The date for the Scottish referendum on September 18 is approaching. Both the Scottish National Party, the Yes campaign, and the Better Together, No camp, led by the former Labour chancellor and Edinburgh MP, Alistair Darling, are boiling over. With a few weeks to go before the vote for which the turnout is expected to be uniquely high, claims and denials, accusations and rebuttals are being bandied about with increasing fervour and a level of acrimony unprecedented in the United Kingdom in recent history outside Northern Ireland. There is a cloud of ill-feeling hanging over Scotland and, whatever the outcome of the referendum, a legacy of divisiveness will be left behind and may become a lasting wound from which we will all suffer, most of all the Scottish. Issues of separation are familiar in India, ours are inevitably on a smaller scale but, relative to that, may prove as painful.
I am British, a person of the United Kingdom including Scotland and that is what I wish to remain. As it happens, I may be more Scottish than anything else. One ancestor was educated at Winchester College, but fought for the Jacobites in the ’45 rebellion; another came south from the Outer Hebrides to make a family fortune in London and use it, in part, to buy land back in Scotland; yet another made a vast fortune in Glasgow, became a well-known figure in the South but always made Scotland his real home. There were others, one of my sons was born near Glasgow — does that make him a Scot? Not in the eyes of the Nationalists unless he espoused their cause and moved to Scotland. He was born precipitously during the summer holidays, spent that year and every year of my life in Scotland. Readers of this column may have noticed that I usually write about Scotland in August when I am there. This year, I am ahead of myself and suspect the Scottish debate may still be at the forefront of events here into the autumn.
Those of us of mixed Scottish/ English descent, whose ancestors had or made lives that wove both cultures together deep into the fabric of their family, may be newly aware of roots planted on both sides of the border and dread division. In fact, the levels of Scottish blood that run in my veins are hardly relevant, however proud I might be to embrace kinship with extraordinary Scots who have shown their abilities throughout the world. As J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books and a proud Scottish resident, has pointed out, discussions on purity of lineage have unappealing connotations. The question is rather how much any of us care about the country we love and live in. Rowling could reasonably, after 21 years of residence, talk about Scotland as the country she loves and materially support the No vote to keep it as it is. I would say my country is the United Kingdom, including Scotland as a vital part of that national and personal identity.
For more than 300 years, the Union has added to and enabled the best of us in the British Isles to achieve and create by using the unique advantages of each part, land and people, for optimum value and success severally and together. It may not always seem that way to Scotland, for those who feel far removed from apparently uncaring Westminster or we may share a detestation of a particular government or policy that affects us all, but we are better, stronger, richer and safer, together than apart regardless of the party ruling in Westminster or Holyrood. Many of the issues that the Yes campaign and the ‘Scotland’s Future’ white paper highlight as uniquely Scottish and soluble only by division are not so. They are shared by us all just as we have a shared currency, the future of which in an independent Scotland has been seriously questioned by Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, and ‘ruled out’ by the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne.
Scottish entrepreneurship and business acumen is international. Scots have left their mark in the names of businesses and great trading companies, sometimes still in Scottish hands, round the globe. There are institutions founded by Scots — schools, colleges, hospitals and always a Scottish Church here or there with a graveyard filled with Scottish names. As for the flow of people back and forth across the imaginary line of border once guarded by Hadrian’s Wall, we need it freely to continue in every field of exchange and everyday united existence. We need to continue to address those issues that affect us all, together, in relative harmony.
In many areas, the devolved Scottish Parliament at Holyrood already has the power to do its best for Scotland alone and has been seen to do so at times in ways that we might envy in the South. What we do not need, as the tone of the referendum debate becomes more vicious, is to create an uncertain future. We have seen wars of attrition in other places drag on through generations, making for uncertainty, lack of confidence and loss of opportunity, especially economic. The United Kingdom will be much less comfortably divided than Alex Salmond, first minister of Scotland, and his Scottish Nationalist cohorts promise, and we will all be damaged by the rift.
If Salmond realizes his dream of sunset on the United Kingdom while the Saltire, the Scottish flag, billows over his head, all those financial institutions so essential to Scotland’s future prosperity will be hurriedly packing their remaining bags and scurrying south. Money is already flowing in that direction, from worried individuals, ordinary concerned people moving their pensions and savings, and the major banks. They have contingencies in place for an immediate switch of their operations to London in the event of a Yes victory and it may be that there is already little money resting in the Scottish vaults of the great banks. It seems unlikely that Scottish entrepreneurs, avoiding trouble by keeping their opinions to themselves when they can and with businesses dependent on the City of London, have not switched their own financial contingency plans to amber.
Relocations are likely to be implemented even if there is a No vote — no financial institution, no individual, needs to get burnt again. We have seen the economic meltdown much too recently not to be aware of the worst that can happen. Uncertainty over the future and an acrimonious divide within Scotland, let alone between Scotland and the rest of the Union, will not encourage the investment and financial optimism that underpin the Nationalist vision. Pressure is being put on big business in Scotland to keep its pessimism to itself, and, remembering that whatever happens, there will still be a Nationalist government at Holyrood, business leaders are in a very uncomfortable situation leading to yet more uncertainty.
Beyond that, there are questions of taxation. There is no mention in all the pages of Scotland’s Future of inheritance tax, capital gains, mansion or wealth tax. There is a strong probability of divergence of personal tax between Scotland and England with the betting on increased taxation north of the border. People, especially the rich, are far more mobile than in the past and will migrate south to access a more favourable tax climate. It isn’t very difficult. It might mean no more than a short car journey from Edinburgh to Berwick upon Tweed, just into the most northern English county, Northumberland. Even our united country is small. London is only a hop further with all the powerful Midland centres in between.
The Independence campaign turns a blind eye to issues of emigration because they believe they have the solution in all the skilled immigrants who will pour into Scotland to take advantage of the manifold rewards available in a thriving new independent country. Those rewards are currently a dream based on expectations of compliance in Westminster to a range of mutual agreements that are already being denied. It is additionally questionable whether the flood of eager immigrants will so easily get through a door that is wide open only in Scottish Nationalist minds, regardless of the effect of controls elsewhere in Britain, and indeed all the questions of fulfilling the membership criteria of the European Union and negotiating further regulations.
These putative immigrants are likely to read the writing on the wall for an independent Scotland that might not have the wherewithal to flourish as promised. Nationalist financial predictions based on business creation and a huge economic upswing ring as hollow presumptions. A Scottish renaissance needs firmer foundations than that. Immigrants might wonder about flourishing in a country where life expectancy is historically and presently decades less than south of the border. This fact has allowed Nicola Sturgeon, the deputy first minister, to protest that the pension age should not be raised in Scotland as it will be in the rest of the UK because people will not live long enough fully to enjoy their pensioned retirement. How encouraging.
In the early days of the campaigns, the No vote looked stronger — strong enough to throw out the independence question for at least a generation. On present estimates a 60/40 No win will stop independence for now and will require Salmond, the SNP ringmaster and magician, to step down. But the bitterness left behind on both sides, combined with the anger and disappointment of a considerable minority, could poison the future of Scotland inestimably and indefinitely. It is not a happy outlook. So much that Scotland has already achieved as a devolved part of the UK could be wasted. Hopes for a future that will further embellish the global reputation of the people of Scotland could be put on long-term pause, we all need not only to support union and the UK as the best way forward, but to fill the chasms created between opposing campaigns by this referendum.