IN September, at a conference in Orkney, Better Together's Ian Davidson MP declared that the No campaign had already won and all that was left was "to bayonet the wounded".
Imagine if Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon had said that? It would have dominated the headlines for weeks. David Dimbleby would not have been amused. But even though I was present at the time, I refused to take offence at Davidson's remark, which was obviously not serious.
However, now that the referendum campaign has begun in earnest, we all need to watch our words. UK newspapers are on alert for anti-English statements or nasty tweets about David Bowie, Better Together's most glamorous recruit. This is now a hair-trigger media stand-off. There are elements in this debate who would like nothing better than to see the internet filled with Scottish people abusing English and vice versa.
Actually, it's already happening. Look at the readers' comments left on any UK newspaper website and you will often see Scots derided as educationally subnormal scroungers, whingers, dupes, drunks, parasites and much worse. There is a patronising, scolding tone to much UK newspaper commentary, which would be offensive were it applied to ethnic minorities. Cartoons in liberal newspapers portray Alex Salmond as a jumped-up oik in a kilt being put in his place by the big boys like Gordon Brown. But that is how politics is in a democracy, and while it may seem one-sided there is no point in getting militant about it. You only need to see what's happening in Independence Square in Kiev to understand what happens when politics turns violent.
What is remarkable in Scotland, at this turning point in history, is the almost complete absence of street politics in the referendum campaign. I think this a good thing, on the whole, but it puzzles the many foreign journalists who come to Scotland looking for drama - for million-strong marches, megaphones, riot police. A Tory Chancellor, loathed by most Scottish voters, was able to fly into Scotland, make a highly provocative speech about currency, and then fly out again with no visible reaction - except from a very grumpy Bernard Ponsonby after Osborne refused to do any interviews. Scots don't on the whole break glass to make their case - which doesn't mean they don't care. They express their discontent in other ways: they hit political enemies in the ballots. Usually, this means the Conservatives.
So it is perhaps not surprising that early opinion polls suggest Osborne's currency diktat was a mistake - perhaps the worst in the campaign so far. Here was the most Bullingdon of Tory ministers, threatening to build a financial Hadrian's Wall to stop pounds leaking into Scotland. Yet support for Yes actually increased in the Survation poll conducted after Osborne's day trip. This wasn't in the script, which is why there is a bit of a Unionist panic on in the London press, and why some papers have been scolding Scots for being beastly to Bowie.
George Osborne's presence introduced a class element into the referendum equation - or rather brought it to the fore, because opinion polls have long registered that working-class Scots are more supportive of independence than middle-class voters. One of the untold stories of the referendum has been the tension within the Labour movement in Scotland as the UK Labour establishment has tried to keep a lid on it. It burst into the open last week when the STUC leader, Grahame Smith, openly criticised the Better Together campaign.
The Unionist campaign has been all about currency, EU membership, pensions and mortgages - issues that are directed at middle-class voters in Scotland who are mostly Unionist already. Because of the absence of street protest, or any threat of civil disturbance, the UK establishment assumed that the Great Scare was working, and they only needed to turn the volume up to 11. However, in doing so they may have not only damaged the Unionist cause in the referendum, but also altered forever the UK. Westminster
has made it clear in the past two weeks that whatever it is, the UK is not a union of equals. If one side lays exclusive claim to the most obvious symbol of that union - the pound - then clearly there is now an unequal power relationship.
The message was clear: don't expect any goodwill from the rUK if Scotland votes Yes. We will erect border posts and are prepared even to damage our own economic interests, in order to exclude Scotland from a currency union. But it is almost always a mistake in politics to make overt threats because they are generally a sign of weakness. And politics, contrary to popular belief, is rarely about economics, and is always about fairness, and people's perceptions of it. Many Scots voters, Yes and No, felt belittled by George Osborne's punitive intervention.
Instead of blustering about denying Scotland the pound, which is impossible anyway, a truly Unionist campaign would surely have welcomed Scotland into the currency fold. The UK could have said: OK, we realise now that this is not real independence we're talking about, because Scotland wishes the Bank of England to continue setting interest rates, and setting limits on Scottish spending. Alex Salmond agrees with Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, that Scotland would have to "cede sovereignty" to ensure currency stability. Fine by us.
The UK could have turned the referendum on its head by saying it would abide by the democratic wishes of the Scottish people - nothing more, nothing less.
This would have carried the spirit of post-war Britain as encapsulated by Danny Boyle into the 21st century. The UK political establishment has clearly forgotten that the Union of 1707 was supposed to have been a partnership not an annexation. Scotland didn't lose its national identity when it lost its parliament - which of course wasn't a democratic parliament in any sense we would understand it.
Perhaps Scots were deluding themselves that this was a partnership of equals, but that is what most genuinely believed. Very few people in Scotland in the 19th or 20th centuries felt that Scotland was a colony of England, or was oppressed by England or that Scotland had been extinguished. Only now, thanks to a clodhopping Chancellor and a myopic Westminster opposition, has that idea acquired any traction. Whether they vote Yes or No in September, I suspect the Scots will never feel quite the same about the UK. The Osborne diktat has turned what was a great moral project into an exercise in crude power politics. In truth, these callow politicians are not fit to call themselves Unionist. They haven't a clue what the word means.
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