Once upon a time, a long while ago, I lived in Dublin. It was a time when everything seemed possible and not just because I was younger then. The country was stirring too. When I arrived it was still the case that a visa to work in the United States was just about the most valuable possession any young Irishman or woman could own; within a fistful of years that was no longer the case. Ireland was changing. These were the years in which the Celtic Tiger was born. They were happy years of surprising possibility.
Years later I lived in the United States and my perspective changed. Scottish independence seemed, viewed from there, about as useful or meaningful as independence for Texas. Not impossible or even necessarily undesirable but somehow missing the point nonetheless. But that was later. When I lived in Ireland, Dublin’s example seemed, well, exemplary. If the Irish could do it, why couldn’t we? More to the point, why shouldn’t we?
So, like many other Scots who will vote No next week, I don’t think independence a daft notion or some kind of fatuous affectation. I think there is a reasonable case for it (even if this is not the case that, during this long campaign, has often been the case that has actually been made). Could we do it? Why, yes we could. But should we?
Of course the detail matters. It matters even if you accept that the Scottish government’s prospectus for life after independence is only one of many possible futures none of which can be decided until independence is achieved. There are many voters – well, perhaps one in five – who would vote for independence even if it promised an impoverished future. Similarly there are many voters – perhaps one in five – who would reject independence even if they believed it offered a more prosperous future.
Still, if we’re to vote on independence it should be done on the basis of a moderately honest prospectus. No such prospectus has been offered by the Scottish government. A lot of people are voting on the basis of a deeply cynical and meretricious set of promises that simply cannot, not even when assisted by great dollops of wishful thinking, be delivered. It is not possible to spend more, borrow less and tax the same.
That, however, is what the SNP propose. Lower borrowing rates, 3% annual increases in public spending and no changes to the overall level of taxation. It is incredible. It supposes that voters must be glaikit and easily gulled ninnies who can be persuaded to swallow anything, no matter how fanciful it must be. A nonsense wrapped in a distortion inside a whopping great lie.
It’s quite possible that the realities of life in an independent Scotland might push the country’s centre-of-political-gravity to the right. Quite possible, then, that an independent Scotland would be more likely to produce more of my kind of politics than some of the politics imagined by the keenest advocates for independence. That still strikes me as a thin and selfish reason to vote for independence.
But, sure, many of the details could be worked out and it’s certainly possible that after an initial period of some difficulty Scotland would emerge as a decently prosperous and contented country. It needn’t be a disaster and it probably wouldn’t be. Nevertheless, the growing pains would be acute and I think it best to recognise this. There will be short and even perhaps medium-term pain but the long-term prize will be worth it.
That’s not what’s being sold, however. Far from it.
There are other difficulties. The dishonesty of suggesting – or allowing it to be understood – that there’s no functional difference between sterlingisation and a monetary union with whatever remains of the UK is, in the end, breathtaking. Yes, Scotland can “use the pound” but how it’s used is a question of some importance.
I know politicians can never say they don’t know the answer to something but there are times and places when pretending you have all the answers is worse than admitting the obvious truth that you don’t. This is one of those times; one of those places.
But, look, in the end this is still process stuff. Very important process stuff but still only process stuff. I happen to think it provides ample reason to vote No but it’s not why I’m voting No.
I’m voting No because the campaign has surprised me. It’s made me think about my country and, more than that, what it means to be a part of that country. I’ll vote No even though I think Scotland would do fine as an independent country.
Because, even more than the economic sleight-of-hand, I’ve been taken aback by the dishonesty of a campaign that claims you can end the United Kingdom as we know it but retain almost everything about the United Kingdom that actually makes it the United Kingdom.
Like everyone else I’ve been asked to believe that independence will improve relations between the constituent parts of this kingdom and that, far from ending a kind of Britishness, it will actually enhance your sense of Britishness. The Yes campaign has said you can lose your country and keep it too. I don’t believe that.
You know how it is at a funeral: there is a hierarchy of grief and it is unseemly to pretend you’re closer to the epicentre of loss than is actually the case. The same is true of difference and “foreigners”. No parts of these Atlantic Isles are truly strangers to one another. But there is still a hierarchy of difference. England and Wales are not so foreign as Ireland. Ireland is not so foreign as New Zealand or Australia. Which in turn are less foreign than Canada. And Canada is not as foreign as France or Belgium or Sweden or even bloody Norway.
Independence won’t sever all those bonds. Of course it won’t. The hierarchy of difference will remain in place. But the gaps between the layers will increase. Scotland and England (and Wales and even Ulster) will drift apart. We will be less close than once we were; we will not become strangers but we will know less about – and be less interested in – each other. Never foreign-foreign but foreign enough for it to count and be noticed.
