s pulse, their English colleagues seem even more baffled by the persistent noise emanating from their northern cousins.
David Lammy, a former UK culture minister, took part in another Book Festival debate, the genesis of which was what impact independence might have on Scotland’s culture. It was a theme eloquently addressed by the Scottish writer Alan Bissett, but one which doesn’t really seem to have impinged on Lammy’s consciousness.
His contribution was rather more intent on exploring identity, and how and why a black Briton like himself, with a multi-cultural hinterland, could fashion a comfortable niche within this multi-cultural, modern Britain. If I have no problem being British, he seemed to imply, what’s yours?
This then is a time when the air is thick with the swishing backdrop of points being missed. Our identity both personal and national is clearly important. But the referendum is about nationhood in the context of a nation which celebrates the contribution of Scots old and new.
And herein lies another barely buried bone of contention. So many current visitors, seemingly unpersuaded of any need for a change in Britain’s constitutional arrangements, are nevertheless uniformly of the view that if this is to happen then all Britain should vote for it.
For those of a Labour political bent, the rider usually added is that Scotland’s departing the union would all but guarantee lengthy periods of Tory hegemony in England.
The argument that Scotland should vote no to swell the UK Labour vote is one almost never used by those who live and work in Scotland. But it is another powerful illustration of the growing attitudinal gulf between Scots of various political persuasions living here, and the seemingly impenetrable bubble of the south-east of England.
The Scottish debate, it seems, only has real validity in terms of its impact on England.