Andrew Marr: Why I’m torn over Scotland

Plus: the pleasures of getting fatter, and an audience at No 10.

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Sorry, readers: I’m a little too old, writing this a couple of days before the referendum, to call it. The polls are too tight, there are too many newly registered voters; and for once, the last-minute round of canvassing, pleading and cajoling may tip the balance.

I’ve been told by No activists that early returns show them ahead; but Yes are at the moment conveying much greater optimism. I find myself horribly torn. What’s happening is essentially a gentle revolution against the British state, directed and circumscribed through the ballot box. Up in Scotland, virtually all my friends are Yes voters, hugely excited about real change. Virtually all my family are iron-clad Nos, deeply upset by the demise of the country they grew up in.

Of course I don’t have a vote; and that’s one area where I am in 100 per cent agreement with the Scottish government. It’s true that the franchise means many people who have settled in Scotland only months ago can vote, while people like me, with only Scots in my family tree (with one French exception) going back for centuries, can’t vote. But what’s the alternative, pray? Digging back through the DNA, talking about who’s racially Scottish? Naw, thanks.

 

Scot pols with cyberpunch

I haven’t been a big fan of blogging or bloggers, having come across too much spittle-flecked extremism from angry men skulking behind anonymity. But even for me, it’s time to stop judging the game by the behaviour of a few violent supporters. The Scottish referendum is the first big story I’ve covered where you haven’t got a clue what’s going on if you don’t turn to online media.

On the Yes side, the best site by far is Bella Caledonia, brimming with creativity, political punch and argument. In cyberland the pro-Union campaigners have lagged behind, though recently the Better Together website has successfully begun to mimic the wit and oomph of its opponents.

Anyway, I hold up my hand: on this, I’ve been wrong.

 

Salmond coins it

Going to Edinburgh last week to interview Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling, I’d been on the train, reading pretty horrifying accounts of aggression and intimidation by Yes campaigners. Then, as we tottered out into Waverley Station, I was greeted by a crowd of angry, burly and heavily tattooed men shouting about the referendum.

They were all No campaigners, waving Union Jacks, and they were absolutely terrifying. Was Alistair Darling – or Ed Miliband, or even David Cameron – bringing in the heavy mob? No, not really; the Orange Order was in town.

Later on, before our interviews, we asked the two politicians to toss a coin to decide who would go first. I used a fat, gold-coloured “five-ryal” coin, part of a set produced by the International Numismatic Agency as a potential currency for an independent Scotland. Salmond, who has his own set as a keepsake, tossed the coin. He announced he’d lost even before he could see how it had landed, and graciously asked Darling whether he wanted to go first or second. As a tiny piece of political theatre, symbolising bland self-confidence, it was very clever.

 

Ale and hearty

A Guardian interviewer, who came round to the house to talk about my new book, described me in her piece as “stocky”. I know what that means. If it’s true it means: “In real life, he’s a bit of a porker.” And it’s true. I’m getting fatter. It’s the fault of this Indian summer. Just down the road from where I live in London, we have a pub with chairs outside. Almost every day I walk down for a quiet, meditative pint of IPA. That, plus the haggis-and-black-pudding breakfasts in Edinburgh, are beginning to tell. But I am calmer, and certainly happier, as a result.

 

Critical distance

One needs a bit of serenity. My first novel, a comedy-satire about politics called Head of State, is now stumbling, like a bewildered newborn calf, through the fusillade of the critics. Some of them have been keen, others rather less so. One moment I’m being compared to Tom Sharpe, Dario Fo, Evelyn Waugh and Joe Orton (swollen head); the next moment, I learn that I’ve written a torrent of implausible tosh (stout party deflates). So I’m a little confused. Bad reviews are certainly better than no reviews, though it doesn’t always feel like that at the time.

The best advice I’ve had was from Ian McEwan, over breakfast after a recent Sunday show. He said it’s important to know what the reviews are like, broadly speaking, but equally important not to actually read them, for that is when the devastating little phrases creep into your brain and wake you in the middle of the night – what McEwan calls, crisply, “a waste of neural space”.

 

No plan of action

A good chunk of the cabinet, plus senior Labour people, turned up at Downing Street on Tuesday night to support the stroke charity that has done a huge amount for me – Action for Rehabilitation from Neurological Injury (Arni). The acronym works because it’s based on hard training – lots of kettle bells, and so on – and members of the Arni team were very visible in the throng. They were mostly genial, tough-looking and thickset men walking with a slight limp.

The Prime Minister had no visible limp. He did look a bit hot but he’d just been for a run. Michael Gove, who as Chief Whip has the PM’s fate in his hands, was watching from the back. Even now, most people I spoke to believe the referendum result will be a No and the main political problem will be placating English Tory MPs angry about Scottish concessions. The previous night, I’d spoken to a very senior parliamentarian about plans for a new federal Britain. There are no plans. “We simply haven’t considered the possibility of the Scots voting to go,” I was told. Hmm. As of Wednesday morning, this feels, to put it gently, unwise. 

“The Andrew Marr Show” is broadcast on BBC1 (Sundays, 9am). “Head of State” is published by Fourth Estate (£18.99)

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

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