The longest referendum campaign in history is nearing its conclusion. In just one month, on September 18, millions of Scots will finally head for the polling stations after over two years of debate. And I hope they vote to continue our country’s devolution journey by rejecting the call for independence from the United Kingdom.
I have been behind the devolution movement since the days of the Campaign for A Scottish Assembly in the 1980s. I backed the Scottish Constitutional Convention that brought the country together to plan for our own devolved parliament. (Well, brought everyone together bar the SNP who refused to take part.) I voted Yes Yes in the 1997 referendum that secured a Scottish Parliament with tax varying powers. And I was delighted when the Scotland Act was passed and the Scottish Parliament finally elected in 1999.
I’ve seen our Scottish Parliament gain more powers in the years since its establishment too. And I hope to see the devolution journey continue with a No vote next month followed by the further strengthening of our Parliament within the United Kingdom thereafter.
Let’s be clear. A No vote next month does not indicate support for the status quo. Much as the nationalists would have us believe, it does not mean support for the current UK coalition government or its policies. And it does not mean a desire to end the devolution process.
I’ve written before about my wish for a UK constitutional convention to review and modernise our political structures. An elected second house to replace the anachronistic House of Lords. More powers for the Scottish parliament. And more freedom for our local authorities to raise funds and to act independently of any government, in the best interests of local people. Ideally I would throw abolition of the monarchy and full separation of churches and state into the mix too. But that’s perhaps for another day.
The No campaign in this referendum took the name Better Together for very good reasons. It encapsulates the positive constitutional case for the union. All of the constituent parts of this small island working together for peace and freedom. A single market without boundaries. Political, financial and administrative institutions that benefit from the economies of scale and greater stability than multiple individual governments would have. The various countries and peoples continuing to have a strength when acting together that is far more than the sum of the individual parts. Yet with significant powers devolved to our Scottish Parliament, controlling much of what happens in our country, and with strong local authorities that provide localised services in partnership with our communities.
This is the political framework that the UK can become. But Scotland will only be a part of it if we reject the nationalists’ calls for Scotland to leave the UK and stand alone.
Back in November 2013 the Scottish Government published its Independence White Paper. The document it called its “blueprint for independence”. The 670 page tome that we had always been promised would answer every conceivable query we might have.
But it failed to address even some of the very basic questions. It was full of emotional rhetoric yet lacking in significant detail. It made a series of assertions about the future that took vague hopes and overoptimistic assumptions then tried to give them the stamp of truth. And anyone who disagreed was simply wrong. No matter their expertise on the subject, be it the economy, Europe or taxation, the nationalists simply know better. No debate, just repeated declarations that they and only they were right.
The currency debate has come back to the fore following Alex Salmond’s failure to answer Alastair Darling’s questions in the first televised debate between the campaign leaders. The Yes campaign’s repeated avowal that a currency union would be formed between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK – despite the insistence of all three major UK political parties that they would not sign up – makes no sense. And the failure to give any alternative plan is seen by many undecided voters as a key weakness in the Yes case.
Indeed there are even those on the Yes side of the argument who see a currency union, where another country would set interest rates and the agreement of all partners would be required to tax and spending plans, as at odds with any notion of real independence. They would prefer an independent country to establish its own currency – a lengthy and expensive process that involves building up foreign currency reserves.
The White Paper also failed to tell us what the costs of setting up the apparatus of the new state would be, and what additional annual running costs would be required to duplicate the services currently provided in Scotland by hundreds of UK departments, agencies and public bodies. Significantly, the figures have still not been revealed in the many months since its publication.
And the White Paper failed to address any of the economic risks of becoming a small independent country rather than part of a larger union. Because the nationalist mindset simply cannot see risk or uncertainty. Everything will be better after independence. Everything will be negotiated exactly the way they assert and to the timescales they demand. And no one will disagree.
The Yes campaign repeatedly accuses the No side of being negative in what has been an ill-tempered and at times fractious debate. But it is the function of those arguing for independence to make the case and for those against to ask the difficult questions. To point out the flaws in the Yes argument. To seek clarification where it is required. It is a strange campaign for major change that doesn’t expect to be challenged. Or that refuses to answer questions with anything other than vague assertions or insults.
And, somewhat ironically, there have been many scare stories from the Yes side. We are repeatedly told that a No vote would lead to powers being taken from Scotland, to budgets being slashed in some sort of retributive act, to the privatisation of the NHS. Without any shred of evidence or even an argument of course – just yet more baseless assertions.
The decision that Scotland’s voters will take on 18th September is the most important democratic decision that the country will ever have made. A vote for independence would set Scotland on a path with many risks and pitfalls along the way. The ending of a union that has lasted more than 300 years would divide friends and families, create economic instability and risk Scotland’s place within many international bodies.
The alternative is clear. Let’s finally end the talk of separation and move onto a new discussion on how we can make the union work better for all of the people of the United Kingdom.