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Phone a friend with a vote – and urge a NO vote for the sake of Scotland and the UK

Posted on 16 September 2014 | 9:09am


Here is a piece on the separation referendum I have written for the Telegraph.

I have it on the authority of Alex Salmond no less that I am Scottish. He told me so – indeed he insisted on it after I suggested he didn’t really see south of the border Scots like me as ‘proper Scots’ – when I interviewed him for GQ magazine a few months ago. He had done his homework. He knew that both my parents, a crofter’s son from Tiree and a mother raised on an Ayrshire farm, were Scots. He knew that I play the bagpipes, and he knew all about my brother Donald, an ex-Scots Guardsman and now official piper to Glasgow University, correctly pointing out that he is a better player than I am.

Alas, despite being anointed a ‘proper Scot’ by the First Minister, I don’t have a vote in Thursday’s referendum but I do have a voice and have been using it to try to persuade Scots to vote NO, and I urge anyone with friends, relatives and colleagues in Scotland to do the same. Salmond told me – and if this is true it is a scandal – that in his discussions with the Westminster government about the referendum the idea of the whole of the UK having some kind of say was not even raised. Five countries not one are changed by a Yes vote – the UK, Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. We all have a stake even if we don’t have a say.

Salmond told me that the fundamentals of my relationship with Scotland would not change. But they will. I feel British first, Scottish second, Yorkshire – where I was born – third and English a long way behind. I cannot imagine feeling British if Britain does not include Scotland. Nor do I want to be of a different nationality to other members of my family. And I certainly don’t want to live in a place called rUK.

However, my sense of identity, important though it is to me, is as nothing alongside the other huge issues involved. I told Salmond that my mother was terrified of the idea of separation. He laughed and said that was probably because I was terrifying her. Ah Project Fear. He talks a lot about Project Fear, as though those two words can sweep away the huge questions that he still hasn’t answered and which clearly he can’t. There is actually quite a lot to be scared about if Scotland says YES to separation.

The currency, and Scots not knowing what theirs will be. Companies and capital fleeing the country, a foretaste of which we saw merely on the back  of narrowing polls. Uncertainty about pensions. Uncosted promises of free just about everything. Uncertainty about NATO membership, EU membership, the UK’s place as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The inevitable constitutional knock-on effects for other parts of the UK. These are not trifling issues and despite this being a longer campaign than a US Presidential election, the uncertainties that were there two years ago are still there now. I tried my best for GQ. But he is a good talker and a damn fine wriggler and the interview was covered mainly for his favorable comments on Vladimir Putin and his concerns about Scotland’s relationship with alcohol. On the big policy questions he talked, he charmed, he wriggled and I never really pinned him down.

Now as it happens sadly my mother has since died – no, I am not blaming Salmond, she died of natural causes not fear – but in her final weeks and months I doubt we had a conversation when she didn’t say she just hoped and prayed Scotland stayed within the UK. She really really cared. I really really care. I care more about this vote even than those general elections I was directly involved in.

Salmond has – thus far – managed to frame the referendum as a choice between head and heart. Head is code for passionless number crunchers who cannot see beyond the end of a profit and loss sheet and a deficit calculator. Heart is code for him, Scottishness, passion, positivity, change we can believe in, Yes We Can. The fact that heads as varied as those belonging to central bankers, world-leading businesses and Nobel prize-winning economists are all warning that ‘no you can’t’, and that an independent Scotland could have disastrous consequences for jobs, prices, pensions and living standards is swept aside on a wave of YES balloons and Salmond soundbites.

The head v heart prism has allowed Salmond to claim a monopoly on passion for too long. But NO voters feel just as passionately as YES voters and they have to fight like their lives depend on it to get the remaining undecideds to vote No. To state the obvious yes is a positive concept. Change is often easier in a campaign than fighting for the status quo. In Scotland today, you see YES posters everywhere, NO posters barely at all. Partly that is because Salmond has used the extraordinary length of the campaign agreed by David Cameron to build an effective ground operation. Partly it is because of the reports of intimidation against people openly coming out for NO. Partly it is because despite his patchy record on social justice compared with Labour, he has draped that mantle around his shoulders too. Also, he has succeeded in making people in a country that is not terribly fond of Tories feel slightly dirty in being, rarely, on the same side of an argument.

