When I first started this column, I spent several weeks addressing various aspects of the Scottish constitutional question in some detail. After some gentle editorial reminders that this was meant to be a week-in-the-news roundup, and include Wales and Northern Ireland to boot, I have endeavoured to minimise the referendum content.
Over time, it has actually ended up being harder and harder to include Scotland in the column at all. Amidst the Scottish media, or at least the political sections this column draws on, the plebiscite is completely inescapable. It is as if normal political life has been suspended entirely, or close enough.
On the one hand, this is nice. As a history student and keen Unionist with an amateur interest in the constitutional question, I confess to having often wished that the passion for the Union burned as bright amidst today’s Britons as it did back during the 1880s, when the politics of the entire kingdom were recast by the issue.
On the other, caring that much from a position of impotence, such as anybody without a vote finds themselves in, is an acute little agony all its own, and it’s nice to be able to surface from the interested press and into a daily news cycle where the potential dissolution off the country is just one more news item. Especially when the news items look like this.
So with just over two weeks to go, it’s time to put Scotland back in the spotlight.
For those of you with a distaste for links, the above takes you to a short item in the Spectator about the latest YouGov poll which puts the No camp ahead by six points. A month ago, the same pollster was reporting a 22-point lead and its President, Peter Kellner, was writing articles explaining why he and other pollsters finding ‘decisive verdicts in favour of the Union’ were closer to the mark than those amongst their number finding narrower leads.
YouGov was a unionist comfort blanket, and it being snatched away has sent a nasty chill down many spines. The breakup of the country, so long a remote and rather abstract prospect, suddenly feels very real.
Of course, we must not get carried away. A step back and some calming breaths allow us to recognise that when even a dire poll gives you a six point lead, you could be in far worse positions – and to remember that this is only one poll. It is also true that polls on the subject are prone to bouts of wild fluctuation over the short term whilst remaining fairly constant in the long term, and that not one credible poll has yet put Yes ahead.
Tory MSP Murdo Fraser has also pointed out that in the 1995 referendum on Quebecois independence, the nationalists managed to lose despite being six points ahead three days before (which is comforting from one perspective if chilling from another). Our opponents would, if given the chance, swap with us.
Meanwhile Better Together, who for a long time have been worried that the whole thing could slip through their fingers by under-motivated unionists thinking the battle won and finding better things to do on polling day, can finally put the fear of God into their legions.
Since the sting of being proven wrong in writing two weeks hence will be the emotional equivalent of getting an irritating itch after being beheaded, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that barring some fresh calamity the unionists should carry the day on September 18. My concerns are longer term.
As I wrote last week, perhaps the most important lesson to draw from the referendum – provided we win it – is how carelessly we have neglected the health of, for want of a better word, ‘Britishness’. You can see it from the way Better Together have campaigned. The unionist camp is full of people who care passionately about Britain and what it stands for. But they have been almost completely incapable of articulating it. Those who can – who very often seem, in my experience, to be of the romantic Tory persuasion – don’t, because of a very real fear that it just won’t connect with the electorate.
The nationalists – who admittedly have the advantage in that their Scotland does not yet exist, and so can possess any number of often mutually exclusive virtues – often seem to have cornered the market on aspirational campaigning, which in turn makes a No victory look more like hesitancy than rejection. This bolsters the unhelpful notion that the Union is simply a contract, rather than a country and point of identification.
The more this happens, the less any defeat will undermine the separatist cause and the more credible a ‘one last heave’ rallying cry will be – and defeat always holds less terror for those attempting change in any case, because they always have another shot.
Something big has to change if the Unionists win this struggle. The constitution needs to be settled, equitably and permanently, including a proper resolution to the West Lothian Question. Just as importantly the ‘more powers’ reflex, whereby any nationalist upswing is met with another piecemeal dismantling of the United Kingdom, must be put to bed once the constitutional settlement is decided.
But most importantly, we need to reconnect with Britain again. To extract what it means to be British from the spreadsheets and put it back into the poetry books. To remind people how precious an inheritance it is, and how shallow the differences between the four nations. For all the fears about the home nations growing apart, you don’t need to travel farther than the Republic of Ireland to appreciate quite how much a common people the various tribes of modern Britons are.
I leave you with this article, from the Canadian struggle in 1995, of which I’ve grown rather fond – not least because the circumstances the author describes are so strikingly familiar to our own. The separatists came within a hair’s breadth of victory that year. In 2014, the mere hint of another referendum was enough to see the nationalist party throw a commanding poll lead and crash out of provincial government.
The Canadians brought their country back from the brink, and so can we. Although I’ve yet to hear about a repeat of their massive rally of non-Quebecois Canadians being planned for Edinburgh – and we don’t need to cross a continent to reach one.