In the absence of a tangible vision for continued membership of the United Kingdom, and amid the relentlessly positive rallying calls from Yes Scotland, it can be baffling to witness consistently stubborn Scottish independence poll ratings that show support for a Yes vote at roughly between a quarter and a third. The most recent poll may have suggested that less than 50% of Scots intend to vote No, but a Yes victory still seems a long way off.
The Electoral Commission stated in its report last week that both sides of the debate need to make it clear what a Yes or a No vote will mean in the weeks, months and years following the referendum itself. With the vague promise of ‘jam tomorrow’ from all parties within the Better Together umbrella and a clear majority of Scots wanting more powers at Holyrood, one would expect that something would have to give over the next eighteen months in terms of direction from anyone in the unionist camp from David Cameron to Johann Lamont.
And yet, there is every chance that this impasse may drift up to, and beyond, Autumn 2014 with Scots still content to trump out and vote No.
Citizens around the world would respond in greater and lesser degrees to lofty language lulling people into a new constitutional setup, largely depending on their geographical location. Barcelona saw one million people calling for independence with typical Catalan energy and colour, Hong Kong held a purposeful but muted protest in similar numbers against China, while Quebec nationalism is often met with a somewhat ironic ‘Bof’ from the locals.
In a global context, it is perhaps no surprise that Scots would be amongst the most reticent to change. Scotland is, after all, a largely Calvinist nation, an historically Protestant land that wants for little and asks for less. We are, broadly speaking and whatever our political party persuasion, small c conservatives, though indeed used to be big C Conservatives.
There is a widely known but nonetheless remarkable factoid that it is the Conservatives that are the only party to have won a majority of constituencies in Scotland with a majority of the popular vote in any general election. One could argue that the new conservatism of the Labour party has merely replaced the old conservatism of the Tories, aided and abetted by Thatcher’s hollow spectre. Labour nowadays tend to win more seats in Scotland the less radical it actually is. Rocking the British boat, or any sizeable boat for that matter, has not been on the agenda for decades.
Indeed, it is testament to the peculiarities of the United Kingdom that, for decades, a largely poor Scotland happily forwent billions of oil revenues to an already cash-rich London, despite the Norwegian example showing that we were sitting on a winning lottery ticket that would transform our schools, infrastructure and employment prospects if we only stood up and fought for it.
This economic piety is perhaps not borne out by the poll that suggested a majority of Scots would vote for independence if it meant an extra £500 in the bank account each year. This SNP-minded redistribution of public cash strikes me as playing up Tory-esque electioneering tax cuts but, either way, such squalid squander will not be a feature in Scottish minds when the referendum comes around. It’s easy to cash those cheques in one’s mind on a call to a pollster, but the Scottish mentality that is engrained within so many of us is less easy to shift when it comes to big decisions.
We have been called out on this outlook before of course, the American priest that said Scotland is ‘a dark place full of homosexuals’ drew ire not just rightfully because of his bigotry but also wrongfully because he struck a nerve. In our heart of hearts, few Scots would argue against their nation being a dark place in the context of history, health or humour. It’s grim up north.
Indeed, the difficulty that Yes Scotland (and the SNP in particular) face in trying to buy an independence victory through promises of savings from Trident, through a reduced Defence budget and/or through bountiful oil revenues may not just stem from being up against immovable Scottish conservatism, but also rather ironically from all the way back in 1707 when Scotland was united with England in the Treaty of the Crowns.
The 18th century Robert Burns poem ‘Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation’ remains popular today, particularly the line where the bard castigates those Scots who were believed to have been “bought and sold for English gold”. We Scots resented being bought over back then and, by jove, we won’t make the same mistake again, even if that would involve righting the original wrong. ‘Salmond can hold onto his purse strings, we’re fine as we are’, some may say.
Many Scottish Calvinists and conservatives alike quietly pride themselves in not asking for much and not being a bother. No wonder then that Yes Scotland’s task of delivering momentous change to the United Kingdom is so challenging; we already have No riven through us like a piece of rock.