So the posters tell a story but perhaps not the obvious one. So do the polls. The neck and neck polls a week ago were a godsend for Salmond, not merely because they suggested he could win, but because it meant that for days all the talk was of process rather than the fundamental and massive issues at stake. Salmond could parade as a commentator on the NO campaign, their every response dismissed as a sign of panic and meltdown. That there was some panic in what Salmond calls Team Westminster is beyond dispute, as is the considerable irritation caused by his attempt to portray YES as synonymous with ‘Team Scotland,’ the kind of hubris he has broadly managed to keep in check. But if next Thursday the NO vote prevails, it may well be that last weekend’s poll was a turning point in Better Together’s favour. Because it was the moment when not just Scotland, not just the UK but frankly the whole of the world woke up to the sheer bigness of this debate, the enormity of what is at stake. It galvanized businesses which had been hoping to keep their heads down as No cruised to a comfortable win to get them up above the parapet. As a result Salmond’s mountain of assertions began to crumble in an avalanche of inconvenient economic realities, and looking at the detailed data beneath the polls’ headline figures, it is the ‘do you think you will be worse off or better off?’ question that appears to have driven a shift back to NO in recent days, more people fearing they will be worse off in a separate Scotland.

There were polls galore over the weekend, and the most interesting thing was that despite the length and the passions of the debate, there are still a large number of undecided voters. There are usually three ways for don’t knows to go. Stay at home (less likely than in a general election given the debate is so alive and cynicism about political debate rather wonderfully suspended); go with momentum (which Salmond appeared to have last weekend, but which was stalled in all but one poll over the weekend); or go with the doubts about change and see a better future for Scotland in saying NO, especially now that the campaign has already forced what many Scots wanted in the first place – more powers for the Holyrood Parliament.

If the debate is all about process, like his rows with broadcasters or his calls for leak inquiries, Salmond is in with a shout. If the debate is all about the fundamentals, then, the issues are so serious, the doubts so big, the questions so unanswered I think most of the don’t knows will go to NO – with head AND heart directing the pencil on the ballot paper. With both head and with heart, I sincerely hope so. Because head and heart say YES would be a huge risk for Scotland and a disaster for the UK.


  • Michele

    I was bemused by today’s broadcast from Nicola Sturgeon whose inference has always been that being a part (isn’t ‘partner’ a better / truer description) of the UK has held Scotland back.
    Isn’t that the stated reason to jump ship?

    Anyway, she reminded us today that several august bodies in the world of finance actually rate the Scotland of the present as being very strong, very highly placed on world rankings.
    Per capita or other criteria was not described but what was mentioned was the argument about how much is left of the oil (which was got out of the sea by funding from which govt …… remind me, no, surely it wasn’t the whole UK’s?)

    How, therefore, have ‘they’ been held back by Wales and Northern Ireland but apparently primarily by England?
    I’m often reminded of ‘Don’t mention the Germans’ and John Cleese’s funny walk ….

    SNP does seem to be the family business for the Salmonds and Sturgeon/Murrells ….. others?

  • Michele

    Excellent article but deep condolences regards your mother.

  • Amg

    As ever Alastair is bang on
    Better together could have used his talents

  • Gillian C.

    I’ve just read your piece in the Telegraph AC. Glad you’ve also put it up on your own web site. With a bit of luck you may even get around to putting some comments up.

    To be honest I’m not sorry that I don’t have a vote on this issue, because I rarely agree with anything the LibLabCon says, writes or wants to do. However, on this occasion I think they are right.

    I don’t want Scotland to leave the UK. I like the Scots and I believe they are being sold a pup by Alex Salmond et al. I don’t like him and I don’t trust him.

    Maybe he wants to become King Wee Eck the first of Scotland.

    I don’t think a ‘yes’ vote would be good for Scotland or for the rest of the UK. United we stand, divided we fall.

  • Michele

    Oh dear what a hornets’ nest!
    Lord Barnett has now weighed in with an explanation that his Formula was never meant to be a permanent arrangement favouring the Scottish and stating it would be preposterous for it to be taken in to account and continued in a post-YES situation.

    Perhaps some other UK constituents should be protesting about the situation re population qties per MP:
    Scotland 59,615
    England 105,600
    Northern Ireland 112,500
    Wales 176,700 !!!
    Does Scotland’s area vs population density really extend to such imbalance and yet more uber-preferential expenditure –
    for the rest of Scotland’s supposed PARTNERS to foot?

    If so who does hate whom (or at the very least not gve a thingy for them)?
    Most Scots hate the Tories and celebrate that a YES result would negate any future possibility of them being ruled as we all are now (with or without the co-operation of the bought-Lib[dem]s)
    and never any mention it would consign the rest of their ‘partners’ that outcome more often in future.

