Lord Robertson: Cut the vitriol, we need a grown-up debate

Have your say

WHENEVER I put my head above the parapet in my homeland, I am met with my infamous prediction that devolution would kill nationalism stone dead.

Ironically though, the critics are often those who signed up to Scotland being “free by 93”, and agreed that Kosovo’s liberation from a murdering tyrant was “unpardonable folly”, so I don’t take it too seriously.

Perhaps I should not have used the words “stone dead”. But time will undoubtedly tell whether the Scottish people have really embraced separatism, as articulated by today’s Scottish Nationalists, or whether a powerful and progressive devolved parliament is our settled will.

But we must move beyond the name-calling, and the outpouring of vitriol every time somebody speaks up, and show the world we can have a grown-up debate.

I am Scottish and British and European – in that order. I am a passionate and proud and vocal patriot about my native land – as many foreigners have found out.

But when nationalism meets separatism, I stand aside. That is a toxic mixture and it’s a leap in the dark that I simply do not believe is necessary. I do believe, of course, that Scotland could be a separate state. If Montenegro, Estonia and Slovenia can survive in the world, so can we. But we are all entitled – whether we support the SNP or not – to ask fundamental questions without being shouted down by an angry mob. For example, what is the total estimated administrative cost of a currency union, a new national broadcaster, post office, the “Scottish Defence Force” or a Scottish health service? How will it all be paid for – will there be one independence tax, or will it just be added to the Scottish income tax for years to come?

That’s not talking Scotland down – it is asking a straightforward question, the answer to which affects every man, woman and child in Scotland. If the answer is a sensible one, then perhaps people will vote for independence, but we should each have the information available to make a decision one way or another.

For my part, I will vote and campaign for a strong, dynamic Scotland within the United Kingdom. We have been part of the UK for 300 years. In many ways the Scots influence it well beyond our population share. We are not a colony (as some idiotically proclaim) and in no way are we oppressed by the other parts of the kingdom. As is often said, we punch above our weight.

In addition to that, we have our own parliament with full powers over the issues that matter to people in their daily lives. And the much-lambasted Westminster parliament is at this moment debating new, enhanced powers for the Scottish Parliament. Yet the present Scottish Government seems totally obsessed, not by these opportunities to improve Scotland, but only by a referendum on separation. This is its third consultation on the constitution in a little more than four years of government.

As a part of the United Kingdom, Scotland has the best of two worlds. We are part of a country which matters in the world. I can vouch for that, having been the Scottish, but British-nominated, secretary-general of Nato, the world’s most successful defence alliance. We are an integral part of a single market where England is still by far Scotland’s biggest customer – why pick apart a successful commercial union with our largest customer?

Individuals and families, workers and holidaymakers move temporarily or permanently throughout the UK without any loss of identity. They do so in ease and comfort and without rancour, sectionalism or prejudice.

More than half of Scots have relatives from England or Wales. Almost half a million people living in Scotland were born south of the Border, and nearly twice that number of Scots, 795,000, live in England and Wales. The integrated United Kingdom is envied worldwide as a template for a peacefully united country.

We share common defence arrangements – and the employment, industrial orders and shared security which go with it. Scottish troops are proud participants in British, UN and Nato peace-making and peace-keeping formations. They could not easily, or indeed willingly, be amputated from the historic British armed forces, and they would resist their independence role being compared, as it recently has been, to traditionally neutral countries like Ireland and Austria and Finland.

And all the time our unique Scottish areas like education, health, transport, housing, the environment, local government, policing, tourism and many others are run by a Scottish Parliament with total legislative power to change, alter and improve. That double bargain, of our independence inside the UK, was the inspiration for devolution. That reality is under malicious attack.

There is an ongoing and unhealthy separatist attempt to crush critics and criticism, as honest but difficult questions about independence are met with assertions and denunciations. But creating a separate Scottish state is a huge step – and it’s a step in the dark. There will be no pilot project, no trial period – it’s a one-way ticket into the unknown. The Scottish people deserve detailed and convincing answers before they choose. I want a future for Scotland and the Scots that triumphs over a debate filled with grievance and bombast. I want to see Scotland playing a strong and growing part in a better and more socially just UK, where the mistakes and misjudgments of the present coalition are resisted and a better way of dealing with the global turmoil is found. More than anything, I want Scotland’s role, in Britain and beyond it, as being unifying and healing, and not dividing and separating.

George Robertson was secretary general of Nato, UK defence secretary and shadow Scottish secretary.