Once more into the breach. I fervently hope it’s for the last time; and I fervently hope I have not been born to write the obituary of my country.
There is a well-loved saying among university lecturers, ‘The trouble with students is that they interfere with your work.’ But that’s as nothing compared with the way that the Referendum has interfered with Scottish life. To it, the Holyrood Parliament dedicated the longest election campaign in British history, and by doing so they put the whole nation on hold. The new powers to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament are on hold; the levels of Income Tax and Corporation Tax are on hold; Rosyth and BAE Systems are on hold; the Royal Regiment of Scotland are on hold; Scottish MPs sitting at Westminster are on hold; Prime Minister’s Questions are on hold; the Queen is on hold; I am on hold; the very swallows which by now should be flying off to Africa are on hold, fearful of taking a last farewell of the Scotland they love.
When I say, ‘on hold’, I don’t mean hesitating between two opinions, the Nationalist and the Unionist. I mean ‘on hold’ because on all the crucial questions the SNP refuse to give answers. We are offered only a blank cheque, promising ‘Independence’ but always with the rider, ‘Leave the details to us.’
The question on everyone’s lips is, What would life be like in an independent Scotland? At least, that’s what the political and chattering classes think is on everyone’s lips.
But for many of us, it certainly is not. We have a whole raft of much more urgent questions for Mr. Salmond, such as: What would you do about the barbaric Islamic State? What would be your policy on Scottish jihadists returning home and boldly claiming their civil rights? What have you to say on Mr. Putin’s illegal invasion of the Ukraine? What will you do to ensure that Israeli theatre companies feel safe in Edinburgh? What will you do about banks fined millions for malpractice, and then forking out millions more in bonuses for those who got them into the mess in the first place? What have you to say about the possibility of armed police at shinty matches in Portree; about overcrowded jails; and about abolishing the need for corroboration in criminal trials? What are your answers to the problem of fuel poverty and to the hardship faced by the thousands who are in work but receive no living wage? And what do you propose to do with the religious provisions of the Union of 1707?
And could you, please, tell me what life would be like in an independent Scotland?
First, a word about the national religion, football. Former Cardiff City manager, Malky Mackay, found himself in hot water last week when it was alleged that he had sent racist and homophobic texts to a pal. He’ll shortly be sentenced to be boiled alive; or at least, banned from all football-related activity.
As a Gaidheal I have a vested interest in opposing racism, and I cannot see that a man’s gender orientation has any bearing whatever on his prowess as a footballer. But have we really reached the point where malice can put private correspondence in the public domain and ruin a man in a day?
There is a clear issue. In the world of football, what is the Unforgivable Sin? If the said Mr. Mackay had merely said that all fundies are wankers he would be sitting today in the Manager’s chair at Crystal Palace. But he touched Britain’s raw nerves, racism and homophobia, and for these there can be no forgiveness.
But then on Monday I was ambushed (sorry for being so abrupt). It’s hard to explain how it happened. The Referendum campaign is driving me nuts, forcing me to adopt a life-style which minimises the risk of bumping into it. It’s turned me into a fugitive, compelled to walk in the shadows and send out advance-parties to make sure it’s not there. These are days when a man’s got to watch what he sees and hears.
And if there’s one place where you’re bound to meet Referendum it’s Reporting Scotland; and on Monday night my guard slipped or, more precisely, I got the timing wrong. I usually manage to switch on just in time for the weather-forecast (it’s important to know whether there’s going to be sunshine and showers in my study tomorrow), but this time, to my horror, Remote put on Referendum; and, paralytic with shock, I froze, unable to switch off.
In a flash, Referendum was under my skin. I had planned a brilliant investigative piece on the scandal now engulfing NHS Western Isles, after the shocking disclosure (to quote one headline) that ‘Hospital beds are overcrowded’. No details have been forthcoming, leaving the public in the dark as to whether patients are having to sleep two-in-a-bed or five-in-a-bed.
