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Scottish Referendum – Will Hit and Hope Win the Day?

September 18, 2014


Today’s the day then. Throughout the Scottish referendum campaign, I’ve refrained from trying to influence my thousands of Caledonian followers either way (actually, it’s more like three men and a couple of red squirrels, but then this is a season of exaggeration, is it not?).

Like the Queen, I don’t have a vote and I’ve chosen to remain silent throughout the campaign. Unlike the Queen, I’m going to say my piece now that the babble has given way to the sound of boots on their way to the polling stations.

The reason for my silence is that I haven’t been convinced that either side has made a clear case for their cause. On the No side we have heard many economic arguments as to why separation would be a bad thing. It seems to boil down to the opinions of geologists as to the amount of oil and gas left within Scotland’s reach. If the geologists can’t agree, I have nothing further to add.

The closest they’ve come to a non-economic argument is that the two nations would have diminished influence on the world stage.

Given the UK’s recent failure to influence the EU over the appointment of Mr Jean-Claude Juncker to the Presidency of the European Commission, and our seeming inability to influence our traditional ally, the United States, in any direction of late, I wonder what political influence we would actually lose.

Without the Scots, I can’t see our cultural influence diminishing one jot. Yes, it would be a shame not to think of the Edinburgh Festival as a British event any longer, but at the risk of offending our neighbours I would say that London on its own exerts as much influence as the whole of Scotland.

What of commercial influence? Well, Scotland accounts for a single-figure percentage the UK’s economic output. London dwarfs Edinburgh as the UK’s financial centre. I can’t think of a Scottish region to match Cambridge and Manchester as centres of technical innovation. And Scotland’s manufacturing base is much reduced, whether you blame the wicked Mrs Thatcher or the malign forces of globalisation.

Education? In the recent QS Survey of world universities, four of the top six are English. In Scotland, only Edinburgh makes the top twenty. Military? I have no doubt that Scots will still be recruited into the British army in their droves. If we continue to recruit the world’s fiercest fighters, the Ghurkas, why would we turn away the world’s second fiercest? Health? How many of the world’s health tourists come to the home of the deep-fried Mars Bar for their specialist treatment?  Yes, I know the last point was a cheap shot – I just couldn’t resist it.

But in any event, it would do us no harm for our delusions of national grandeur to be cut down to size. We should be competing for influence on merit rather than through a false sense of entitlement.

As for the Yes camp, I have an uneasy feeling about the heady tide of emotion that has pushed Scotland to the brink of declaring for independence. Emotions are powerful levers to pull when they are used to influence popular decisions of this magnitude. I have an uneasy feeling that Flounder and Stickleback (my pet names for Salmond and Sturgeon) are doing a great job of making the facts fit the emotions rather than the other way round.

Emotions are fickle. In the US, revulsion at the deaths of two of their citizens in Syria appears to have turned public opinion dramatically towards approval of US involvement in a military campaign against the Islamic State. If Obama’s war doesn’t yield the desired results, it will not take long for opinion to swing back to fearful disengagement.

Emotions with limited scruples are also the stuff of bad politics. In my opinion Alex Salmond, like his English opposite number Nigel Farage, is a demagogue. I have nothing more than a gut feeling to back up what I’m saying here, but I feel that he is more concerned about his place in history than the wisdom of what he proposes. I believe that for him Scottish independence is vastly preferable to the current status quo whatever the consequences for his compatriots. He is the equivalent of a batsman in cricket who closes his eyes and swipes at the ball because he can see no other way to play the game.

He is, in other words, hitting and hoping. For Salmond the game is political immortality. I suspect he knows that his arguments for independence are at best debatable and at worst wildly optimistic. Only on the emotional level does he score a boundary.

This is not intended to be an ad hominem attack on the SNP leader. He’s a politician, and he’s doing what politicians do. His integrity is no higher or lower than any of the other leading politicians on the British stage. But I hate to see such a fundamental issue determined on the basis of hit and hope. I fear for the future of an independent Scotland, because, to use that cherished Scottish legal term, the case is “not proven”.

So if today’s vote is No, close to half the population will be bitterly disappointed. If it’s Yes, I worry that the disappointment will come slowly, be long lasting and equally bitter.

I have kept silent throughout the referendum campaign because I have nothing to offer other than gut feeling, which I guess is the first cousin of emotion. But sometimes it can be worth more than all the manipulable statistics, ecstasy, joy, rage and tears that will ultimately sway a sizeable portion of the voters today.

There was once a theory beloved of pop psychologists that divides the human brain into two competing hemispheres. The left brain was supposed to be the domain of logic, caution and analysis. The right was the source of emotion, risk, imagination and creativity. The two halves were thought to be battling for supremacy. It’s a shame in a way that it turned out to be a myth, because it’s a neat analogy for the battle that’s been going on in Scotland: the left brain of Alistair Darling against the right brain of Alex Salmond.

Will the dusty balance sheet of the accountant win the day, or will it be the flailing cutlass of the salesman? I suspect that the fictional left brain will prevail. And I for one will give thanks for that.

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