Alan Taylor: How I both saved and lost the Union

Whatever happens, it all goes back to a quiet word in Pitlochry in the early months of 2012.

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Irrespective of who wins the independence referendum, I am responsible. We need to go back to the early months of 2012 and to the Perthshire town of Pitlochry, where I had the pleasure of interrogating Alistair Darling at the Winter Words Festival. The former chancellor was promoting his book Back from the Brink, in which he explained how he and his sometime buddy Gordon Brown had saved us from financial Armageddon.

In the interval, Darling and I were left alone. We discussed the referendum to which the UK government had recently given the green light. Might he be interested in becoming the spearhead of a No campaign? He was not enthusiastic, not least because the memory of that awful day when ATMs came within hours of failing to dish out cash was fresh in his mind. I suggested he should think seriously about it, because the alternatives did not bear contemplating. A few months later, Darling launched Better Together as its leader. So, if the Yes campaign wins, I intend to claim credit for finding such an unworthy opponent for Alex Salmond. If it’s a No, I’ll take what succour I can for planting the seed in the ear of the man who, in its hour of need, saved the battered and tattered Union from extinction.

 

One-sided affair

The newspaper for which I work, the Sunday Herald, is at the time of writing the only one in Scotland that has declared itself in favour of independence. Exactly how many papers there are in this country of five million souls, I am not sure. Sixty? More, perhaps. That there is such unanimity of view seems to me odd but not surprising. Like big business, of which they are part, newspapers are antipathetic to change.

The SNP has succeeded not by trying to bring editors on board but by circumventing them, through social media, grass-roots activity and chutzpah. Even a newspaper such as the Scotsman, which for decades was gung-ho for devolution, has rejected the idea of independence. Nor is it – or countless others – warmly inclined towards the Nationalists. Yet this appears to have minimal effect on voters who, at the last Scottish election, gave Salmond the huge majority that allowed him to call the refer­endum. Where, other than in the likes of North Korea, is the press so one-sided?

 

That’s you, that is

Talking of which, I read in the Daily Tele­graph that North Korea is “quietly” backing a Yes vote and that, come independence, Pyongyang is keen to do business with Scotland and sample our whisky. “We have not reported on the vote in Scotland yet but we will,” the managing editor of the “Tokyo-based” Choson Sinbo newspaper said.

North Korea is one of the countries that No lobbyists insist Scotland will become like in the event of a Yes vote. Others often mentioned include Albania, Belarus, Ireland, Iceland, Greece and anywhere else that may be described as an economic basket case or a byword for lawlessness. Those in favour of independence are not short of emblematic examples, either. Norway and Sweden are frequently cited but so, too, are New Zealand, Singapore, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein, which, with a population of just 37,000, doesn’t appear to have too much in common with Scotland.

From this, you might conclude that the debate has been rancorous, bitter and divisive. And on occasion it has been heated; how could it be otherwise? Yet, apart from an egg or two thrown at Jim Murphy and a few posters torn down here and there, both sides have conducted themselves with admirable restraint. What has been remarkable is the degree to which people who long ago decided Westminster politics was putrid have become passionate participants.

 

After hours

My local bar, Staggs in Musselburgh, six miles to the east of Edinburgh, is not staying open throughout the night after the polls close. Others are, though the rumour is that the licensing authorities have insisted they must admit only Yes or No voters, to avoid any possibility of fisticuffs. On my most recent visit to Staggs, there was much discussion and disgust over the announcement by various shops that, come independence, prices must inevitably rise.

As far as I could tell, this served simply to harden the resolve of those who intend to vote Yes. A friend told me he’d boycott John Lewis, B&Q and Asda as a result and was not only writing to them directly but broadcasting his intention online to all and sundry. My son, who keeps a weather eye open for such nonsense, says he is looking forward to trawling rival shops and pricing goods, after which he intends to drop in to John Lewis and inquire if its “never knowingly undersold” policy still holds. If it does, he expects to depart laden with bargains.

 

Always take the weather

Countless groups have sprung up on both sides of the debate but there is no doubt that those in the Yes camp far outnumber those that support Better Together. Among them are Farming for Yes, Mums for Change, Yes LGBT, Lawyers for Yes, Scots Asians for Yes, Poles for an Independent Scotland and Christians for Independence. I recently received an email from one Roland Chaplain, who is urging weather forecasters to campaign for an independent Scotland, in the hope that it will have its own autonomous forecasting and warning service based on a network of local weather reporters. Chaplain says that, in so doing, he’s had to quell his “instinctive revulsion” against “separatism and isolationism . . . to achieve the kind of weather service that Scotland needs”. If only he’d omitted the word “service”. 

Alan Taylor writes for the Herald and Sunday Herald and is the editor of the Scottish Review of Books

This article appears in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

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