David Melding tells of his recent trip to Scotland as the independence referendum comes to a head.
Edinburgh – Wednesday 3rd September
I suppose wandering around the heart of historic Edinburgh what you most likely to see are fellow tourists. But the importance of what is happening here – resolving this first order question – demands something more demonstrative! Or does this life as usual not put the matter in context? A big decision to be made in which there are options not a right or wrong outcome. The taste, smell and texture of Scotland will stay much the same whatever happens. And yet, I’m not with Balfour that ‘Not much matters, and nothing matters much!’
Pleasant evening spent with one of Scotland’s leading political commentators. We met at the 9a Holyrood Bar, formerly a spit and sawdust joint called the Holyrood Tavern. Although now gentrified it still has its Bohemian character. We agreed on the main points –
– Now very close, we are in the uncontrolled, unpredictable zone;
– We still think that a narrow ‘No’ is most likely and hope this will inspire an expansive, generous response that will lead to a federal Union;
– The Better Together campaign still think they are well ahead but we do not share this optimism;
– While admiring the skill of the ‘Yes’ campaign, there is some disguised identity politics in the independence pitch;
– England detached, even oblivious to the need for a radical, new Union;
– David Cameron likely to come under great pressure if there is a ‘Yes’ vote;
– Antipathy to ‘English’ Conservative Party is driving much of the surge to ‘Yes’, Oh! for pragmatic, humane Toryism.
We ended the discussion talking about the miners’ strike in the mid-80s. This was the turning point in Scotland, and a big factor limiting Conservative potential in Wales. The Conservative Party was doomed as a UK wide force.
Big ‘C’ conservatism has lacked the tact of the German Christian Democrat tradition in supporting industrial communities as they moved to a more diversified economy
Thursday 4th September
There is a definite exuberance about ‘Yes’ and this alone will change everything after the 18th. Reading Alvin Jackson’s excellent ‘Two Unions’ about Scotland and Ireland. Both Unions he argues were expedient bargains (although a poor one for Ireland) and not the fulfilment of a luminous ideal. Independence is beginning to look like that ‘luminous ideal’ – in my view – for the people of Scotland. Unionists really will have to create a new, more inspired Union to counter this.
Friday 5th September
Lunch at the New Club in Princes Street with a prominent Scottish Tory. He thinks the second debate was a turning point and the SNP are now threatening the try line 5 metres out. Momentum now with the Nationalists. A close ‘No’ vote is the best we can hope for and after that swift work to reform the Union. But will the English budge?
We enjoy our excellent lunch in the oak panelled grandeur of the Victorian dining room. A couple of unionist grandees exchange nervous remarks with my host. I look around and wonder if the New Club itself is not a metaphor for the Union. Its grand interiors are now housed in a strikingly modern 1970s building. A good fit?
Glasgow 8.30 p.m.
The Grand Central is a vast, cavernous railway hotel with long, dead straight corridors like ideal tracks. Thankfully, I’m on the 4th floor, well above the vibrant bars and dance hall. The hotel has been updated without quite losing its soft, faded grandeur.
This is the heart of Glasgow’s night life and the pubs and restaurants are packed – much more crowded than the pubs in Edinburgh’s old town. Not much evidence though of the ‘big debate’. I only saw one reveller wearing a badge (inevitably ‘Yes’).
Saturday 6th September, Morning
Met up at the Better Together HQ at the Savoy Centre, Sauchiehall Street.
We went over to join Ruth Davidson MSP in Pollokshields, a leafy part of Glasgow. In lovely late summer sunshine we had an encouraging response but far from solidly ‘No’. Our team a mix of Labour and Tory supporters all rather enjoying the novelty of common cause. One Tory remarked that an undecided had said they would probably vote ‘No’ but were worried about a Brit exit. ‘I had to praise the EU and bite my tongue’… But I thought this a troubling exchange for it hints at how British or English nationalism over Europe has undermined the Union.
On the canvassers’ key message brief “separation is a leap in the dark” which reminded me of AV Dicey – not a very comfortable blast from the past.
I was inadvertently sent to canvass Blair Jenkins – unsurprisingly the head of the ‘Yes’ campaign was out!