    The SNPs hoped-for outcome would leave the English, Welsh and Northern Irish vulnerable to a crap situation like the one being endured since Nick the **** got bribed and in to bed with Cameron.
    Without Scottish votes for Labour the rest of the UK will have to face the possibility of more of the same.
    So, will self-interest and disregard for UK partners really sway YES-thinkers?
    If so I’d not be boasting about being a yesser/yes-sir.

  • Evan Grant

    I moved from Glasgow to England in 1979, and it never occurred to me I was “changing country”. I was born in Glasgow, my parents were born in Glasgow, and all my grandparents were born in Glasgow. I still think of Glasgow as home and I visit my family “at home” in Glasgow several times a year.

    I am bemused that I don’t get a vote.

    Alastair, I have never supported your party politics, but I strongly endorse your excellent blog and, like you, very much hope the answer is No on Thursday.

  • Dave Simons

    The Scottish Independence issue, like migration and immigration, has triggured an intereresting debate about identity. Despite having spent most of my life in Yorkshire, England, UK, I don’t feel Yorkshire, English or UK. I do feel human but am uneasy about humanity’s relationship with other sentient beings, whether animal or plant. Relating to Scottish Independence, I can’t honestly say I care which way the vote goes, though I think it would be ill-advised to press ahead for independence if there is less than a 65% vote in favour on the basis of a high turn-out. But the issue is – do the Scottish people want to be self-governing or not. All the other issues – pensions, currency, oil revenues – should be secondary. And if it doesn’t work out, why shouldn’t there be an option of returning to the UK? Why is it ‘for ever’, except as a scare tactic? Is anything ‘for ever’, including the UK?

    • Michele

      Hope you’re well stranger 🙂

      Why no return option? So that everybody knew their vote mattered, had to be taken seriously and understood to be their commitment to no U-turn (not just be yet another protest).

      There are lots of things I’d like to do if I thought I could simply change my little mind and cause dozens of millions of other people massive inconvenience (and even offence?) wiping up after my la la lah moment.
      I admit such an arrangement could be seen as a job creation scheme but not be a worthwhile one.

      I do wonder how much all this has cost and what services will have suffered as a result.

  • Mark Wright

    I’m amazed at the utter bollocks the ‘Yes’ campaign has been allowed to get away with. Their spokespeople seem to have a brief that when they are backed in to a corner on TV they are permitted to just make up bollocks on the spot – if they are pressed further then the good old trusty ‘scaremongering’ line is trotted out. This is also bollocks.

    Here are my two favourites:

    “We’ll be debt free.” – Intentional bollocks or do they actually believe this? I hope it’s the former, actually. This reply was given in answer to why Scotland will be attractive to lenders. The argument being that if it leaves the UK then it no longer has to pay its debts accrued within. Yes, well we could all say we we’re ‘debt free’ if we said we simply weren’t going to pay back any more money. Good luck with the money markets on that one. Bollocks rating: 10/10

    “We’ll cap food prices.” – This amazing piece of on-the-spot bollocks came during last Sunday’s ‘The Sunday Politics’ when ‘Yes’ campaign were pressed on supermarkets saying that prices could rise in an independent Scotland. Yes, they’ll come flocking to invest in your fledgling nation. Bollocks rating: 10/10

    Effing bollocks the lot of it.

  • Ehtch

    Deep condolences Alastair, and to your family, on the loss of your mother. You often talked of her in blogs, and sounded a grand lady. I have hardly met a farmer’s daughter that was not – they as a rule have their feet firmly on the ground.

    With Scotland, even though am from Wales, I might be in the minority here. I back the Yes. Why? I believe something is not right in the way we are governed at the moment, the inefficiency of the system. And nothing seems to be done about improving it – any changes seem to happen too late, too slow, as if it is trying to catch up with itself, but in reality is falling further behind. With what is going on with the NHS in England at the moment is horrendous, and has knock on effects to Scotland etc. in amount of funding from the Whitehall Treasury, which receives exclusively tax funds and NI. This applies to other departments too. I could suggest the misuse of public funds, governmental corruption in public office.

    What is the chance of a British & Irish & Scottish Lions rugby team soon, we may ask? We will soon find out.

  • Gillian C.

    Many people across the political divide were impressed by Gordon Brown’s ‘barnstorming’ speech (as was I) on this issue.

    One commenter writing ‘to think we threw him out in favour of Cameron’.

    Many appreciative comments in the Daily Mail or Mail Online and several in the Telegraph also.

    One thing’s for sure we’ll never hear anything close to the passion on any subject, that GB expressed from Miliband.