The pleb relationship between the countries of these islands

Ian Bell ponders what Scots who simply want more powers will do in the 2014 referendum

Ian Bell is a columnist with the Glasgow Herald where this article first appeared.

The question of Scotland’s future seems to have disappeared from news schedules in the south of these islands. Why’s that? At one moment, it’s the most important issue in three long, shared centuries of trial and triumph. At the next, it is fighting for space (and losing) with Downton, the Adventures of Dr Vince, BBC grovelling to HMQ and the cracking of a Tory whip.

There are few things more depressing than a marriage in which one party, with a strained smile, couldn’t give a toss. The Union matters hugely when the larger partner bothers to remember. If not, it doesn’t make the news.

Alex Salmond’s apparent acceptance of a single referendum question was a big story in the past week in the native Scottish press. How did it play elsewhere? To spare you the bother, here’s a quick answer: internet ads for exotic inter-species sex got better coverage.

This counts as context, and remains important. England doesn’t care. One version of Scottish nationalism thrills to the fact. Here’s proof, they say, of imperial indifference. They’ll be calling us plebs next. Or proles, or Picts, or whichever bit of alliteration they can manage. That isn’t the point.

The identities of Scots are defined, still, in contrast to the neighbours. The questions arising from a lump of land, its polity, history, political practices and public realm, depend on cross-border traffic. And they, those gracious English people, just don’t care.

Couldn’t care less, in fact. It doesn’t matter, not to them. It does not occupy their attention or their time. Scotland stays or goes? Why on earth – putting aside the oil, the missiles, the banks, the treaties, and the implied judgment – could it matter? It ain’t, and is not, making the news.

I was born a pleb. In contrast to some of my dazzling colleagues south of Berwick, I’ve heard the word. Now I see it being applied to negotiations between nations. It amounts to this: you will answer the question asked, and no other. That’s the definition of plebeian. In our referendum on independence, it’s all we are to be allowed.

Mr Salmond has caved in, as most knew he would, and he knew he must. London – shorthand does not reduce further – says that we will answer a question on relationships with London decided by London. This is “for clarity’s sake”. So let me be clear: a lot of Scots are being disenfranchised in order to secure the result London wants. Insert your own expletive.

I don’t agree with them, those fans of a vague ‘devo-max’. I want it straight and clear, and I want to vote tomorrow. But I know that large numbers of my compatriots are stranded, intellectually, in the wastelands of constitutional debate. They want ‘more powers’ – like Mr Salmond – exercised in Edinburgh. It turns out they enjoyed their Olympics far too much to risk self-determination, or pride, for anything else.

Fair enough. It makes no odds to me whether Mr Salmond and his patented party were playing games over devo this or that. Reality will take a hand, sooner or later. But the people should have the right to choose from the endlessly evolving menu of subtle, complex democratic choices. London has denied that liberty.

The First Minister should not have reported his latest thoughts through the medium of the Los Angeles Times. In such moments there is the distinct whiff of a man missing the point. It’s not for him to say what must be done, or to become complicit in anyone’s deal. It is not for the First Minister to bargain over alternatives he rejects. I want to vote on my country’s independence. The people who have more complicated opinions also have rights.

At this juncture, I wonder still what the people of England would say. I know they don’t care. Scots are forever aggrieved by the fact. But here’s Liberal Democrat Willie Rennie, undead leader of the resolute zombie faction in the Scottish Parliament, pleading for English voices in a Scottish argument. In the douce town of Brighton, for his party’s sake, he gives the game away. Speak, he pleads:

“It could be intellectual, with the Scottish Enlightenment giving us great thinkers like James Hutton, David Hume and Adam Smith. Or it could be as simple as having loved ones from Scotland and caring about the country our children will grow up in. Whatever you value, I want you to make your voice heard. Promise me you won’t leave the debate to the extreme views of Nationalists.”

Search the London media and see what coverage Mr Rennie received. “We,” Kemo Sabe? The people to whom you appeal don’t care. And why, equally, does the leader of a Scottish party sound like a supplicant to a higher power? Perhaps because we are beyond the shadow war in which democracy, voting and choice, might matter.

Mr Salmond has had no option. I take the point. Unless he accepts Yes or No they might – but the proposition has never been tested – refuse to allow the people of Scotland to vote for themselves.

Let me repeat that. If the plebs, proles and Picts had attempted to vote on propositions unacceptable to London governance, they would have refused to allow the people of Scotland to vote. Mr Salmond preferred the compromise. In the Los Angeles Times. Or did I miss something?

The First Minister would wish to negotiate with all comers. I understand his problem. I would also suggest the First Minister of Scotland has an unendorsed habit of speaking before he is asked. He just gave away the alternative question. On whose authority, precisely?

If we are still educating our children, someone can probably explain to them what is meant by a toom tabard. This is Longshanks time, in our century: here’s your question, and here is your answer.

But don’t, please, think of voting for the independence proposition because of some opinion of mine. What is the proposition, exactly? On a bad day, Mr Rennie and Mr Salmond speak as though it’s all just a quibble over ‘powers’. No-one is talking about liberty. Why not? Because the good people of England still won’t care. I call that the end to a marriage.

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