curiosity about the ways of the world

Cry the divided country

If you are visiting this blog post for the second time you will notice that I have changed the heading. If you have just arrived, I should explain that the original heading said In a state of hysteria Scotland risks making an irreversible decision based on the fever of the moment. I apologise for careless use of an emotive word (you will see from comments below that I have been criticised for implying that everyone voting Yes is acting out of hysteria and in blind faith).  If you read my argument I hope you will see that is not what I intended, or said.  But I do not think I was wrong to express alarm at the mood of the country which seemed to me to reach fever pitch with yesterday’s demonstration outside the BBC.  Enough. Here is the post which has attracted more attention than most of my thoughts. It starts with a quote from an article in the Financial Times magazine.

Hysteria becomes a political tool used by the instigators to push through agendas that would never have been possible in a non-hysterical situation.

I should make it clear straight away that Douglas Coupland was not referring to the Scottish referendum in his Financial Times column Observation.  In fact the piece was subtitled God, no-God: how the Internet forces us to choose between science and religion. But even that strikes a chord in this feverish last phase of a two year campaign. There is more than a whiff of religious evangelism about the nationalist cause. So what are  we being asked to choose between? On the one side blind faith, on the other – well, what?

I will come back to the positives of the No campaign in tomorrow’s blog post. Today I am concerned with what feels like a dangerously hysterical mood in Scotland. Another disclaimer: I know many people have decided that Yes is a risk worth taking because they believe it is a chance to create a fairer nation. But I fear many others are being encouraged to vote Yes on the basis of promises, many of which – to put it charitably – will be difficult to meet. See impartial analysis on Scotland’s Decision: 16 Questions to think about before the referendum on 18 September 

As a no voter I see straight questions asked of Alex Salmond as rational and reasonable. But I hear even the most sensible yes voters responding with incredulity: how can we not grasp the opportunity of a lifetime, the chance to build a new fairer nation, a beacon of hope to the wider world? Others angrily dismiss any counter-argument as quisling scaremongering,  and worse.  “Attacking moderates,” observes Douglas Coupland “…is a common political tactic used by members of extreme orthodoxies”

I have never been to a revivalist meeting but I imagine the mood is much like the campaign trail: Scotland’s oil will keep flowing. Yes.  Scotland’s GDP will keep growing. Yes. Scotland’s old, sick and young will be well provided for. Yes.  What if the banks go south, Scotland will keep the pound. Yes. Scotland will keep higher education free.  Yes.  (except maybe for the English).  Yes.  Scotland with 100% control of health, education, law, transport and (well, see Scottish Parliament website for the rest)  is already a better place. But it can be so much better as a self-determining nation.  Hallelujah.

I have a message for the Scots: Be afraid, be very afraid. The risks of going it alone are huge. You may think that Scotland can become another Canada, but it’s all too likely that it would end up becoming Spain without the sunshine.  Paul Krugman, New York Times

No room for doubt, no time for questions about how Scotland will pay for all this milk and honey and how long it might take.  The fire of optimism inspires misty eyed romance in all kinds of people, including (to my regret) those I greatly respect.  At a Fringe event I heard a gentle poet explaining his love for Scotland.  A well travelled, thoughtful man, he described his epiphany on the wind-blasted moors of the Borders.  What a miserable place, he had thought, but this is what made me, this is where I belong.  Fair enough.  But he then made an odd leap, reading his poem about Scotland’s chance to create its own history instead of following in the slipstream of another nation.

Was that the slipstream that carried Scots to carve out the Ulster plantations in 1609 under  a Scottish king on the English throne? The slipstream that bore young Scots West to earn a fortune on slavery plantations in the Caribbean, and East to build the British Empire in India?  The slipstream that flooded the whole of Britain and much of the rest of the world with Scottish politicians, trade unionists, engineers, soldiers, artists, explorers, musicians, missionaries, cartographers, comedians.  Some slipstream.

