A kicking. A good, old-fashioned, brutal Glasgow-kissing thrashing. Last night’s Spectator debate on Scottish independence, held at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and generously sponsored by the fine folk from Brewin Dolphin, attracted the kind of audience Unionist dreams are made of. Before proceedings began 119 members of the audience agreed with the motion that ‘Independence is the greatest threat to Edinburgh’, 27 disagreed and 36 did not know what they thought. Two hours later opinion had hardened: 169 for the proposition, 19 against and only 6 poor undecided souls.
A tough crowd for nationalists, then. So tough, in fact, that they tittered when Andrew Wilson — once reckoned to be the future of the SNP until the SNP’s members disagreed — suggested that, good grief, of course you can be British and vote for independence. So tough that when Blair Jenkins, head honcho at Yes Scotland, suggested getting rid of Trident would be a bonny notion he was hissed and tut-tutted to death. It was refreshing, I thought, to be part of a pro-WMD crowd. Doesn’t happen often.
Jeane Freeman, former advisor to Jack McConnell and now a prominent voice in the Women for Independence movement, gave the best pro-Yes speech but her focus on the UK’s shortcomings and inability to alleviate persistent poverty was, while honest and well-intentioned, perhaps not the most persuasive message to deliver to an overwhelmingly well-heeled audience. Even so, there was logic and strength to her suggestion that: ‘Let’s trust ourselves to vote Yes and build our country anew’. But when she suggested that Scottish leftists could light a beacon for English leftists and inspire, by their example, radical change in England too, I detected a frisson of dread rippling through the audience.
In any case well-heeled Scots are still Scots and their voices, while hardly marginalised, still count. Even so, you know that strange things are afoot when George Galloway is cheered to the echo by an audience of Edinburgh lawyers, bankers and fund managers. George Galloway! This may be taking the concept of my enemy’s enemy is my chum just a little bit too far.
Gorgeous George was in splendid form, however. Mercifully, he declined to predict dark times ahead for Scotland’s Catholics in the event of independence (a theme of his appearance in Coatbridge the night before) and nor did he suggest Scotland lacked the necessary indefatigability and courage to be a Cuba or an Albania but most of the other tunes from George’s Greatest Hits were trotted out to tickle the audience. Remember, he said, that when London was burning during the blitz the SNP was cheering: it’s England’s war and Scotland’s opportunity. As for pensions, ‘How do you fancy having it paid in Groats?’.
‘I am tired of being called a Quisling or a traitor,’ Galloway roared and, for the record, let it be noted that Galloway is not one of those dreamers who think Scotland can be another Norway. ‘I’m with JK Rowling,’ he boasted. Sadly Ms Rowling was not available for comment.
Speaking for the opposition Blair Jenkins painted a mildly dystopian picture of life in modern Britain. ‘We are a wealthy country but not a wealthy society,’ he claimed, which is one of those lines that sounds quite good until you examine it more closely. We’re rich enough to make a go of independence and poor enough to make it a necessity. Or something like that. Mysteriously, he added that Scotland’s constitutional predicament left him with the ‘feeling you’re living someone else’s life’. Independence would, ‘for the first time give us a complete set of policies designed in Scotland for Scotland’.
For the proposition Ian Murray, Labour MP for Edinburgh South, made a narrowly Edinburgh-focused case for the status quo. Auld Reekie is braw, he said, and why risk changing that? ‘We must keep Scotland leading the UK, not leaving it,’ he boasted. Citing the nationalists’ desire for a currency union with the rump UK, he suggested they wish to ‘dismantle everything only to reconstruct it again’. What’s the point of that? In any case, we’re all right Jock.
Fiddlesticks, Andrew Wilson responded. ‘We’re just changing politics but nothing else,’ and, besides, ‘we’re in a reform era so the question is do we stand still or do we go with it?’. This also sounds good until you ask yourself which eras are not reform eras. Equally — as every pro-independence speaker reminded us — lots of small countries do very well. Scotland is a small country. Therefore Scotland will do well. Unsaid: most countries in the world are small and so it is probable that many successful countries will be small. Equally probable that many small countries will be basket-cases.
Sometimes Wilson is too honest for his own good, however. He conceded that, look, Scottish banks such as RBS are now Scottish name only. The real decisions have already flitted to London. They won’t come back and independence won’t change that. Edinburgh’s financial services industry has already taken a hit. Despite that, the city will thrive and the opportunities afforded by being the capital of a newly-independent state are neither trivial nor unattractive.
Annabel Goldie, erstwhile leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party, condemned what she saw as the narrow, limiting, worldview of the SNP. Britain is a grand country and we should be proud to be part of a state that punches above its weight in world affairs. Scotland can best express its internationalism through the UK. Independence, while plainly feasible, would diminish us and our role in the world.
Curiously absent from the debate — as is so often the case in these affairs — was any real consideration of identity. Only Wilson, for the opposition, and Goldie, for the proposition, gave it any real attention. Much of the evening was spent chewing the technical aspects of independence. But even dry matters of accountancy can make for a fine rammy — and that proved the case in Edinburgh last night.
A defeat for the pro-independence side, then, on an evening that was spirited and lively even if it was also, in the end, a lynching. The result in September, of course, will be rather different and altogether closer.