Scottish independence: An email debate between two friends on either side of the divide

The journalist Alex Massie and the former MSP Andrew Wilson discuss their opposing views

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Dear Andrew,

Now's the day and now's the hour, my friend. The choosing time is here and there's no hiding place. Neither of us, I think, are surprised that the referendum seems likely to be a mighty close run affair. The idea of an independent Scotland has always been intuitively appealing. 

But it's not enough, is it? Alex Salmond says Scotland is a "surly lodger" in the United Kingdom but that's not true is it? The United Kingdom is our house too, not a place in which we may rent. We built it. Indeed, without Scotland there is no Great Britain. 

I think the Yes campaign secretly knows this. That's why it promises that Scots can keep everything they like about being a part of the United Kingdom, jettisoning only those parts of it they find disagreeable. How can that be true? How can independence give us everything we want at no cost at all? Moreover, how can it be, as senior SNP figures repeatedly claim, that independence will be good for England as well? 

It's almost as though they'll say anything to grab a Yes vote. We will all be richer after independence and happier too. There is no downside. There are no risks. I understand the nationalists need to reassure voters that everything will be fine and dandy but there comes a point at which implacable optimism becomes delusional. Right? 

At what point does promising that everyone can have a prize become a kind of fraud?

yours, genially
Alex

Dear Alex,

My old friend I remember the night the last referendum debate kicked off again following Princess Diana's funeral 17 years ago. You were at the great debate in Edinburgh and sat next to your dad and raised your hand for 'Yes" while he raised his hand for 'No'. I always felt you could follow me all the way to 'Yes' to independence but it seems not now. I respect that. You are a clever man with a strong world view and I completely understand your reticence and criticism. My appeal to you is not out of a disrespect for the story of the UK or Britain. That was a joint project that delivered much for many. But I feel it has run its course. 

As a country it is much too centralised and seeks a world role that speaks to a past it once had rather than a future it ought to. It is all about priorities and democracy and economics for me. The Scottish Parliament brought more politicians but no practical new power. It needs the responsibility for raising the money it spends and we both know the minor nothing currently being concocted as 'devo-next' won't address that. And while you are an instinctive conservative the reality is Scotland as a country gets the government it votes for less than half the time and all of the time our voice at Westminster is 1 in 11 and that's not considering the House of Lords we don't elect. We can do so much better in a new relationship with the rest of these islands that is respectful of the identity we share and the ties that will always bind, but that gives Scotland the chance to be itself and take responsibility for navigating a world in which work is needed everywhere. No free lunch, no easy street just the tools any country could reasonably seek to create the society and economy it can be.

Yours in hope
Andrew

Dear Andrew,

I'm not persuaded legislative responsibility for domestic affairs - including education, health, culture, local government, criminal justice and much else - are just wee things of no "practical power". If the Scottish parliament has dealt with its present responsibilities inadequately, what logical reason is there to suppose that a record of disappointment will be transformed by the addition of major new responsibilities? 

And yet, as you know, I am persuaded that the status quo cannot endure. You are right that a parliament with the power to spend but no responsibility to tax is a juvenile, half-formed legislature. Moreover it is one that will be persuaded that more money is the only answer to every problem. It guarantees spendthrift, unimaginative government. So, yes, I think the current proposals for the devolution of more powers are inadequate. A start but not enough. I think, however, this is but the start of a process of widespread constitutional reform across the United Kingdom. 

As to the so-called "democratic deficit", it seems to me that the logic of your position demands independence for Wales and Northern Ireland too. I could go further and suggest it suggests polities as different as Texas, Quebec, Catalonia and Bavaria should, if they chose, be independent as well. Where does it stop? 

Some nationalists claim that, far from damaging the ties of kith and kin that bind the peoples of these islands together, independence will actually "enhance" our sense of Britishness. How can that possibly be the case? And if, as you imply, Britishness is something valuable why should we choose to abandon it? I see a Britain with an open, liberal, internationalist, multi-racial, modern future. There is something exemplary about that. Independence leaves a smaller Scotland and a diminished Britain. What's so great about that?