Hillhead, Glasgow, Afternoon
We had lunch in the Whale and Squid where we were approached by a TV crew from Quebec making a documentary to be shown next year on the campaign. It will be used as some form of art installation. Rather off guard I agreed to say something to camera which turned into a rather long and detailed interview. The questions were astute but all rather exhausting over lunch and it was difficult to east tacos and talk … We ended up discussing whether the UK is an open, cosmopolitan society and I argued that it was rather like Canada and the US in that respect. ‘The UK is the America of Europe’ and we must be doing something right if so many people wanted to live here for a time or permanently. They favoured separatists in Quebec and I did ask them whether they thought nations and states should be coterminous and what this would do to international order? They did not respond.
To my argument that it was illogical for Scottish nationalists to argue that the EU enhanced Scottishness but the British Union did not, one asked me whether I thought Britain could flourish in a European state if that emerged. A rather good response I thought…
The canvass here was less encouraging and I sensed a ‘Yes’ majority, but also many who were unsure. Labour is definitely losing control of some of its core vote – although one shipyard worker said he was a definite ‘No’ or the Navy contracts would be lost. We were followed around for part of the way by mischievous youths out of a Dundee comic book. They told us what to do with the ‘No’ campaign! Thankfully, they did not carry out their threat to egg us!
Back in Pollokshields but many more ‘Yes’ supporters than this morning. A very leafy area again, with some exquisite Greco-revival domestic architecture, but Bohemian and more inclined to take that leap, only into the light not dark from their exuberant perspective. A luminous ideal indeed.
Met a lady who used to live in Dinas Powys – she had already voted ‘Yes’ by post. With some electors, I tried the line ‘I’ve come all the way from Cardiff to urge you to stay in the Union …” To no avail, although nearly everyone was polite.
Quite a lot of households were split, and I sensed rather proudly so. And so, after 18th we will all have to come together again … Perhaps a hopeful way to end a very full day’s campaigning.
Sunday 7th September
To bed last night with the troubling news that a Sunday Times poll has the ‘Yes’ side ahead albeit narrowly 51-49. The first poll, I think, that has had them ahead. Slept fitfully, partly due to the heat in the bedroom (central heating on full blast!) but mostly because thoughts of the end of Britain (or the British state at least) kept rushing into my head. An epoch – our, mine – is being severely tested by a new concept struggling to emerge: nations as states, at least ideally. These are probably historical and global forces (what next, City state too …) but inevitably one feels it personally and I keep wanting to shout ‘watch out, careful as you tread, don’t race down the unknown path’. But did Oakeshott not say that life is a journey and sometimes taking the other, less familiar path, is the way to Tory adventure! Britishness will endure but not necessarily in a way I find comfortable.
TV news carried a piece on the ‘Yes’ campaign celebrating their ‘surge’ Dancing on the street, face masks of David Cameron and Alistair Darling as villains, tambourines – an exuberant rally for independence with “Generation Yes” placards prominent. The joy in this campaign has always seemed to be with ‘Yes’. How to make a 300 year Union fresh and fun? Taking an 18th century metaphor, Yes is all hymn singing Methodism; No rational, latitudinarian Anglicanism.
Interesting piece in the Herald by the Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole, “Nationalism is a form of myth-making; independence demands a lot of myth-breaking”. Otherwise you are made complacent and sluggish.
I see a poster: You Yes Yet? Written vertically. Brilliant. Sums up the strategic genius of the ‘Yes’ campaign.
Whilst noting the above, a ‘Yes’ supporter approached me. He asked me whether I had a vote but was pleased to talk even when hearing my reply. The focus for him was social justice and he gave me a leaflet from RIC. Radical Independence condemns Westminster for bedroom tax, need for foodbanks and benefit sanctions. He asked me what I thought Scottish independence would mean for Wales and I tried to express my anxiety regarding what will happen to Wales and N. Ireland. Interestingly, he said it was about socialist values for him, not nationalism. If there had been a third question (i.e. option for devo max) he would have gone for that.
What to conclude? The Union is in real trouble. Even if there is a ‘No’ vote it is likely to be narrow. ‘Yes’ face the result of their dreams or a highly encouraging showing just short of victory. And ‘No’? Disaster or fragile survival.