Few issues of principle have taken the foreground in the Referendum debate. Instead it has remained obsessed with one question, ‘Will we or won’t we be better-off?’ and this in turn dissolves into statistics which are no sooner heard than forgotten. Few of us want to clutter our heads with figures about Scotland’s contribution to the UK economy, the funding our universities receive from the UK Research Council or the number of barrels of oil that still remain under the North Sea. Apparently the nett result of such calculations is that Scotland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and this, claim the partitionists, is clear proof that we can go it alone; to which the clear-headed might surely reply that, on the contrary, it is clear proof that Scotland has done very well under the Union. We ain’t broke, so please don’t fix us.
Even the slightest hint of a possible increase in the Yes! vote in the forthcoming referendum gives me a severe attack of the heebie-jeebies. Why break one nation in two, why partition one small island, and why turn our back on institutions which for generations have served as models for other democracies, and delivered levels of prosperity matched by few other nations on earth?
Yet, there have been hints recently that the Yes! campaign is gathering momentum, and there seem to be two main reasons for this.
Last weekend highlighted one of the major problems facing the No! campaign in the independence referendum. It was the weekend of the SNP’s annual spring conference, and it provided separatists with a platform that unionists simply cannot match. The Scottish National Party exists for the sole purpose of promoting independence. It is organised to deliver that outcome, passionate about it and resourced for it. Its leaders live for it, its foot-soldiers march for it, its Press Office is geared to it.
Inevitably, then, its annual conference is choreographed to ensure that in the full glare of the media all the forces and faces of Nationalism are marshalled to argue that we’ll never be properly grown-up till we stand alone on our own two feet, send the Americans packing, deliver Scotland from the curse of Toryism, and provide free child-care for all working mothers (Santa to pick up the tab).
The tragedy is that the No! campaign has nothing comparable. There is no Scottish party to whom the Union matters as much as independence matters to the SNP. Nor is there any other party as well organised at grass-roots, or able to deploy such a fanatical political infantry. Neither Labour, Tory nor LibDem stand first and foremost for the Union. Nor do they seem able to put their differences aside and stand together to save it. Even in the Western Isles, the parties are reluctant to be seen working together; and where they do work together there is nothing like that critical mass of explosive enthusiasm which the crisis demands.
The women of the world have every right to protest against the evils of patriarchy. Men’s brains are no bigger than women’s but their muscles are, and they’ve had little compunction about using them to impose their will on women in home, state and church. Men ruled kingdoms, men dominated their wives and men governed the church.
We’re seldom allowed to forget that we live in a multi-racial, multi-faith and multi-cultural world. Yet across all the divides there is one great leveller: the market.
At some levels it’s harmless enough. Everyone enjoys Coca Cola and everyone uses a mobile phone. But at other levels it’s far from harmless. The market delivers cocaine as well as coffee, and great multi-nationals bulldoze their way serenely through ancient habitats and traditional cultures. What Solomon said of the grave is now true of the market. It is never satisfied.
All of which sounds comfortably remote. The bulldozer, after all, does its worst only in ‘developing’ countries. But there is a much more invidious problem, and much closer to home. The market is re-inventing the human species. Once we were first and foremost ‘homo sapiens’; now we are ‘homo economicus’. If we are economically productive, we are something; if we are not economically productive, we are nothing, and once our dear Chancellor, Mr. Osborne, hears of us he will instantly brand us as not simply ‘out-of-work’, but ‘unwilling to work’; and in view of our worthlessness he will drive his bulldozer through our Benefits.
I should really be in a complete fankle about writing this column. After all, I am a Calvinist, which means I believe in predestination: a subject on which Free Press readers are clearly fully briefed. From what they say, I cannot write this column unless it was predestined; and equally, I cannot decide what to write about, because that, too, must be predestined. The wisest course, then, would be to sit and wait for predestination either to force me to write something or prevent me from writing something.
And now, here before you is something: the column divinely foreordained. The funny thing is, I chose it myself: me, my very self. I felt no compulsion, was aware of no restraining force. Instead, I exercised my divinely foreordained liberty of alternative choice. I could have chosen to write on the national vendetta against Rangers Football Club, but decided not to (perhaps from instincts of self-preservation). I have no doubt that what I write was divinely foreordained; neither have I any doubt that what I write is the result of my own free decision.
At this point I have no idea where this potent combination of predestination and freedom will eventually lead to. I know only the opening few words, linked (albeit tenuously) to the Independence Referendum.