Michael Kelly: An all or nothing independence vote

Prime Minister David Cameron and First Minister Alex Salmond. Picture: PA
Prime Minister David Cameron and First Minister Alex Salmond. Picture: PA
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There should be no consolation prizes in the event of the Yes campaign losing the referendum, writes Michael Kelly

After years of boring us to death with the West Lothian Question, Tam Dalyell comes up with a much blunter assertion – that the promises of the No campaign to deliver more powers in the event of their winning the vote is the way to continue the break-up of the United Kingdom.

I am with him on this one. Leaving aside the false hopes of many of its advocates that devolution would kill nationalism – Donald Dewar and George Robertson for two – this is an all-or-nothing vote on independence. When Yes loses, as it will, its supporters should not be awarded the consolation prize of additional powers for Holyrood. That will simply keep the argument open and continue the slide away from the Union. Losers should lose. The dream consequence of this loss should be a steady erosion of Holyrood’s powers until it can be abolished and the previous efficient unitary form of government restored. Is there a unionist brave enough publicly to take that position? Surely it must tempt Tory MSP Jackson Carlaw?

Hot on Tam’s heels came the Law Society of Scotland asking, as lawyers do, lots of questions. Only this time, unlike good lawyers, they failed to find out the answers before putting the questions. As a result, they have made themselves look rather silly. Their president, Bruce Beveridge, was looking for “answers which would allow all of us to make a more informed decision about our future; from how our parliament should be structured, the currency we would use, what level of tax we would pay, to cross-border treaties and our relationship with other countries in Europe and around the globe”.

The answers to these questions are not facts but will be the result of inter-government negotiation and political infighting – the outcomes of which cannot be known before the vote.

As to the call for both governments to reveal the advice they might receive on Scotland’s legal status in or out of the EU after independence, this is just wrong. The referendum is not an exceptional case, and if governments were to concede it the principle would be forever damaged. Governments need confidential legal advice, if only to be free to accept or ignore it. The Law Society surely cannot believe that disclosure would fulfil the “need for legal certainty” when people vote in the referendum. Certainty would only be established after a final court decision, not after advice which might well be rejected.

Having cleared away some of the shrubbery that sprung up during the recent hot spell, let us look at the neat garden of an independent Scotland that George Kerevan planted in this newspaper last week. This demands much more respect because, at last, we have a vision.

George claims that Alex Salmond has a vision too. I find that hard to believe. The leader of the Scottish Nationalists has a view, a position, a standpoint which is a very different kind of house plant. And it does not coincide with George’s rich crop.

George agrees with me that only a republic under an elected head of state makes sense for a new nation. He sketches out a vision, a noble one, of a country dedicated to freeing its citizens from “the threat of undue dependence – be it economic, cultural or political”, implementing the principle of non-domination by the state itself, nurturing individual talent. I can subscribe to every word of that. What I cannot see is why it needs independence to pursue it. Would the dominance of the City of London and the hereditary and vested interests there not simply be replaced by Edinburgh ones? Again, if this is the heroic vision then it is our duty to prosecute it across the whole of the UK and not abandon our kith and kin to the exploitation George perceives. Finally, it is not the vision of English control of our currency we are being asked to support next September.

No-one, however, can deny that George has raised the debate to a new, higher level. At the end of the day, I cynically wonder, will that matter? It might if you could trust democracy. Sadly, my experience is that you cannot. Effective democratic elections require voters who are intelligent, educated and, importantly, self-sacrificing. The reality around the ballot box is more often pigheadedness, ignorance and self-interest.

A recent study by the Royal Statistical Society confirms that bleak view. It found enormous misconceptions – prejudices I would call them – when it surveyed public opinion. People thought benefit fraud was £24 out of every £100, whereas the true figure is 70 pence. People believed recent immigrants represented 31 per cent of the population. They are 13 per cent. Foreign aid was believed by a substantial number of people to be one of the biggest items in the government’s budget instead of the accurate figure of 1.1 per cent of expenditure. A disturbing suggestion emerging from these conclusions was that people preferred to stick to their one view, rejecting the official figures when confronted with them.

These data were published on the day I met my first Yes voter – maybe this is the start of a trend. He was young and employed in a skilled manual job. His reason for voting for separation? He felt that middle-class families with children were doing well out of tax benefits while he himself was doing badly. How he found anything in SNP literature to persuade him that they would change the position I could not establish. But his firm belief that the question of passports and border posts was one that England would sit back and let Scotland alone determine made me realise that spelling out the facts was not the way to win this vote.

Forget political philosophies, visions and facts. Tax-and-spend bribes have worked in every British general election since the war. Alex Salmond will major on them. His problem is that in this uncertain and austere world they might be too big for even the Scottish electorate, always eager for a bigger public sector, to swallow.