At the start of the referendum campaign, Scottish politics featured nowhere on my radar. Support for the union was well over 60% in the polls. As the polls showed increasing support for “Yes”, indignation kicked in at the prospect of a rupture in the union and my British identity. I have explained in other articles my journey to “Yes” since that time, and going into the final few days of the campaign, I am still firmly of the view that a “Yes” vote is what is best for England and Scotland.
This referendum campaign has been a chance for the British political establishment to shine and show how much the union of our countries means. With good support for the union in the polls, and all the advantages of incumbency, this was not a campaign for “Yes” to win but only a campaign for “No” to lose.
I have eagerly awaited the positive case for the union. It has never come. Instead, I have witnessed the unfolding of perhaps the most dismal political smear campaign I can remember. It has included:
- smears on Alex Salmond
- threats of political consequences from voting “No”
- trying to get foreign leaders to back the union
- ruling out a devo-max option on the ballot paper which many wanted
- rushing out devo-max proposals as polling for “Yes” grew
- digging around for anti-English sentiment
- celebrities putting a pure “emotional case” for the union
- patronising Lego promotional material and political broadcasts
- creating every possible uncertainty over SNP policies
- accusations of ugly nationalism and comparing SNP leaders to fascists
- a terror among senior unionist politicians of debating with ordinary Scots
- scaremongering e.g. border guards, an absolute no to currency union long before the need for such a decision, massive expenditure cuts, Scotland being undefended against terrorists etc.
This campaign has shown the British political establishment at its very worst. It need not have done. A healthy body of politicians could have engaged much more positively with the “Yes” groups and ordinary people, listened to them seriously, worked towards consensus and compromise if possible, and retained honour and principle while opposing independence. I believe that such a positive approach would have produced a convincing “No” vote. But the people who could have led such a campaign have been missing in inaction.
There have been no walkabouts in Scotland from David Cameron, Ed Miliband, or Nick Clegg – the leaders of the parties who want to rule the Scots after the next general election. Unless I have missed something, I have not seen any Scottish appearances by Tony Blair, John Major, Michael Heseltine, Neil Kinnock, Paddy Ashdown or numerous other senior politicians. Until yesterday – with less than 2 weeks to go until the vote – there had been no move by rank-and-file MPs to visit Scotland, and even then it will be only a 100 odd Labour MPs and no Tories. Either Better Together told English and Welsh politicians to stay well away because they would be a liability or they just didn’t care enough to put in the effort to save the union. Given that Better Together has been paying ordinary English Labour activists to canvas in Scotland, I am assuming that it is the latter.
The lack of unity and leadership among the pro-union forces has been painfully obvious. English politicians simply thought that saving the union required minimal effort and consequently made a minimal effort. We are not talking about a few months of political ineptitude – we are talking about 2 years with ever-increasing alarm bells. And the evidence of these 2 years is what we have to take into account when predicting the attitudes and behaviour of the Westminster establishment in the years to come.
Politics is about creating a better future – but it is done in the here and now. The process of politics shows its integrity or lack thereof. I simply don’t believe politicians’ promises when they go about their daily dealings with their political opponents and the people they rule with such contempt and indifference. And when the stakes are the very future of the union itself, I am all the more dismayed by these attitudes.
Scottish people have no reason to believe Westminster politicians any more, no matter how fine the sentiments they express may be. And why should we English be taken in by them either, just because we are the majority nation in the UK? If they are able and willing to turn on the contempt and indifference when it comes to dealings with the Scots, why should we trust them in their dealings with us?
The rotten heart of the union has been attacked by the SNP for years now. But it has been exposed for all of us to see by this referendum campaign. We should not let them off the hook and a “Yes” vote will be a good start to a more radical reform of our political institutions.