Please can we forget about the EU referendum in 2017 for the next 8 months and focus on the referendum in hand. The one in Scotland. I have 3 ideas to defeat the “Yes” vote. But why we should bother doing anything when the polls have never shown a majority for independence? Well, I have a horrible gut feel that come September the undecided in Scotland may just think “Why not?”. If they do, then that’s it. Unlike other elections, the losers can’t wait 5 years and win next time. We should remember what happened when Quebec voted on independence from Canada in 1995. Up to 6 weeks before the vote, two-thirds of voters intended to vote “No”. It looked hopeless for the “Yes vote”. But as the phoney war ended, voters focused on the choices and charismatic leaders swayed their audiences. And it all changed. Just 3 weeks later, it was too close to call. Two weeks before the vote, polls showed a lead for the “Yes” vote. In the end, the final vote , with a turnout of 94%, 50.6% “No” and 49.4% “Yes”. It doesn’t come any closer than that. Can I suggest that this is a big wake up call for those who are complacently assuming a “Yes” vote in Scotland in September, given current polls? If you’ve now woken up, I think there are 3 ways that the “Yes” vote could take a different tack.
The first approach is to show some emotion. I passionately want Scotland to stay in the UK. Not because I think it will bad for the Scots to go alone. That’s up to them. I care because I think it will bad for the rest of the UK. It will destroy my sense of Britishness, which is much stronger than my sense of Englishness. By a ratio of 2:1, the non-Scots Brits feel the same. We don’t have a vote. But we do have a voice. And we need to start using it. There is now just 8 months to go. But why are the English, the Welsh and the Northern Irish so silent? Well, I think its because we have totally mis-handled devolution. Union is a marriage. There are 3 stages to ending a marriage – living separate lives, formal separation and divorce. We have all known people embark on the earlier stages of living increasingly separate lives but wanting to stay married, only to find themselves on a slippery slope of estrangement and resentment towards divorce. It comes from drifting apart, not talking openly, not creating a new union of stronger equals. Marriage can cope with strong individuals living their own lives, but only if they find new ways to refresh the union. Sometimes estranged couples hold back from divorce because splitting the house or pension fund is too hard. But the love has gone and only financial risks hold them together. To students of UK devolution, this sounds depressingly familiar. As the three smaller nations have become more independent, the UK has not found, or even sought, new ways to refresh the union. The old bonds have weakened, but new ones haven’t been forged. Estrangement has crept up on us. The English haven’t felt able to talk about relationships – as ever. Northern Ireland and Scotland have become more insular. Wales (like Northern England) depends on the Southern English breadwinner and the economics doesn’t allow them to consider breaking away. But Scotland is different. Scotland can pay its own way. It may be a bit worse or a bit better off (depending on how things go). But it can up and leave. After 15 years of devolution and the passing of the financial crisis (the equivalent of the children growing up?), there are only two reasons for Scotland and the UK to stay together. Either splitting the financial assets and liabilities (e.g. oil versus pensions, etc) is too hard. Or we rediscover our love and consciously enter a new period in the marriage. In choosing between these two options, I get enough accountancy in my day job, so I opt for love!
And I do love Scotland. The best proof is that I spent my honeymoon in Glasgow! The best date in our family calendar is our annual week at the Edinburgh festival. I yearn to return to the magic of Sutherland’s pink beaches and sandstone fantasy mountains. But I also love the cultural impact of Scotland on Britain and beyond. I commend Arthur Herman’s compelling book “The Scottish Enlightenment – The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World”. This US historian, without a Scottish gene in his body, tells the compelling story of what Scots got out of union with Britain. They were transformed from the poorest country in Western Europe, bankrupt and ruled by medieval feudalism, by access to the British economy and Empire. But he also tells of what they gave back – so much more than they took. The historic impact of Scots is clear in education, engineering, medicine, economics, literature and philosophy. The biggest part of the impact came from the diaspora, as Scots impacted on the rest of the world, but especially the rest of Britain. It continues today.
So if we need to express our love, it has to get emotional. It’s time to move on from the statistics and the dossiers. I don’t think either side can win this on hard data and known facts. Scotland is a perfectly viable independent nation. And the rest of the UK would survive without Scotland. So I think this vote will be decided on emotions. That’s where the “Yes” vote has all the happy tunes. And bagpipes have a strong track record of men following them into battle. The “Yes” campaign cries “Freedom from Westminster”. Well, who wouldn’t be in favour of that? Most of the UK would echo that cry. Meanwhile, the “No” campaign relies on the ominous tunes much loved in horror movies to signify bad things around the corner. The campaign gloomily reminds Scots that Westminster comes in handy when disasters are too big for small countries to handle on their own. The dividing lines then are liberation, freedom and destiny on one side (piped in with all the tartan pomp) versus risk aversion on the other (spoken in sombre Sunday sermon tones). This paints the “No” campaign into a dark corner – defending the status quo and talking only of threats and things going wrong. Banks collapsing, fish wars with Iceland, the return of the Vikings, plagues of locusts! All scary, but hardly up-lifting visions of the future. So first, let’s let the Scots feel the love and then excite them about our better future together. On feeling the love, let’s return to Quebec. What swung the vote in Quebec in the final days? Well, on 27th October, just 3 days before the vote, there was a Unity March in Montreal. 100,000 Canadians came from all over to ask the Quebecois to vote “No” and stay with them in Canada. Plane, train and bus companies put on cheap travel to get them there. It’s widely agreed that this made the difference. People felt the love. Why doesn’t the “No” campaign ask those English, Welsh and Northern Irish who love Scotland to attend a mass Unity March this summer. I suggest a march through Edinburgh, from the port of Leith, around an outer estate, up through the magnificence of the historic core and ending with an evening of torches and beacons on Arthur’s Seat.
