Being British

I was toying with the idea of going along to an independence referendum public meeting in Perth last night. I changed my mind when I looked at a Facebook discussion started by the chairman. He was asking for possible questions. Almost all of the suggestions were loaded questions that would set the supporters of either side applauding, but which the politicians have heard many times before. They would produce formulaic answers and no-one would learn anything new.

I was thinking about going to ask one question, targeted at Better Together. It would have been a rather long and convoluted question, about the tone of their campaign, so I’m setting my thoughts down here. This has been building up in me throughout the campaign.

My wife, Mary, and I won’t be in Scotland on 18th September. We’ll be in the Netherlands, for the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem. My 21 year old father fought there, and we’re going to honour his memory.

Dad didn’t serve in one of the Scottish regiments. He was in the glider artillery, and his mates were mostly English, with some Scots, Welsh and Irish. His wartime experiences defined him. They shaped the rest of his life, and the way he led it.

It was a narrow decision that brought him back to Dundee when he was demobbed in York. On the spur of the moment he took a northbound train, rather than one to the south where he had friends and opportunities.

Many years later, after he’d married and had three sons, the family did move south. I was eight years old when we left Stirling for London. I didn’t return to Scotland till I was 23. When I was 13 we moved to York, where I finished my schooling. I then went to Lancaster University. After graduating I worked for a year in York before heading back to Stirling University for a post-graduate course.

My father’s job eventually brought my parents back to Scotland. The career of my elder brother finally took him to Edinburgh. Our moves meant that each of the three sons has a different accent. My younger brother never went to school in Scotland and has an English accent. He’s a university lecturer in Wales now.

My family story means I’m entirely Scottish, but British in a way that few Scots are. I am the product of an excellent English education, and I was comfortably settled in both South London and Yorkshire, two areas I still have huge affection for. When I was last in Yorkshire, in October, Mary was amused to see me slipping easily back into the groove with old schoolfriends.

For my family it was always natural to move around the UK, following opportunities, knowing we’d fit in. I can therefore respond to emotional pulls from both sides of the debate. I’m used to being pulled in two directions. It’s not uncomfortable; it’s an entirely natural result of my upbringing.

However, only the Yes camp are able to reach me and communicate a vision of a country I’d want to live in. It should be the easiest of tasks for Better Together to sell their message to me too. My family is a perfect living example of their core message. Sadly the core message has been almost entirely lost. Lip service is paid to the message in their name. A sense of community and shared values occasionally does float to the surface of the campaign, but it always appears to be an embarrassing mistake.

Better Together don’t seem to have any shared values beyond the obvious ones that all democrats in Scotland share. All they can agree on is their loathing for the SNP, and Alex Salmond in particular. All that matters is stopping the SNP. There’s certainly no glimpse of the sort of country that Scotland could be in the UK.

I expect Better Together to win, but I fear that it will be a Pyrrhic victory. Success will be defined as denying the SNP their victory, but there’s no apparent interest in the consequences.

What will victory be worth if Better Together destroy any faith in Britain? The campaign has been so relentlessly negative that Better Together have been the ones trashing the image of England and Britain. What if people vote against independence not because they want to be British, not because they doubt an independent Scotland has the resources and ability to survive, but because Better Together have convinced them that the rest of the UK would thwart Scotland?

One certain consequence of Better Together’s strategy is that I’m convinced I don’t want the bleak, machine politicians from their campaign running my country. The Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats all have decent, competent and potentially inspirational people within their ranks. Sadly they’ve been sidelined. Their voices are occasionally heard, but they’re drowned out by the relentless drumbeat of negativity from the official apparatchiks.

Gordon Brown, Rory Stewart and Charles Kennedy have all chipped in with attractive and thoughtful contributions to the independence debate. I don’t agree with all they’ve said, but they’re telling stories I can engage with. When they speak they make me think. If I don’t agree I have to analyse my reasons. When Better Together crank up the megaphone I now just sigh and switch off.

I’m not going to get into the detailed economic and grubby political arguments for either side. On balance I feel that an independent Scotland would have been successful if it had taken the plunge 50 years ago. Now? I’m far from convinced the timing’s right, and I’m sceptical about whether the attention and resources that the change would require are justified. Is it a massive distraction from far more pressing social, economic and environmental problems? Perhaps, maybe even probably, although I see little evidence that the three main parties at Westminster are serious about tackling these problems.

So when Mary and I arrive in Arnhem in September I will probably have cast a vote for independence. It will be with a heavy heart, but I increasingly feel that throwing my lot in with the miserable crew that is Better Together will leave me with a heavier heart. Looking back over my life that still rather surprises me.