Perhaps a poet has a licence to play with history. What explanation is there for Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winning economist? There was an unmistakably romantic look in his eye when he spoke of Scotland’s vision for a more equal society.  He was clearly flustered when a woman in the audience pointed out that free tuition for higher education was a form of middle class welfarism (I borrow the term from the Guardian’s Peter Hetherington). It had produced no increase in students from poorer backgrounds and, indeed, came at the cost of 130,000 further education college places and cuts to school budgets: less not more equality.  But how should the US economist know such facts? As a member of the Fiscal Commission on the Council of Economic Advisors he hears what the Scottish Government chooses to tell him and they possibly didn’t draw his attention to the further education budget.

Keep the pound? Scots, What the Heck? Not everyone is convinced. Paul Krugman another Nobel Prize winning economist in the New York Times, makes it quite clear – something the Scottish media have largely failed to do –  that currency union is not fiscal independence.

This morning, after another sleepless night, I read in the Financial Times (The World is saying No to Scottish Independence) Philip Stephen’s eloquent and astute analysis of Alex Salmond’s skilful manipulation of a mood of discontent. In an age of globalisation many people seek comfort in nationalism. Salmond is to Scotland what Farage is to England, a guileful politician playing populist mood music.  From a distance, says Stephens, the rest of the world watches with dismay. They ask just one question.  WHY?

“The truth is,” writes Stephens, “that it is hard to imagine a moment during the past 300 years when it would have been more foolish for the nations of Britain to separate. Prosperity and security in an age of great power competition belongs to those comfortable with multiple identities – the ones who bind themselves together in shared endeavour.”

Cry the divided country. In a state of over-optimistic excitement, Scotland risks making an irreversible decision based on the fever of the moment, not facts.


  1. fay

    Why not Ian? One of my frustrations with the referendum debate is that Yes make grand claims for a great tomorrow on very flimsy evidence yet take great pleasure in demolishing any sign of a grand vision from the No side. Nothing is impossible if there is a will to make it happen. Who would have thought just seven years ago that Yes would be on the verge of successfully separating Scotland from the rest of the UK?

  2. fay

    You’re right Fred, Devo Max is not a simple cure-all solution, in fact Gavin McCrone concludes that it not a good option and that some version of Devo Plus would be better (Scottish Independence: Weighing up the Economics – another very good book).

    So certainly not a quick fix. But I can’t see that independence will be quick either and without going back down that argument the outcome, or political complexion of the new state, cannot be certain either. Ultimately global capitalism is a severe restraint on even the most progressive government policy.

    I know, you and I are not going to persuade each other to change our minds at this stage. One thing I totally agree with, Better Together has fought a dismal and clumsy campaign (with or without misinformation). But neither Better Together nor Westminster are why I’m voting NO.

    My voluntary work takes me into the Scottish Parliament with a variety of community groups and I see great potential for delivering progressive change through devolution. Not so exciting for people who want full blown independence but I actually think it could deliver benefits to those most in need more quickly and safely given today’s economy.

    Look at the time already! Better get to work. thanks for considerate responses!

  3. Ian Fraser

    And I agree with Fred that promises of enhanced devolution in the event of “No” vote are not worth the paper they aren’t printed on. Backbench Tory MPs have already signalled their opposition. And Federalism, which would break the Westminster feeding trough for good, just ain’t going to happen.

  4. Ian Fraser

    Overall one could summarize it as follows

    -We have had misinformation, lies, deceit and naked propaganda from both sides, with the lies of the No camp more likely to be amplified by the “mainstream” media. Just look at the Daily Telegraph at the moment!

    -A great many people don’t really have sufficient intellectual resources or information of their on on which to make a considered judgement. (and the task is clearly made more difficult by the absurd grandstanding on by politicians on both sides of the debate)

    -So Scots voters tend to drift towards where their pre-existing prejudices take them and then believe the crap they are told by that side of the debate and denounce the other side as liars and conmen.

    A sorry state of affairs, but one might argue that is where we are at.

    However I do look at it slightly differently. It can basically be summarized as a fight between hope and fear.