The second approach is to out-trump the “No” campaign and make a better offer on independence. But a different sort of independence. It is clear that “freedom from Westminster” is an effective rallying point. But the “No” campaign should adopt a better slogan “Freedom from Westminster … and Holyrood”. It should urgently put forward a vision of radical decentralisation – not just of Uk powers but also those already held by the Scottish Government. An offer that if Scotland stays in the UK, there will be a dramatic decentralisation to Scotland’s distinctive cities, islands, highlands and lowlands. Let’s mainline into the diversity of Scotland and the different identities and needs of its communities. This is an offer that would never be made by the “Yes” campaign, which comprises too many centralists, too many Statists. But let’s give those who want more devolution, more independence, a more exciting choice. I mean real power – taxes, benefits, public services, business regulation, planning policy, etc. The sort of power that US states have. Like nothing else we have seen in the UK. Let’s go further and offer them the chance to ask for whatever they think will work. But let’s not be shy to offer things which currently belong to Holyrood. The UK Parliament can still legislate to impose a devolution within Scotland if the Scottish Government is against, but the people are for it. It is for the Scots to suggest the geographies. But’s let’s sell a vision of freedom from Westminster and Holyrood. Let’s talk of powerful, independent cities governing their own future. A Greater Glasgow as a magnet for highly skilled migrants rapidly becoming the UK’s second city. A Greater Edinburgh retaining its 90,000 students and turning them into the entrepreneurs and experts who make it Europe’s knowledge capital. An Aberdeen that is free to reinvest its current prosperity into a future other than oil and gas – just like other energy capitals around the world. Orkney and Shetland gaining the same status as the Channel Islands, becoming an oil rich boom location. The Highlands free to make the most of its wonderful natural resources. A Lowlands that finds its own balance between conserving its quiet ways and revving up a more dynamic economy. Different school systems. Different approaches to health. New financial incentives to crack endemic poverty. A local freedom to compete in the world to attract the best people and the smartest investment to Scotland. A freedom to compete with each other in Scotland. A better and more attractive chance for to seize control of your destiny.
The third approach is offer some new forms of union. Union that gives Scotland what it can’t get on its own. Here are just a few examples. Firstly, let’s not be frightened about dealing with cultural integration. I’d start with sport. Scots cheering for Mo Farah in the London Olympics said everything about what a modern union should look like. Football is the national game of Scotland. It is also the national game of England. Let’s agree now (before the miseries of Rio) that we will enter a Great Britain team in the 2018 World Cup. At least that means that Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish players can get to the World Cup …. and that we might just make it beyond the quarter finals. Let’s also open up the English Premier League and the Championship to Scots football clubs. Nothing has helped refresh the Anglo-Welsh relationship as much as the promotion of Cardiff and Swansea to the Premier League. Being in the EPL is probably the best global awareness raiser for UK cities. Let’s have Celtic, Rangers, Hearts and others on the newly renamed British Premier League and Championship fixture lists. Secondly, let’s invest in our joint future. We need to combine our forces to help our premier universities. The UK has 17 out of the world’s top 100 universities in the QS rankings. Three of these (Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews) are in Scotland. But we face fierce competition to maintain or improve on this position. Only massive UK-scale investment in science and technology will realise our potential to attract the very best academics, to recruit the most financially attractive overseas students, to finance spin-out businesses and to retain the best graduates in the city in which they learn. If Scotland goes independent, its universities will be ruled out of this investment. If Scotland stays, then the excellence of its universities means it quite a disproportionate share of this investment. We have to massively increase our investment in science and technology research over the next 10 years. So let’s announce it now and create a big carrot to stay and access the UK funds. Another area to tackle together is immigration. Whilst the scale of recent immigration is a major public concern in England, it plays differently in Scotland. All countries in the UK want immigration to be better controlled. But the English often forget that Scotland has been fighting against population stagnation and decline. In 2002, it faced its lowest population for 30 years. The last decade, however, has seen a 5% increase in the population, with immigration being the biggest reason. The second biggest reason is incoming English residents. With a recent tail-off in the birthrate, an ageing population, depopulation in a number of local areas and a lower life expectancy than the UK as a whole, Scotland has different immigration needs to the wider UK. It doesn’t take independence to solve this. It is entirely possible that geographically-limited visas could be issued for people to live, work and study in Scotland, without the same rights in England, Wales or Northern Ireland. For example, Scotland could be more generous than England in letting students extend their stay beyond university (when it currently loses large numbers of highly talented young people) if they have a job or further study in Scotland. It’s the same as an employer sponsored work permit. These are just 3 examples. In remaking the relationship, we need to think creatively and collaboratively along similar lines.
Maybe it was spending my honeymoon in Glasgow that always make me think of the Union as a marriage. But let’s not kid ourselves that if Scotland files for divorce in September that England and Scotland will just carry on, as independent states, as “best friends”. There are so many people who started on amicable divorces and, after the lawyers and the disputes, ended up with lifelong resentment and feuding. Just imagine how ugly the break-up will be – what happens to vital military bases, who gets the bad bank liabilities, who is able to use sterling, who gets access to the EU, etc. Often people say that after the divorce process there is just no love left, only ill-will.
Who is up for my 3-point plan – a Unity March in Edinburgh this summer, an offer of freedom from both Westminster and Holyrood, plus some creative new ways to refresh our marriage? This will be a debate settled by the heart, not the head. So Brits, let your love out…. A “Yes” vote for that at least?