The Three Sisters, Glen Coe: no bar on English tourists after the Yes vote. Photo: Getty
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Letter from Edinburgh: What it really means to be Scottish

Telling Scotland not to “go” is a bit like saying: “We don’t want you to run your own affairs. You must always have the governments we give you.”

I’ve been love-bombed. Finally! It must have been brought on by the increasing support for the Yes campaign in the opinion polls as the independence referendum approaches. “Worrying times,” wrote my English friend. “We don’t want you to go.”

I find all of this concerned talk about the Scots “going” very touching but also perplexing. I’d like to take this opportunity to reassure every lovelorn English person that if we vote to become independent, we won’t be “going” anywhere. We’ll still be here. There will be no customs barriers, no barbed wire along the Tweed. The Edinburgh festivals will still go on, we’ll still send you our smoked salmon, Travis will still play concerts for you and everyone from south of the border will be as welcome here as they have ever been.

All we are voting for is the right to elect our own governments, raise all of our own taxes and spend them as we decide – just like any normal country. Telling us not to “go” is a bit like saying: “We don’t want you to run your own affairs. You must always have the governments we give you.”

Another misconception is that we are all doomed to ethnic turmoil if Scots vote Yes. This view is epitomised by the historian Simon Schama, who denounced what he called the “tribal identity” of Scottish nationalism. The forces behind calls for independence, he said, were the same as those “happening in dreadful places, causing ethnic and tribal wars and immense massacres”.

I read his words and looked out of my window into the peaceful cobbled streets of Edinburgh, where I now live, and wondered how such a renowned historian could get it so wrong. In 25 years as a foreign correspondent, I have seen plenty of ethnic conflicts, from Kosovo and Chechnya to East Timor, and I can assure anyone disturbed by Schama’s babbling that what is happening in Scotland bears as much resemblance to those “dreadful places” as haggis does to Yorkshire pudding. It may not be to everyone’s taste but a ferocious beast it most certainly is not.

It is impossible to judge the mood in Scotland from afar. That is one of the reasons why I decided to return to my homeland a few months ago, after half a lifetime living mainly abroad – not just to experience the fun of this referendum summer but to try to re-understand my country.

A small disclaimer here. My original sin was to have been born in Yorkshire. So steeped was I in that foreign culture that, when my 100 per cent Scottish parents brought me north of the border at the age of four and I went to my first international at Murrayfield, I am said to have commented on the gents’ facilities there: “Eeh, what a foony toilet . . . there’s moock all over t’floor.” Assimilation was rapid. When we were visited by Yorkshire friends a year later, I couldn’t understand a word they said.

My next 20 years were in Scotland (I didn’t even visit London until I was at university) and I have spent the past 30-odd years, while living abroad, tirelessly insisting in a variety of foreign tongues there is actually a wee country called Scotland and it is definitely not a part of England.

So, what does it mean to be Scottish? You certainly won’t find out from any of the speeches being made during this referendum campaign. The SNP and the wider Yes campaign studiously avoid mentioning precisely what one might expect to be central to a national independence movement: identity. This is what kept my Scottish flame alight through decades of living abroad – but which dare not speak its name at home for fear of being branded nationalist or anti-English.

But nationalism does not have to be exclusive, aggressive, chauvinistic or condescending. It can be of the welcoming kind described by Kathleen Jamie in her wonderful poem inscribed on the monument to the Battle of Bannockburn. Ostensibly it commemorates the Scots’ defeat of the English in 1314 but the poem invites all incomers who take the land “to heart” to make it their own.

Independence is not about erecting barriers. The Scots and English would still be the closest allies. Yet independence would give us a chance to build a country that better reflects the identity and priorities – the political culture, if you will – of the majority of those who live here (both “ethnic” Scots and those who have come here and taken the land to heart).

Over the centuries of the union with England, we have preserved our culture, music, literature, dialects, customs, laws and Church – and all of that has created a set of Scottish values. Most of us are what I would call “Burnsian” in our scorn of privilege and our pursuit of fairness and would rather spend taxes on schools and hospitals than cosset bankers or project our might around the world
with nuclear missiles and foreign wars. These are rather high-minded values and they rarely guide the governments we get lumbered with in Westminster.

I see nothing wrong with proclaiming such an identity with pride and I find it depressing that, instead, the campaign has focused on whether we might be £500 per head better or worse off, or how we will cope with all that oil in the North Sea, which seems to be such a burden. I will vote for independence this month not because I am a nationalist but because I am a social democrat; not because I hate the English (how could I, having lived in England for years and worked for most of my life with English people?) but because I am Scottish and believe that, because of our national identity and values, we will try to run our country differently – and better – if we are able to do it in the way we choose. 

