Independence: Greater Personal Freedom?
Once more into the breach. I fervently hope it’s for the last time; and I fervently hope I have not been born to write the obituary of my country.
There is a well-loved saying among university lecturers, ‘The trouble with students is that they interfere with your work.’ But that’s as nothing compared with the way that the Referendum has interfered with Scottish life. To it, the Holyrood Parliament dedicated the longest election campaign in British history, and by doing so they put the whole nation on hold. The new powers to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament are on hold; the levels of Income Tax and Corporation Tax are on hold; Rosyth and BAE Systems are on hold; the Royal Regiment of Scotland are on hold; Scottish MPs sitting at Westminster are on hold; Prime Minister's Questions are on hold; the Queen is on hold; I am on hold; the very swallows which by now should be flying off to Africa are on hold, fearful of taking a last farewell of the Scotland they love.
When I say, ‘on hold’, I don’t mean hesitating between two opinions, the Nationalist and the Unionist. I mean ‘on hold’ because on all the crucial questions the SNP refuse to give answers. We are offered only a blank cheque, promising ‘Independence’ but always with the rider, ‘Leave the details to us.’
The core uncertainties? Well, for starters, what’s going to happen to the religious settlement of 1707? Scotland would never have agreed to the Union without guarantees as to the future of the Church. Will these guarantees now be dismantled, the next Sovereign absolved of the responsibility to uphold the Christian faith, and Scotland declared a secular state?
We don’t know, and Mr. Salmond is not for telling. But one thing is sure: Scotland’s humanists are waiting to pounce, and if they can convince Mr. Salmond either that they are ‘oppressed’ by the current arrangements or that they can muster more votes than Christians could ever promise, then a secular Scotland we shall certainly see. What is surprising is that Christians have been so mute on the matter, evidently content to follow Mr. Salmond blithely into the unknown.
This is not a sectarian issue. Some adjustment of the 1707 settlement is inevitable, even desirable. But what? As ever, we have no answers. Will our courts have to replace oaths with affirmations? Will councils be forbidden to open their meetings with prayer? Will religious observances be banished from schools?
No one knows.
Then there is the question of the Border. It surely has not escaped the notice of the First Minister that if Scotland is to be an independent country then every other country in the world will be a foreign one; and since that means that England, too, will be a foreign country, it will be important to know where Scotland ends and England begins. That sounds to me very like a border.
But still no border controls? If so, we have yet another breach in the whole notion of independence. We will have England’s pound and England’s Bank and England’s Immigration Services, conceding that anyone who enters the island of Great Britain via Calais has an automatic right to proceed directly to Portree; and conceding, likewise, that anyone who steps off a Scottish train at Carlisle has an automatic right to live in Bradford.
Besides which there is the issue which Mr. Salmond cleverly buried months ago: English students coming to study in Scotland. Will they be welcomed as EU students and pay the same fees as Scottish ones? Or will they, as at present, be treated as English students and asked to pay four times as much as EU ones?
We don’t know; and we don’t know because Nationalists have decided that the most likely way to win this campaign is to keep us in the dark on all the issues that matter.
Mr. Salmond always has a response, of course. But never an answer. He will smile that smile, one half of which says, ‘Don’t be such an idiot!’ and the other half of which says, ‘Trust me!’ (in which case you would be an idiot). Then he would pronounce, ‘Scaremongering!’ expecting us all to run back under the stones we crawled out from.
But fear is a healthy emotion, and if you ask me, ‘Are you scared?’ I will answer with a resounding, ‘Yes! Dead scared!’ I do not believe that Mr. Salmond will hold out for religion against secularism; and I do not believe that cattle, drugs and men-in-kilts will be able to cross the Border unchecked once we declare England a foreign country. The real fun will start, of course, when England trespasses into the Scottish sector of the North Sea. Presumably, Mr. Salmond will then send an armed trawler.
Is it possible that I have this all wrong, and that the real carrot being dangled before my eyes is the promise of greater individual independence?
You mean that Alex would govern me with a lighter touch than David or Ed? The omens are not good. Alex’s long list of ‘frees’, from prescriptions to child-care, will mean him wanting more and more of my money; prosecutions without the need for corroboration could mean me ending up in jail (slightly offset by the fact that it could also mean Kenny Macaskill ending up in jail); armed cops on the streets could mean me being mistaken for a tribesman from the Cuillins, and shot.
On the other hand, has the Scottish Government introduced a single element of personal independence which I did not enjoy before? Quite the contrary! This story has nothing to with my independence. It’s all about the independence of the Government; about SNP politicians being left alone to control us in peace. There’s no sign that there’ll be fewer forms to fill in, fewer parking restrictions, fewer building regulations, fewer tags on cattle, fewer controls on running cottages-to-let. There will still be nothing I can do about CalMac’s callous disregard for my culture, no end in sight to the primitive security-arrangements at Stornoway Airport, and no tax-refund for my graciously staying in Edinburgh during the Festival.
Why has this mountain heaved and brought forth not even the promise of a mouse? And why does my poor country have to face a decade of further turmoil as it searches for answers to the questions Mr. Salmond has been smiling at ever since he took office?
Perhaps, of course, you like referendums. The next one will be on the monarchy.
This article first appeared in the West Highland Free Press, 12th September, 2014.