After almost two years of the Referendum debate, I still find myself from time to time confounded by the strange questions with which I am confronted by apparently deep-seated ‘no’ voters.
Recently, more or less in innocence, I happened to remark that if Alex Salmond managed to pull off a ‘yes’ vote he would enter the very small pantheon of political leaders who had achieved independence for their country entirely by democratic methods, without a trace of violence. I should have thought this was a fairly unexceptional remark. But to my surprise it prompted a barrage of scornful comments.
Violence as a political instrument, I was informed, at least in the United Kingdom, was so utterly unthinkable as to deny Salmond the slightest credit for having eschewed it. I suggested that the Irish Question, as it used to be described in Westminster, was not resolved without a certain amount of violence, including the shelling of downtown Dublin. This was brushed aside with, “Oh well, if you’re going to go back to ancient history!”. I suggested that the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 was scarcely ancient history. But this only prompted what seemed to me a bit of a non-sequitur. “And if there is a ‘yes’ vote, will that mean an indefinite period of one-party government?”
Suppressing a heartfelt reply of “Oh God, I hope not!”, I replied, moderately enough, that the party of government in an independent Scotland would of course be decided by the Scottish electorate. This however was apparently not a satisfactory response. For I was foolish enough to add that “the normal pattern” in such situations was for the party which had made the running in the campaign for independence, not unnaturally, to be given the responsibility of government of the new state, at least initially.
Who wins and who stays the winner
The use of the word ‘normal’ was not well received. Apparently I did not appreciate that the United Kingdom was an entirely unique arrangement and could not be compared to obscure places such as Slovakia and the Czech Republic and certainly not to Norway and Sweden. As for the decision of the Irish to leave the United Kingdom, well, what could you expect from such people? Then I was instantly wrong-footed by another piercing question. “Did I not feel guilty about abandoning the English to perpetual government by the Conservative Party?”
Now, in my heart I have to confess that I do not have such a feeling of guilt. But taking the coward’s way out I simply repeated that this was a matter for the English electorate. Perhaps, I suggested helpfully, after all the dust had settled there would be scope for some far-reaching political re-alignment in both Scotland and England which would offer an opportunity for fundamental change in both countries. But this olive branch was spurned. “It wouldn’t surprise me”, came the dark response, ”if the Labour Party decided to abandon Scotland entirely”.
At this point I actually laughed, rudely perhaps. I pointed out that the Labour Party had a considerable history in Scottish political life, not to mention powerful vested interests at all levels in our society. I further suggested that it might with more reason be suggested that the Conservative Party or indeed the Liberal Party might give Scotland up as a bad job and thus create space on the centre-right for a new Scottish party to emerge. Such a re-alignment would, I suggested, be no bad thing. Indeed in my view it was something deeply to be desired and one of the many reasons for voting ‘yes’ in September.
By now however it had become clear that the conversation, embarked on more or less casually and with no desire on my part to proselytise, had run its course. There was clearly little hope of a meeting of minds and my seeds, as it were, had fallen on stony ground and my pearls of wisdom had likewise been cast before an unappreciative audience.
Blind to Scotland’s future?
So what do I conclude from all this? Well, perhaps that there is little hope of converting the truly entrenched ‘no’ voter by what I regard as rational argument. But that is a rather depressing thought on which to end. So I shall not do so!
Instead I shall remark on the little-remembered history of Jim Sillars, now a doughty and valued campaigner in the ‘yes’ camp. For during his days as a young high-flier in the Labour Party, when he was earmarked as a future Secretary of State for Scotland and perhaps for much more, he wrote a powerful pamphlet attacking devolution and entitled “Do Not Butcher Scotland’s Future”. It was well researched and at the time devastating in its effect. Most interesting of all however was the effect that it had on the author himself. For I have always thought that in that pamphlet Jim Sillars, like the highly intelligent man that he is, had actually argued himself away from his unionist roots and into a belief in Scottish independence. There, thankfully, he remains to this day. Nor is he alone. Our own Michael Fry has made the same journey, albeit from the opposite end of the political spectrum.
So let us not be confounded by the intransigence of some of our opponents in the great debate. Perhaps they too need time to argue themselves away from their unionist beliefs. Besides, I remember the advice I was given years ago by a wise old nationalist, the author Tom MacDonald, who counselled me not to regard our opponents as enemies. All Scots are nationalists at heart, he said, and after independence we will need everyone working together to make our country a better place.