  5. fay

    Ian you seem to be ignoring my explanation: I am not sneering at people voting Yes, I am criticising the YES campaign which I think misleads people. As Fred says NO have also said some stupid things but Yes has been particularly effective at controlling debate. Whatever the result, I fear it will take a lot of time and great statemanship from our political leaders to heal the wounds. Lets hope they can meet our needs.

  6. Fred Shedden

    Thanks for the reply Fay. We have different views on this and neither is likely to persuade the other at this stage. But I do think it is unhelpful to imply that misleading statements are coming only from the Yes camp. Both sides are it and most voters know that. For many it will be down to who do they trust to put Scotland’s interests first? That is not my approach but I think will be the approach of many voters.
    At the risk of prolonging the debate can I just comment on Devo Max? In the event of a No vote nobody knows what additional powers may or may not be given to the Scottish Parliament. The No side have had 2 years to come up with proposals but have not done so. We have had a variety of different suggestions from different political parties but there is no consensus and no certainty that any proposals for further powers would be approved by the House of Commons and the House of Lords. After a No vote the focus at Westminster would quickly shift to the forthcoming General Election and there aren’t many English votes to be gained by promising more powers to Scotland. But in any event Devo Max would leave foreign policy, defence policy, immigration policy, welfare policy, most taxation powers (including petroleum revenue tax) and much, much more in the hands of Westminster. I fear that tinkering with the devolution settlement will not satisfy anyone. And a more radical move towards a federal structure is just not going to happen – or at least is not going to happen in our lifetimes. How many attempts have there been over the decades to reform the House of Lords which frankly ought to be a relatively simple matter? Instead we have record numbers of unelected peers. The Establishment’s ability to hang on to power should never be underestimated.
    Anyway I’m sorry to have taken up even more of your time. I shall not feel offended if you do not comment further!

  7. Ian Fraser


    What I said was you were “implying” that all Yes voters are deranged, with your references to “hysteria”, “romanticism” and “fever-ish” mindset. You were clearly misrepresenting, almost sneering, at the vast numbers of people who intend to vote for greater self-determination. The thing you seem to ignore is that remaining with the UK also brings a huge amount of uncertainty given the very real risk of a Brexit vote in 2017, the rise of UKIP, the huge and unsustainable debt, the growing inequalities, the greater commitment to neoliberal policies which, one might have thought would have been discredited after the global financial crisis of 2008.

    Perhaps the Yes campaign has over-hyped independence and being disingenuous about the short term turbulence is likely to be caused by the post Yes vote and pre-declaration of independence negotiations. But one thing I can assure you is that once the heat of the campaign dies down a bit, it is likely that pragmatism will prevail between rUK and Scotland in their discussions over things like currency, oil, debt, etc. We’re all British after all.

    You also make no reference to the disgusting hypocrisy of David Cameron on the one hand coming to Edinburgh last Monday to “love bomb” Scottish Widows workers and others, while in the background he is desperately seeking to corral big business – including banks and supermarkets – to convey the impression that Scotland is going to be some sort of tabula rasa if Scots have the temerity to vote for independence. Think about it.

    Andy Myles, the former chief executive of the Scottish Lib Dems has written quite a good piece on Cameron’s outrageous and anti-democratic “shock and awe” strategy here. I urge you to read it.

    Also I just wanted to say that when, on my original comment above, I wrote this….

    P.S. I do accept I wrote this on 2 September however. it was deliberately provocative and with the benefit of hindsight probably ill-judged.

    …. I was referring not to the first three paragraphs of my comment above but to the last three paras and bullet points, underneath the postscript, of the comment above. These were the exact words I put Facebook on 2 September, and which have since solicited 245 comments and 26b shares – a record for any post I have done. At least one of the comments was from Ray and I think you commented too! I may have been tetchy in some of my response, but some of the less thoughtful NO voters were getting to me. If so I apologise.

  8. fay

    And thanks for recommended reading Ian, hope to find time later today.