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The summer of blood

CREDIT: GETTY
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What has happened to the Liberal Democrats?

As Brexit nears, Vince Cable is struggling – but his is a poisoned inheritance.

During the coalition years, Iain Duncan Smith came up with a plan: if unemployed people went on a demonstration, and the police stopped them for any reason, the officer should pass their names on to the Department for Work and Pensions, which could then freeze their benefits. After all, the minister’s reasoning went, if you had time to protest, you weren’t actively seeking work.

This was just one of the many David Cameron-era Tory proposals that the Liberal Democrats quashed before it ever saw the light of day. Every Lib Dem who worked in the coalition, whether as a minister or a special adviser, has a horror story about a policy they stopped or watered down – and usually the papers to prove it, too.

And so from time to time, Vince Cable’s team needs to respond to a news story by plundering their archives for anti-Tory material. A month or so ago, a former Lib Dem staffer got a phone call from the party’s press operation: could someone answer some questions about their time in government? To which the ex-staffer said: OK, but since you’re calling on a withheld number, you’ll need to get someone to vouch for you.

Perhaps, the former staffer suggested, Phil Reilly, the Lib Dems’ communications chief and a veteran of the party machine, was around? No, came the answer, he has moved on. What about Sam Barratt? Out at a meeting. Was Paul Haydon there? No. Haydon – who worked for the party’s last member of the European parliament, Catherine Bearder, before joining the press office – had moved on, too. After a while, this ex-staffer gave up and put the phone down.

The really troubling thing about this story is that I have heard it three times from three former Liberal Democrat aides. The names change, of course, but the point of the story – that the party machine has been stripped of much of its institutional memory – stays the same. The culprit, according to the staffers who have spoken to me, is Vince Cable. And the exodus is not just from the press office: the party’s chief executive, Tim Gordon, is among the heavyweights to have departed since the 2017 election.

Is this fair? Tim Farron, Cable’s predecessor as party leader, did not share Nick Clegg’s politics, but he recognised that he was inheriting a high-quality backroom team and strove to keep the main players in place. Reilly, who is now at the National Film and Television School, wrote not only Clegg’s concession speech at the general election in 2015, but Farron’s acceptance speech as leader a few months later.

The Liberal Democrats’ curse is that they have to fight for every minute of press and television coverage, so the depletion of their experienced media team is particularly challenging. But their problems go beyond the question of who works at the George Street headquarters in London. As party veterans note, Cable leads a parliamentary group whose continued existence is as uncertain as it was when Paddy Ashdown first became its leader in 1988. The difference is that Ashdown had a gift for identifying issues that the main political parties had neglected. That gave him a greater media profile than his party’s standing warranted.

There is no shortage of liberal and green issues on which Cable could be more vocal: the right to die, for instance, or the legalisation of cannabis. He could even take a leaf from Ashdown’s playbook and set out a bolder approach on income tax than either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. While none of these issues command anything resembling majority support, they are distinctly more popular than the Liberal Democrats. They would also get the party talked about more often. At present, it is being ignored.

These complaints will receive a greater airing if the Lib Dems have a disappointing night at the local elections on 3 May. The party hopes to gain ground in Manchester and retain the Watford mayoralty, but fears it will lose control of the council in Sutton, south-west London. It expects to make little headway overall.

So what else could be done? If you gather three Liberal Democrats in a room, you will hear at least five opinions about what Cable is getting wrong. But the party’s problems neither start nor end with its leader. Cable inherits two difficult legacies: first, thanks to Farron, his party is committed to an all-out war against Brexit. In 2016, that policy successfully gave a shattered party a reason to exist, and some hoped that the Lib Dems could recover ground by wooing disgruntled Remainers. Last year’s general election changed the game, however. The two big parties took their highest share of the vote since 1970, squeezing the Lib Dems to a dozen MPs. That simply doesn’t give the party the numbers to “stop Brexit” – therefore, they feel to many like a wasted vote.

Why not drop the commitment to a second in/out EU referendum? Because one of Farron’s successes was attracting pro-European new members – and thanks to the party’s ultra-democratic constitution, these hardcore Remainers can keep that commitment in place for as long as they wish.

The legacy of coalition is even more difficult to address. In policy terms, the Lib Dems can point to great achievements in government: across every department, there are examples of Duncan Smith-style cruelties that the party prevented.

Yet there is no electoral coalition to be won from voters who are pleased and grateful that hypothetical horrors didn’t come to pass. More than half of voters still regard the Lib Dems’ participation in coalition as a reason not to back the party. That might change as the memories fade, but for now the party’s last spell in government is a significant barrier to gaining the chance to have another one. Even a fresh, young and charismatic leader – with a superb, experienced team – would struggle with such a poisoned inheritance. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum