Brian Monteith: History tells us to keep fighting

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Scotland will soon be independent, whether you like it or not. All resistance will be futile and therefore pointless – so don’t bother.

That is about the sum of the argument from former arch-unionist MP and diehard opponent of devolution, Tam Dalyell.

With friends like him unionists don’t need enemies.

This week Tam told unionists such as myself that the game was up the pole, and that Scotland’s independence was “inevitable” – all because the creation of the democratic Scottish Parliament 12 years ago would lead to the further acquisition of powers thus delivering independence in all but name.

Well, he would say that wouldn’t he? As the man who once said devolution was “a motorway to independence with no U-turns and no exits”, were he to say anything different now it would be an admission he was wrong – and that’s not something Tam is well known for.

Many will remember the hounding he gave Margaret Thatcher for agreeing to the sinking of the Argentinian cruiser, Belgrano, with the loss of 323 lives. Fewer have probably read of the Argentinian evidence that shows Thatcher’s decision to be well judged because the Belgrano was only holding off from attack for tactical reasons.

Tam never apologised to Maggie, the man is not for turning.

Saying a certain direction in political travel is inevitable, that one event must naturally follow another, is a pointless exercise and in Tam’s case is no more than self-serving rhetoric.

It used to be said that, when Labour came to power and the Euro was launched across the European Union, Britain’s membership would be inevitable. How wrong.

How smug the Euro advocates were. How good the Euro was for Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece et al. It would be inevitable that we would join them. Well, I don’t see or hear anyone saying Britain’s membership of the Euro is inevitable now.

Indeed, the discussion is about how to save the Euro, how to rescue the economies of countries such as Ireland, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy, and how it could be better for them to be outside the Euro and for the currency to no longer have them. Inevitability looks a ridiculous argument now.

The Euro is not the sole example. It was said in the 60s that Britain, soon to be known as the sick man of Europe, would continue its inevitable economic decline and that anyone with a bit of sense or a concern for their families should emigrate to Canada, Australia or South Africa.

I recall the doom merchants telling us how in the 70s, as one former colonial country after another fell like dominoes to Marxist rule, western capitalism would inevitably succumb to the growth of international communism. Neither of these political developments was inevitable – although there were certainly times when the arguments for these predictions seemed stacked in their favour.

It was famously said by Labour shadow minister George Robertson that “devolution would kill nationalism stone dead” – as if one event inevitably would follow another. It didn’t, because it couldn’t.

The inescapable fact is that people change the course of history and that for anyone to say with certainty that Scotland will become independent of the UK, either by sleepwalking into it or marching into it with gusto, is sheer arrogance. No-one can know the future.

That is not to say that independence will not, or cannot, happen. It can and it might.

There will be a referendum within the next five years – something that I have been calling for over the last decade – and this will give people in Scotland a say in what should happen. It is about time for it should put the matter to rest for at least a generation so politicians can focus on the real issues of alleviating poverty, rectifying injustice and protecting us from those who wish us ill – at home or abroad.

The problem for unionists is that they are their own worst enemies. Rather than construct the winning arguments about why the union deserves to be maintained (in a nutshell, we are stronger together and weaker apart) there are too many conceding defeat before the first cannon has been fired in anger – like Tam Dalyell – or taking their victory for granted and doing nothing.

The minority appeal of Scottish independence has not fundamentally shifted because an SNP government has been elected. While that may change there is also the possibility that the government could become highly unpopular. We cannot tell which.

In five years’ time there is every possibility we might have a new prime minister, a new colour of government and even a new monarch as the head of our nation. How can we say what effect such events – and what caused them – will have on the Scottish public’s attachment to Great Britain?

From where I’m standing most of us remain comfortable being Scottish and British – that may change, but in which direction?

“Nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes”, Benjamin Franklin famously wrote. Tam Dalyell would serve his beliefs well by remembering that and continuing the fight for the union instead of consigning it to history.