    My last reply was long so I’ll just briefly pick up two more points from your previous comments.
    Was I rude about Professor Stiglitz. Maybe. I was also deeply disappointed to hear a man I greatly admire seemingly so seduced by the romanticism of Scotland – he spoke about the Enlightenment and enclosures (not clearances) as if these two were peculiar to Scotland. And he was quite clearly taken aback by the information that further education places have been cut. The very opposite of the equal learning society he passionately seeks to promote.

    As you say yourself, your description of the middle class herds flocking to vote No is deliberately provocation. I choose not to be provoked because in my voluntary work in Leith I am in close contact with many different minority communities. Some of the truly remarkable people I work with are voting Yes. Many others are voting No for equally carefully considered reasons, not least because they feel solidarity and kinship with like minds south of the border.

  9. fay

    Good morning Ian, thank you for the opportunity to respond directly to your comments.
    I have not said that people who are voting Yes are deranged and I am sorry if my language gives that impression. Let me try to clarify my argument.
    I have no beef with people who are voting Yes because – for a variety of different (and sometimes conflicting) reasons – they genuinely want independence.
    My beef is with the campaign which is not open or honest about the inevitable risks of separating from the rest of the UK. My gathering anxiety about the increasingly hysterical atmosphere is that it prevents balanced or fair discussion. I have seen and heard the bullying tactics used to silence or ridicule people who ask questions out of genuine concern or confusion about what independence will mean. Answers from the SNP and much of Yes Scotland are evasive.

    This is not freedom of expression. My earlier blog post on this subject What Sort of Scotland? was more moderate (and hardly anyone read it). But it raised similar concerns.

    I think perhaps a third of Scotland has long wanted to be an independent nation. That is their belief and it is their democratic right to vote for it in the referendum. I think perhaps a further ten per cent are more recent converts (yourself included?) and that includes a mix of green, red and purple concerns – the chosen colours of environmentalists, creatives, and disaffected Labour or far left voters – who are more sceptical but see a break with the Union as a way to create their individual visions of a fairer more equal society. I think that may be a serious misjudgement but again it is your democratic right to vote for it.

    My serious concern is with the increasing numbers, perhaps another ten per cent or more, who are being targeted and encouraged to vote Yes with promises of great rewards and benefits. I fear they are being misled. Again, if they are able to weigh up all the risks and decide they still want to go for it then that is their democratic right. But bullying tactics and the hysterical atmosphere are not conducive to a fair assessment of risks.

    No-one denies that Scotland could make a go of it. But most objective opinion agrees that it will take time and it will not be easy to make the transition. I fear the most vulnerable people will be the ones who will suffer most and it may be a long time before they experience the rewards you envisage. You might not be voting for Salmond but the very competent and ambitious SNP leadership will be managing Team Scotland and ultimately shaping Scotland Ltd. It is worth remembering that new converts also include some pretty rightwing opportunists.

  10. Ian Fraser

    I’d also suggest you read this by Anthony Barnett:-

    Best regards, Ian

  11. Ian Fraser

    What you are saying about advocates of self determination including Stiglitz is unacceptable.

    You do seem to be implying we are all deranged and hysterical. You are also quite rude about Professor Joseph Stiglitz implying with your statement that he only listens to the what the Scottish Government tells him, that he is Salmond’s poodle. I had dinner with him after the lecture and I can assure you he is not.

    The desire of nearly half of Scottish voters to prefer to stick with the Union is something I find bizarre and disappointing
    But I do not characterise their preference for a – far from certain – status quo as a sign of derangement. .

    P.S. I do accept I wrote this on 2 September however. it was deliberately provocative and with the benefit of hindsight probably ill-judged.