And I think that would be a sad business. I think Alex Salmond gets something very wrong when he says that England would lose a “surly lodger” after independence and gain a “good neighbour”. Because I don’t think of Scots as lodgers paying rent in someone else’s house, granted a bedroom and the use of the lounge three nights a week. I think we live in our own house. A house we built ourselves. Salmond asks us to move to another, smaller, house and that’s fine but he does so while pretending we can continue to live in our old house too. But we can’t.
I’m Scottish but I’m British too and I’ve been surprised by the extent to which that latter layer of identity still matters to me and still has something to say, not just about me, but about all of us. I don’t recognise the caricature of England (and it is usually England, not the rest of the UK) offered by Yes supporters. They see a heartless, rapacious, profiteering “neoliberal” dystopia; I see a relaxed, liberal, ambitious, open-minded, multi-racial, modern country.
They see the rise of UKIP and are frightened by it; I see UKIP as a bug not a feature because the feature is the manner in which the UK is open to the world and, actually, quite happy about that thank you very much. A UK in which, despite its difficulties, has managed the transition from a white country to a multi-racial polity with, in general, commendable ease. They see a broken, sclerotic, unreformable Britain; I see a cosmopolitan country that’s a desirable destination for millions of people around the world.
Of course there are difficulties. There always are and always will be. Britain can no more solve every problem than could an independent Scotland. Which is why, again, this debate – for me anyway – isn’t about policy but instead about something bigger: who we are.
The other day the historian Tom Devine remarked that all the Union has going for it is sentiment, family and history. Like that’s not enough? Those aren’t wee things, they’re the things that make us who we are. The blood and guts, the bone and marrow of our lives. The tissue that connects us to our fellow citizens, the stuff that makes us more than an individual. The things from which you build a society. You can have that in Scotland, alone and independent, too of course. But we also have it in Britain, right now, and we will lose some of that if we vote Yes. Or some of us will, anyway.
So I think of E Pluribus Unum and I think that’s a motto that applies to the United Kingdom too. And so does its opposite: within one, many. There’s ample room for many types of Britain. Not just Scots and Welsh and Irish and English but Pakistani-Scots, Jamaican-Welsh and Nigerian-English too. I think it’s the tensions and ambiguities inherent in all of this that makes Britain interesting; that makes Scotland interesting too.
Nuance and complexity matter and have some value. They have helped make us what we are. I like that at Waterloo the Scots Greys, part of the Union Brigade, charged into the French lines to the cry of Scotland Forever. I like our ambiguous, sometimes ambivalent, often ironic, past. I like our present too and I have some small hopes for our future as well.
Perhaps this is romantic, sentimental, tosh but that’s an inescapable part of national identity. An unavoidable part of the business of constructing a nation. That’s true of Scotland just as it’s true of Britain too.
Here’s the thing: Scotland is different from England but it is not separate from it. Nor from Wales or even Northern Ireland either. I like the fact I have two countries. I like the fact that one includes Jerusalem, Men of Harlech and the Londonderry Air as well as Annie Laurie and the Flowers of the Forest. That one offers Larkin and Thomas and Heaney as well as MacDiarmid. I like that these belong to all of us even if they each belong a little more to some of us than they do to the rest of us.
I see this as a country greater than the sum of its constituent nations. Whatever remains of the United Kingdom after Scottish independence will do just fine. Scotland, likewise, is not doomed. We can, all of us, make a decent fist of things. But it will not be the same and the idea everything must change so things can remain much the same is a con.
If history matters – and I think it does just like sentiment and family matter – then whatever this place’s shortcomings and mistakes it’s worth recalling that it’s also the country of William Wilberforce and Alan Turing as well as Adam Smith and Thomas Paine. That should count for something. We are different but not separate. I think of it as being like the relationship between Boswell and Johnson. They complement one another. You may even think they complete one another. There’d be a smaller Johnson without Boswell but a lesser Boswell without Johnson. They improved each other.
Most of all, I like that when you get the train to Scotland from London or Peterborough or Newcastle north and you cross the border in the gloaming you feel your heart soar and you cry hurrah and yippee because you know you’re home now without having been abroad. I like that and think it matters. I don’t know if I know why it does or why it suddenly seems so valuable but I know I do. But that’s the Britain I know and like; a place in which I’m always Scottish but also, when it suits, British too. A country where you travel to very different places and still always come home without having been abroad.
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