It’s downhill all the way at the moment

I can’t even get my poetry quotations right.

I am not over-fond of this time of year. Summer’s lease hath all too short a stay. Date, I mean. Why do I always get that wrong? Anyway, it’s now autumn. The windows that have been left open are now shut to stop the draughts, the summer plumage – linen, basically, and those cheapo desert boots you buy from shoe shops on the Uxbridge Road for £20 – is replaced by the winter version, and the Proms come to an end. This is particularly sad this year, as it is the first time since 1999 that Roger Wright, head of Radio 3 andthe Proms, hasn’t invited me along to his box to eat his smoked salmon sarnies and drink his wine.

Maybe he has wearied of me. I thought he used to be amused by my having to climb over him for a pee during the long, long wall of sound that is Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, or making feeble passes at Jenny Agutter, or gawping at Simon Heffer’s profile. How does anyone get jowls like that? He’s only three years older than I am. Heffer, not Wright. Wright is older than either of us but has the ageless good looks of a Donatello putto. I sat and waited for his call all summer long but it never came, and when I heard “Jerusalem” bouncing off the walls all the way from Hyde Park, I had a tear in my eye. So that’s it, then, I thought.

I know I’m not important any longer – I used to be radio critic for the Independent on Sunday until they decided I was surplus to requirements about six years ago – but what about auld lang syne? They sang that, too, as if to wash their mouths out after “Jerusalem” and “Rule, Britannia!”, and that nearly floored me. (Incidentally, I gather the Independent on Sunday has now decided that all its critics are surplus to requirements and has given the entire arts desk the heaveho. You will write and tell them they’re being silly arseholes, won’t you? They had some fine writers on those pages.) Oh well; nothing lasts for ever and at least this year we had a summer to speak of, unlike last year’s washout.

I used to like September, though. I was never particularly fond of school but at least you got to learn some stuff and there was always a good chance that I’d have some new masters who had yet to nurse any grudges against me. The start of the university year was even better: leaving the family home meant the thrilling prospect of going where there were locks on the lavatory doors.

But that was when life was still a process leading to sunny uplands. Each year was going to be better than the last one: you’d know a bit more, be earning a bit more and certainly be having more sex. After all, I would ask myself in my late teens, how could I be having any less? That’s not something I’m worried about now, thank goodness, but as for the rest . . . Well, anyone out there feeling happier, richer and more confident about the future than they were last year?

I thought that at the very least this government had reached the maximum point of stupidity and malice a supposedly enlightened western democracy was capable of, but now I read that the DWP is to start calling people in if it thinks they’re not earning enough money and will tell them to work more. Am I missing something or is this the most brutal move against the poor yet? Other solutions – say, raising the minimum wage – seem not to have occurred to them.

Not only is one’s own life going downhill at an increasingly uncomfortable rate but the whole country is, too. The nights draw in, the clouds roll over. It’s all very well battening down the hatches but what if one has no battens with which to batten them? The eldest child is going off to university and by the end of her course will almost certainly be in debt to the tune of £27,000, which worries me even more than the fact that at least one member of the philosophy faculty not only thinks Descartes was a medieval philosopher, but pronounces his name “day car” to boot. The last time I mentioned that, I got accused of the most outrageous snobbery; I’m bracing myself for that again.

But it turns out that I cannot even take solace from such fragments of learning as I retain. I take my melancholy and do what everyone does with it these days: air it on Facebook. “Summer’s lease hath all too short a stay,” I write laconically, hoping to impress everyone with the lightness of my learning, the deftness of my command of allusion to fit the mood of the time.

“Date,” everyone writes back. “It’s ‘date’, you idiot.”

Summer is almost over. Image: Getty

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.