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DISTILLED HOPES

- Not all of Scotland is keen on Scottish independence

I know less of the present feelings of the Scottish people nearest their seat of power in Edinburgh, but on the Western Isles and the more remote areas of the west coast there is little enthusiasm for Scottish independence and the breaking of the union of the United Kingdom. There is a view that if the Scots voted with their hearts and not their heads, independence might indeed be the way of things after next year’s Scottish referendum to decide the matter. English slights to Scotland throughout history, names of battles fought during the wars of independence and, barring a few notable exceptions such as Bannockburn, generally lost, are being bandied about in support of the independence movement; memories of long dead heroes like Robert the Bruce and William Wallace revived as new news, their already semi-fictionalized reputations polished and glorified to fit the independence image; professional Scots like the actor, Sean Connery, a long-term resident of the Bahamas and several golf courses well outside British jurisdiction, are jumping up and down in their well-pressed kilts and ridiculous lace jabots and proselytizing to anyone who will listen to their nicely tuned Scots accents; and Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party and Scotland’s First Minister since 2007, is chasing his tail and cashing in on anything that might add weight to his nationalist agenda.

Just back from the west coast myself and the aforesaid furore round the independence question, my feeling is that Scots will vote with their heads when the time comes notwithstanding historical slights, the crumbled bones of kilted heroes, however resurrected by Mel Gibson, and the crumbling edifice of Sean Connery aged 83, and, one suspects, unlikely to see out his days on damp Scottish soil. Scotland has a lot going for it in terms of history and culture, some of that admittedly invented by the Victorians led by their Scotland mad queen and the incursions of the railways in her industrially inventive reign, but none the worse for that perhaps; wonderful scenery; fantastic natural food resources, these days successfully cooked which was far from the case in the past; whisky, of course, and a thriving tourist trade as a result of all the above. And they also have North Sea oil, or rather, we all do, until it runs out. If Salmond is relying on an unsustainable resource as independent Scotland’s most sustainable and valuable income producer, there could be a really big problem in the long term, exacerbated in the short term if England is not prepared to fall in with his plans for continuing currency union regardless of his holding onto a previously shared asset for the time it exists.

It isn’t looking too good for Alex Salmond. The English hold the stronger hand one way or another as in truth they always have. Salmond has long been considered one of the UK’s most astute and wily politicians, a veritable Talleyrand, with most of Talleyrand’s appetite for the better things in life and a similar ability to fight all sides to the middle and pull the wool over everyone’s eyes. Next year’s referendum vote however, 700 years since the Scottish victory at the battle of Bannockburn, may be his Waterloo. Whether he is good enough or bad enough for the sort of reprimand dished out to Talleyrand by Napoleon, I sadly doubt there is anyone likely to repeat such a condemnation these days; it is a little unfair perhaps and I doubt equally that Salmond is worthy of such royal invective, but it is irresistible all the same. To paraphrase slightly: “You are a liar, a coward, a man without faith. You do not believe in God; all your life you have failed in your duties, betrayed everyone, and tricked everyone. Nothing is sacred for you. You would sell your Father. You are a shit in a silk stocking.” Talleyrand of course got away with the remarkable eel-like twists and turns of his public life because he was extraordinarily attractive quite apart from his brilliance. Salmond is brilliant and possibly charming but I can’t say that his rotund and shiny-faced appearance is much to his advantage.

On a more positive note, our Channel 4 television news has been doing a series of pop up programmes about economic recovery, or the lack of it, in a variety of regions and cities round the presently united country and therefore including Scotland. The programme on Scotland focused in particular on the whisky industry exemplified both by the enormous Diageo/Johnnie Walker blended whisky manufactory and by tiny Bruichladdich, one of the nine malt whisky distilleries on the west coast island of Islay. Diageo is big enough both to deal with market ups and downs and to pursue export markets in emerging economies such as China, where the complications and red tape still defeat smaller operations like Bruichladdich. At the same time, the Bruichladdich story illustrates the way economic recovery is meant to happen through the export of our manufactured goods. A disused distillery, mothballed for years, was brought back to life by a couple of entrepreneurial investors to become the biggest employer on the island. Sixty employees may not sound like much but on an island with a population of only 3,000 it is a serious percentage of the work force and has helped Islay weather the storm. The Western Isles have always been one of the most deprived regions of the UK so it is great to hear a good news story from there under any circumstances. Now, although Eurozone imports in Italy, Portugal and Spain have unfortunately dropped right off, Germany, Switzerland and the United States of America remain strong markets and the distillery is working on the BRICS countries. In India, many of the Islay distilleries, such as Bowmore and Laphroaig, also owned by big names like Diageo, are well known. Bruichladdich has now been bought by Remy Cointreau. It is hoped that, while still retaining its independent character, this new relationship with a large company will help the distillery to reach a far wider market while continuing to impact beneficially on the island economy.

Other economy rousing measures are being greeted with less applause. Plans for the so-called HS2, the high speed rail line, have always been contentious and divisions are growing between the government and the shadow government supporters of the project and those who oppose it, ranged with communities that will be affected and the general public which thinks it is just an enormous waste of money. The idea of a high speed rail line to bring north and south closer together — for which, in my view, we may read, make it easier for people from the north to get to London, the seat of all things — is about 30 years old. It predates faster electronic communications and our present economic woes by decades, although it has been repackaged over the last couple of years as shiny and new thinking. Meanwhile the budget for the new line has hit the stratosphere and almost certainly ensured that our present rail network, reaching all the places that aren’t directly north and south of each other, will suffer dramatically. The idea that it will help boost growth outside London seems outdated, and cutting a north-south journey from four hours to two, completely pointless when people are able to make the four hours highly productive with all communications, including wireless, available in transit. We live in a very small country where we are never very far away from anywhere in the country and where we need all the money we have to spend on existing infrastructure improvements, hospitals, schools and community development.

That good and sensible Scotsman, Alistair Darling, the former Labour chancellor of the exchequer, is my new hero and Scottish too. He has come out strongly against Scottish independence and HS2 and he doesn’t, so far as I am aware, wear a kilt for effect, in public at least, or a lot of lace round his neck to go with it. Neither does he emulate Mel Gibson as William Wallace bound up in the sort of plaid that didn’t exist in Wallace’s day and with blue woad all over his face that had gone out of fashion as warpaint about a thousand years before the independence battles of the 13th century.