    Astonishing/tragic how may of Scotland’s middle class professionals are—currently—intending to vote in a herd like way, without even thinking about the issues, or the opportunities that will arise from Scottish independence. Most have closed their eyes and ears and will unthinkingly trudge to their polling station on 18th September in order to vote “No”, and will most likely do so:-

    out of nostalgia for a UK which no longer really exists;

    paranoia that Scotland will become like Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela within minutes of a “Yes” vote;

    a receptive ear to the scaremongering of big business and its Westminster lickspittles;

    a misguided belief that a vote for “Yes” is a vote for Salmond;

    a fear that past privilege is less threatened by the status quo.

    Hopefully, over the next couple of weeks, one or two of them will see the light and recognise that tomorrow matters and that an independent Scotland CAN help to create a better future for all.

  12. fay

    Thanks Peter, I’ve never been good at betting but I do hope you are right. I’ve got so many things I need to get on with at work and home but this referendum is occupying every moment of the day. And rather too much of the night.

  13. fay

    Fred, apologies for the delay. To be honest I was unprepared for a surprising number of people reading my blog post, written from the heart earlyish yesterday morning after another sleepless night.

    First a quick personal response. I hate what the referendum is doing to Scotland. I feel that people with broadly the same desires for social justice are being forced on either side of a false divide.So many people I like and respect are voting Yes for pretty much the same reason I am voting No.

    Second, I am sure many people like you are not voting in ‘blind faith’.( I take responsibility for loose wording in a polemic )
    I realise many people like you are voting in full knowledge that there may be difficult times ahead. Like myself you understand the political system and know that change will not come quick or easy. Correct me if I am wrong but I think perhaps a third of the population of Scotland has long supported the cause of independence for Scotland. That’s conviction.

    My concern is that many people are being targeted to vote Yes with promises of certain benefits – and that these may be people least likely to be able to withstand the difficulties of transition.

    Unlike you, I cannot believe that in the 21st century the way forward is through the small nation state but that might be a subject for another day.

    Scotland already has powers to improve quality of life and reduce inequality. The Scottish Government already makes choices of how to spend and the ScotlandAct2012 increases powers of how to raise money. Holyrood could empower people by returning more decision making to local authorities.

    It is all a work in progress because that is the nature of democracy. Devo Max offers more powers – and responsibility – and although it is not ‘independence’ it is still a big step forward.

    It’s late. Another sleepless night beckons. I long for this campaign to end but I know that, whatever the result, the 19th September will not bring a quick resolution. Those of us who seek social justice have a constant struggle. And i have a family to care for and a wee business to grow!

  14. fay

    Fred, I was hanging on your every word 🙂 Trying to compose an elegant reply but I might just need a drink first.

  15. Peter

    Great summary of how I’m feeling Kay. I’ll be glad when it’s all over and I just hope the bookies odds are a better reflection than the polls. Currently 1/4 for a No vote.

  16. Fred Shedden

    Someone just pointed out that my previous comment stopped in mid-sentence. Apologies – just ignore the unfinished sentence. It should have been deleted. I was going on to make another point but decided that I had rambled on for long enough.

  17. Fred

    I’m always a bit taken aback when it’s suggested I’m voting Yes on the basis of “blind faith” as if by voting No I could somehow predict the future with great certainty. I don’t think my best friend would describe me as a wild-eyed optimist. I am deeply cynical, suspicious of what politicians tell us and by nature cautious. I have no idea whether Scotland will be better or worse off after independence. Neither does anyone else despite assertions to the contrary from both sides. It will depend on how we vote in subsequent elections, how our elected politicians implement the policies we vote for, what’s going on in the world economy generally and so on. In any event this is not just about economics.
    Scotland has been a nation for centuries. The normal state of affairs all over the world is that nations govern themselves. We ceded sovereignty to Westminster more than 300 years ago. It’s about time to recover our sovereignty so that Scotland can take its place in the world again as a nation state. I cannot understand why it is right for small countries like Greece, Malta, Norway, Ireland and so on and so on to be sovereign, self-governing states but wrong for Scotland.
    Democracy is a messy business. Sadly politicians will often let us down. But it’s time for Scotland to take its own decisions and to take responsibility for its own mistakes. I don’t think that’s hysterical.

    My approach has li

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