Yours, in Union
Alex

Dear Alex,

I said “new” power. The Scottish Office already had all that. All that was added was a token tax power designed to be unusable which has been unused. The Scotland Act of 2012 extends that unusable tax power. So I am glad we have found agreement that Scotland needs more power and vastly more than the reluctant centralists in all the London parties are offering now. You say that means other parts of Britain need power too? Exactly. The idea of a benign and all powerful centre has had its day. Scotland can lead and others should follow at whatever pace their people choose and to whatever equilibrium likewise. You mention Britishness. As you will know I am a believer and adherent. I celebrate that part of my identity but I just don't define it by the state and what Whitehall and Westminster does and I remain confused as to why many do. We will have the closest relations of any group of nations anywhere, we have been through too much together for too long for it to be any other way. The Britain independence would create is not about the state and what it does, or a posture in the world out of kilter with economic and political reality. Rather it would be a group of nations responsible for their own future while combining on easy terms where their common interest concluded it should. I like your modern vision for Britain I am just not sure how I square it with £100bn spent on nuclear weapons that are not a deterrent, not independent and not wanted. How do you square it with an urge from Cabinet Ministers to walk away from the European Union? How do you square it with such an anti-immigration stance which I know we both agree should be reversed? In any event you are entitled to feel as you do. I don't agree that money is the answer to problems I believe that a vibrant economy supported by a government focussed on competitive success does, we need to tool-up to get that. Fix the economy and we can create the cohesive society we all seek. 142 countries have joined the United Nations since the war. It seems a natural process that few wish to reverse. Time to join them.

Yours in Union with the world and ensuring union with the rest of these islands too
Andrew

Dear Andrew,

See, the thing is I think Scotland already has representation at the United Nations. The United Kingdom is our country too. A Scottish departure changes the nature of the UK for us and for everyone else too. Of course, England won't become a "foreign" land in the way that, say, Denmark is a foreign country. But we must, inevitably, grow apart. If we didn't then what kind of independence do you seek? 

A heavily-compromised form, it seems to me. That's before we consider monetary policy or all the other shadows London and Westminster and the rest of the UK will continue to cast over Scotland. Equally, if you think it important that the UK remain a member of the EU you can't argue for that from outside the UK. As for immigration, well, I note only this: Scottish attitudes towards immigration are much the same as those pertaining in England (though without, rather importantly, having experienced the same levels of immigration). I don't favour a restrictionist approach but I mention this because it seems to me that Scottish "values" are really much the same as English "values". If there is a difference it is one of degree, not kind and the demarcation point is more probably the Trent than the Tweed. 

I don't think we're such different peoples we can no longer be part of the same state. I don't see how ending Britain is the same as reforming it. This isn't just a technical, procedural, readjustment. It's a revolution. I can see that something might be gained by independence but much would be lost too. Unavoidably and irretrievably lost and, most importantly, lost unnecessarily. A smaller Scotland; a lesser Britain. No thanks. 

Yours, tinged with melancholy
Alex

My dear Mr Massie,

I understand. I guess we are on a spectrum of difference that is not so far apart. I see both difference and ties that bind. This is why we agreed we needed devolution in the first place. Where you draw the line at that empowerment? Well time will tell. I noticed the wondrous JK Rowling this week called for all powers except Foreign Affairs and Defence to be devolved. What's on offer from London is a million miles from that. All I would say to you is that the modern offer of independence with continuing shared ties and institutions you can call what you will. Constrained? Every country is. But the power to choose what to share and when would be in the hands of the people. And that is what matters most.

Many countries share many similar values I am sure but globalisation has brought a hunger for both more power more locally and more independent countries, while at the same time creating a greater need for coordination and cooperation than ever before. That feels to me a natural and civilising trend and one to be embraced not feared.

It is sad that voices like yours that can articulate a coherent case for Britain have been drowned out by the chorus of "Can't" from Project Fear that is the No campaign. That is the opportunity that was missed from your perspective. So now it is the people that must choose and they have registered in record numbers and could vote in them too. I hope they do so in hope and for the best of reasons. The referendum isn't D-Day for me, but day one. It's a big confident happy Yes Please from me. 

Your friend
Andrew

Best of enemies: The two correspondents

Alex Massie is a Spectator columnist who in 2012 was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for his blogging. A former Assistant Editor of Scotland on Sunday, he lives in Edinburgh.

Andrew Wilson is a former SNP Member of the Scottish Parliament. He is founder of Charlotte Street Partners, an Edinburgh and London-based strategic communications firm.

Comments