Scotland: The unanswered questions: The Politics

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The Independent Online
"The main obstacle to devolution in Scotland," ran the news copy in my hand, "according to Jim Sillars, speaking at a pro-devolution rally in Glasgow, is in Ayrshire."

"So what is the obstacle?" I asked the sub-editor. "Where's the rest of the copy? What's he talking about?"

"Dunno. That's all we got."

I pondered. The only obstacle to devolution in Ayrshire we could think of, back in February 1979, when this particular piece of intelligence reached the BBC Edinburgh newsroom, was Jim Sillars himself. The co-founder of the breakaway Scottish Labour Party, Sillars was still the elected MP for South Ayrshire, from where he pricked the sides of the official Labour Party with his nationalist rhetoric. Home rulers feared his brand of support for the 1978 Scotland Act - which offered Scotland an Assembly ("Toytown!" snorted the Sillars gang) financed by a block grant - would deter voters who saw full independence as the barely-veiled goal of would- be devolvers.

But Sillars was clearly not referring to himself as an obstacle. So who or what else could be described as an impediment in Ayrshire, birth of Scotland's bard, the occasional nationalist Robbie Burns, whose rousing lyric excoriated the "parcel of rogues" who had sold out the Scottish nation via the Act of Union in 1707?

And then it clicked. The copy had been phoned in from the Glasgow rally by a local reporter. Read phonetically, his words made perfect - even prophetic - sense. The only obstacle to devolution in Scotland is - inertia.

And, arguably, so it proved. On 2 March 1979, almost a third of voters in Scotland said no, and a third did not bother to vote. You can debate the reasons. Fear, snow, Alec Douglas-Home's notorious eve-of-vote TV appearance on BBC Scotland's Current Account, where he promised no-voters a better deal - including tax-varying powers - under a Conservative government. All factors - but inertia certainly played its part in keeping the vote at home. So, the 40 per cent threshold - a unique and very real obstacle - was not reached. The legislation fell. And in the subsequent General Election, the Scottish Labour Party rebels lost both their MPs, including Sillars, and collapsed; the SNP lost nine of their 11, but later gained Sillars as a member; and the Labour government was dispatched to 18 years of opposition.

So will it be different this time? Is Scotland sufficiently ert to deliver a convincing vote on the package offered, one way or the other?

It's already different. And it was different before last week's events shattered national identities and securities. This time round, all pro- devolution parties have learned their lesson. Never mind integrity, get those votes in.

Thus internal party unity is apparently intact. Labour's 1979 dissenters, Robin Cook and Brian Wilson, are loyal frontbenchers. The spin-doctors have whisked Tam Dalyell into a harmless obsessive. The Nationalists serenely disregard their own awkward squaddie, as Jim Sillars rages, logically but vainly, against the iniquities of demanding a mandate for pre-legislation proposals. And the Liberal Democrats shamelessly hint at further subsidiarity for the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland. That Galloway and the Borders might seek matching concessions is neither considered nor rejected.

And this is the point. The politicians are trading on the acquired cynicism of voters in a mature democracy. They know we know they fudge and evade. They know we vote for our own reasons. They cheerfully offer us incompatible platforms and alliances, anticipating that we will forgive and forget if our own personal manifesto is not matched by their post-victory actions.

Thus the Scotland Forward campaign is spearheaded by (mostly) men representing clearly opposing ideals and aims, and comfortable to be identified as strange bedfellows. A Scottish Parliament cannot both save and end the union. But the Yogi Bear dictum becomes reality in Scotland: when you see a fork in the road, take it.

Whether voters turned cynical about realpolitik will respond positively to this campaigning chutzpah will be a fascinating test of how far the principles of tactical voting are understood by the electorate. A yes vote for a Scottish parliament will be an ambiguous endorsement. Labour tacticians who promote devolution as the internal constitutional mechanism that will save the union cannot be sure that their traditional supporters have not been seduced by the nationalists' battle-cry - Scotland in Europe.

And that's another difference from 1979. The so-called "gap in the market" identified by Sillars back in the seventies - a space where nationalist socialists and moderate nationalists can peaceably co-habit - is being filled by a political culture ready for the unknown. Whether Scotland goes Catalonian - one country two systems, European-style - or eventually opts for a kind of independence within the EU - is not argued on the streets with the passion of 1979.

Even the time-honoured spectre of increased taxation doesn't resonate with its ancient force. Scotland has effectively been voting for higher taxes for years. Gordon Brown's pledges on tax and spending were not aimed at his kinsfolk.

And last week came the difference that may swing it convincingly for the yes-yes campaign. The death of Diana has shocked Scotland as much as any territory of this United Kingdom. In Glasgow, great black banners hang in George Square, alongside the mounds of commemorative flowers and messages. But the speed with which the old dispensation was seen to melt in the wake of her sudden death has galvanised the kind of confidence this referendum needs, in a way that none of the appeals could have done.

And, after this accelerated campaign, where questions have not been answered nor issues clarified, do I now know how I'm going to vote? Ah, it's never been my practice to share the privacy of the polling booth, and some things do not change. But, yes. Yes - I know.