Speaking in London last week, I encountered astonishingly ill-informed animosity towards anything animal, vegetable or mineral to be found north of the Border.
After 40-plus years in politics, I didn’t think I could be surprised by audience reaction to an idea, whether good or bad, from my point of view. I’ve refereed disputes between councillors and council taxpayers, and I’ve debated and spoken in town halls, universities and colleges, schools and specially hired halls – some of them in England.
Often these “out of country” meetings were quite testing, but I came away pretty sure that the audience were better informed about political debate and priorities north of the Border. Some pro-Union supporters intone the same old mantra about a shopkeeper from Doncaster in the audience having more in common with a shopkeeper in Dundee than the Dundonian has in common with the Earl of Strathearn. That was always a simplistic debating point, and after my visit to London last week to speak in a rather prestigious debate, I’m now convinced it is most certainly untrue.
The debate was entitled “Time to let Scotland go”. The Kensington hotel auditorium held about 400 people, many of whom were wearing “country in the city” clothes associated with the well-heeled as opposed to the down at heel. I was looking forward to crossing rhetorical swords with Malcolm Rifkind, a friend for four decades.
As always, there were no holds barred as we tested each other’s arguments for and against Scottish independence, but questions from the audience and the language in which they were framed introduced an element of intense dislike, bordering on hatred, of any speaker putting the positive Scottish case. The audience was, in the main, old enough to have bus passes, but there was a fair sprinkling of bright young things out to enjoy themselves, by denigrating and diminishing anything Scottish.
As far as the bus pass generation was concerned, the Scots are lazy, brazen freeloaders. The atmosphere was fetid at times, with accusations that the Caledonian cousins voted for craven politicians who played along and made every public programme free. It was quite useful from my perspective to see oorsels as ithers see us because there’s no doubt about the difficulty that lies ahead in maintaining the standards of care attempted by every Scottish Government to date.
But the members of the audience who were most enthusiastic in their denunciation of “free education” weren’t interested in probing the reasons for Scotland’s moving away from a consensus with England on the secondary school curriculum and the length of time needed to turn out ordinary and honours degrees. They simply wanted to vent their stored up sense of grievance that this Scottish Parliament they had quite forgotten is alive and kicking and spending their tax pounds on free services they pay for in England.
Particular condemnation of Scots’ behaviour was expressed when discussing people who lived on this side of the Border, and in snatched moments between exercising their right to free eye tests, receiving help with washing and related personal care services and picking up their free prescription, nipped over to England to work.
That’s exactly the attitude towards the Border I hope we achieve when we become two states. If we do, the people who live along the line on the map that marks “whaur England’s province stands” will continue to treat the Border as a local attraction for visitors, and themselves as English or Scottish or Borderers. But, above all, they won’t allow their lives and relationships to be determined by an administrative convenience.
Right now, one of the slightly desperate exhortations of the pro-Union “No” campaign is the imperfectly understood reason for our brave, new, independent Scotland continuing to be called the United Kingdom, Britain or, more likely, England, in some quarters. What other people call us doesn’t matter much. People from countries that haven’t done business with Scotland, for example, might not follow our constitutional journey very closely, but we’ll know who we are.
Jamaica and Barbados, for example, know who they are in spite of others being a bit hazy. Collectively, these countries are happy to be known as the West Indies because, when they need to, they can act alone.
I’m impatient for Scots to reach that state of grace and I hope everyone on both sides of the referendum remembers that, whatever the outcome, we’re all Scots who love and care about Scotland. The way in which independence is won determines the fairness and tolerance that should influence what others think of us.