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Unionism’s referendum triumph has proved as bitter as it has been short-lived

18 September 2015

2:06 PM

18 September 2015

2:06 PM

Nicola Sturgeon got one thing right this morning. A year on from the independence referendum, Scotland’s First Minister allowed that the plebiscite “invited us, individually and collectively, to imagine the kind of country we wanted to live in”. The answer, you may be surprised to be reminded, was Britain.

Surprised, because it has since become commonplace to observe that the losers have become winners and the winners losers. Scotland, everyone agrees, is a changed place even though (almost) everyone agrees that the country would still reject independence were there another referendum next month. (The economic questions that hurt the Yes campaign so badly last year are, if anything, harder to answer convincingly and reassuringly now than was the case a year ago.)

And so, for the times being, Ms Sturgeon says “We respect last year’s result” but not, hark you, to the point at which she does not seek to have another crack it it. Nationalism is permanent, Unionism is an affliction of dark but temporary convenience.

In any case, the referendum was just another significant step on the nation’s journey. The result is respected only to the point and time at which the SNP thinks it can win a second referendum. The people, after all, will not be silenced and their clamour for another go must be respected.

In Scotland, you see, respect is a one way street. The 45 must be respected, we must listen to their voices. For they are the authentic people of Scotland and they will not be cowed or quietened or ‘put back in their box’. The 55, however, are owed no respect at all. Theirs was a hollow victory and just an accident in any case.

Certainly, there is no sense that the result might be thought definitive. The campaign for IndyRef 2 began on September 19th 2014 and will not end until such time as the SNP get their way. This allows Ms Sturgeon to warn David Cameron that he’s ‘living on borrowed time’ which is, I might venture to say, a queer sort of respect. But there you have it.


And this helps explain the sense of bitterness so palpably present in Unionist circles on this, the anniversary of the referendum.

As a journalistic observer, I can understand and even sympathise with those Yessers for whom the referendum was the time of their lives, a thrilling exercise in democracy and a grand kind of national awakening. But many Scots did not view the referendum in those terms. For them it was a bloody, exhausting, horrible business. Some, as they glimpsed the possibility of the termination of what they considered their country, found it terrifying. Emotions ran deep and high on both sides of the argument, even if only one side trumpeted their patriotism in the streets.

A surprising proportion of Yes voters still don’t understand how or why a No vote could be cast as a principled, rational, patriotic choice. It is simpler – far simpler – to think No voters were bullied or coerced or bribed into voting for the Union. It is easier, and certainly more comfortable, to think of No voters as Yes voters who just haven’t yet realised they will, eventually, vote Yes. Every journey has those who lag behind. And so, too often, No voters are traduced as cowards or patronised as simpletons.

But, short of losing, the result has proved the worst possible for Unionism. A 55-45 victory appeared decisive enough to settle the matter as far as one side was concerned but close enough to encourage the other, notionally defeated, side to believe in the eventual and inevitable victory of their cause. Unionism packed up and went home; nationalism stayed on the pitch, practising for the next game.

Perhaps that should be no surprise. This was a fight only one side was interested in having in the first place. Unionists were dragged to the referendum; nationalists sprinted towards it. What exhausted No voters enthused Yes supporters. And so it has remained.

David Cameron made a speech today and David Mundell – whom, if you concentrate hard, you may remember is the Secretary of State for Scotland – made one earlier in the week but, by and large, Unionism has retreated from the fray these past 12 months. There has been little vision and no more leadership from Unionism since the referendum. Is it any wonder the nationalists, privileged with a bully pulpit in Edinburgh, continue to both play and referee the game?

Unionism’s divisions hardly help either. The Tory party is, frankly, less into Scotland than many Unionist Scots might like to think and Labour, in its present chaos, can hardly be considered a Unionist party at all. It is, on both sides of the border, preparing for another decade on the opposition benches.

All of which helps create the circumstances in which Unionism, to the extent it breathes at all, is consumed by a kind of peevishness. Unionists complain that the nationalists promised the referendum would be a once in a lifetime opportunity or, perhaps, a once in a Renfrewshire generation chance of imagining a different future. So they did.

But if you believed that at the time you were a fool and sensible Unionists always knew that was a nationalist bluff designed to concentrate minds last September. Now Unionists complain that the nationalists are failing to keep a promise no Unionist ever expected them to keep in the first place. You might as well complain about the highland midge.

I understand many Unionists would just like it all to go away. But it isn’t going away and won’t do so either. The game is rigged and everyone knows the nationalists get to play by different rules. They need only win once and then they get to keep the ball forever.

No wonder, then, Scotland is, if anything, more divided now than it was on referendum day. Unionism continues to suffer from twin crises of confidence and complacency; the nationalists fervently believe the arc of history bends in their direction. As matters stand, at least for now, they may be right to think so.

Which also helps explain why Unionism is so embattled. Nothing is certain and nothing is inevitable (no matter how often Alex Salmond says it is) but only the cause endures, the fight goes one and the dream, the bloody dream, never dies. Howling ‘It’s No Fair’ butters no bannocks.


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