Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Herald. September 17, 2014.

Sometimes the big world takes heed of stateless people. Out there, the condition is understood. It falls, inexactly, not far short of homelessness. The person without a country is reckoned to be alone, a waif and a stray, lost.

I have a country. I can see bits of it from my window, green and gold now in the September sun. Some of what's out there is beauty enough to fill any heart. Some of it is brutal enough, bad enough, to cut a heart into bleeding pieces. One fact sits beside the other. The beauty is permanent; the rest is man-made.

There's plenty of history out there, a lot of what was, what used to be. In five minutes I could walk a fishers' track reputed – though who's counting? - to have moulded itself to trudging feet for a thousand years. Go up the road and the land rises around an ancient church. Here the dead in their mounds push upwards. On some of the stones there is one of my names. It's common enough in these parts.

If needs be, I can find the usual sources to remind me that this portion of an island group amounts to 78,387 square kilometres. That's little enough. Three languages are spoken within the patch. Close to 5.3 million people live upon it. Here's a next-to-nothing country on a planet in thrall to the big and mighty. So we live in a providential place that ceased to be a state 307 years ago.

That's a kind of homelessness. Or rather, the fact imposes a weird, dislocated sense of being homeless at home, a refugee abroad, one of those forever submerged in nostalgia for a place that has not been alive in centuries. This Scotland is spectral, an after-image. Ours is, persistently, a sentimental attachment to a footnote.

Landscapes and history do not qualify as argument. You need to reckon with four categories: country, people, nation and state. We can map the first, count the second, and remember that no one argues now about the third. Statehood is Scotland's phantom limb. Tomorrow, for the first time since country, people and nation earned their names, we get a vote on our loss.

Objections, well-rehearsed, are instant. One goes by the name of the United Kingdom. After 307 years we are enmeshed, they say, within a web of relationships banal and profound. To hear it told, I couldn't disentangle myself if I wanted to. That's true and obvious. Besides, I have no such desire. You do not shrug off three centuries like an old, tattered coat.

You would need to become speechless. You would need to surrender to amnesia. You would need to sever bonds and roots. You would need to ignore the organic reality of economies. You would need to forget affections, art, shared suffering, mutual endeavours. No one in their right mind attempts such a thing.

But Britain, the familiar name, doesn't answer. What have we heard time and again in this argument? We have heard people boast of the pride and comfort they take in a conjoined identity. Identity politics, once damned as divisive, is back in vogue now that Britain is at stake. For this voter, though, the identity insisted upon, the home strip and away strip, is peculiar. It doesn't fit.

The Union's defenders have homilies by heart. To be Scottish and British is to be a partner in something bigger, better, and – though the word is not dared – more civilised. Scotland does nothing but gain. If not, all is a challenge to be met, as the glowing word reminds you, together. No loss is ever mentioned.

A second claim runs that in a globalised world statehood is an affectation. The nation-state, that 19th century notion, is redundant. You can't buck the markets, or the big and mighty. Power and ownership, like a state to call your own, no longer signify amid the universal brands, the imperial software, and the war-fighting coalitions of the willing.

I dissent. I neither agree nor accept. Statehood matters. Dozens of small nations on every continent have suffered more than Scots will ever suffer to claim the right. Once achieved, it is not surrendered. Why? How many of Britain's colonies have volunteered to return to mother's embrace? Are the Irish in the queue, the Indians, the Jamaicans, the Canadians?

Most of the countries in the world are small. Most do better for their people – and for people everywhere – than the big and mighty. Most do better than a north European island group still lost in dreams of days when it, too, was big and mighty. Why break up the United Kingdom? Because, in this 21st century, such things must be broken up, for the common good. The only thing worse than Great Powers are those with pretensions to stay in a murderous club.

Even the biggest pay lip service to the ideal of self-determination. After all, who'd dare meddle with their right to choose? Try that at home, however, and Her Majesty's Government will send round her trans-national enforcers. Statehood for those who are not big, mighty, and bent on empire is the last, best weapon against the feudal conspiracy called globalisation.

No matter. I can keep it simple instead. The British state, its nuclear weapons and its perpetual wars, is hideous. The conviction that Dickens was the greatest novelist to have breathed is no counterweight. The behaviour of that state over the last fortnight has been proof enough of bad faith. The only idea has been to harry an electorate into submission.

To the charge sheet you could add endemic, institutionalised corruption, the self-perpetuating Oxbridge elite, the fealty to the City, the brutality towards the poor, the veneration of stolen wealth, the local military-industrial complex, the decadence of the Commons, all the media stooges, and a contempt for – because they mean you - “the provinces”.

In this, promises of a renewed Union barely pass as decent fiction. Ground through the Westminster mill, those meaningless, last-minute vows will be dust before the year is over if Scotland votes No. The British state is managing a problem, not renewing a rotting democracy.

Anyone who does not admit to knowing as much does not want to know. They should ask themselves a question instead. Why is a referendum happening, 307 years on? Why is there agitation still? Surely by now, in the 21st century, the benefits of Union would be so obvious, and the bonds of affection so tight, as to make dissent ridiculous? That's not the case. Scotland, as an argument, refuses to disappear.

Where questions are concerned, the country that votes tomorrow is granted an equivalence. Simply this: it might be the last chance. The hope and memory of statehood has endured for three centuries, but they won't grant another ballot. Be sure of it. If the vote is No, Scotland will fade, slowly and surely and finally, from the community of nations. It will disappear like a bleached, inarticulate photograph of by-gone times, a curio for tourists, a lost thing.

The past has made us. Our future can only be heard in the shout of a single word. Aye.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sunday Herald. September 14, 2014.

On Thursday, if you reside in Scotland, you can participate in the only vote on independence the country has ever been allowed. That, right there, is the big deal.

It may be you are one of 200,000 who voted by post before panic-stricken Better Together parties cobbled together another “offer” of nothing much. You might, rightly enough, be unhappy about that. It doesn't alter the rule. One person gets one vote.

Though they protest otherwise, the rule doesn't sit well with those who think they run your world. For them, being in charge of companies with numerous employees means the chance to influence numerous votes. If the firm in question matters to the wider economy, chances multiply.

The conceit isn't covered by the usual definitions of democracy. In fact, the idea that you can be told how to vote by those who serve only the City is one good reason why a referendum was essential. The United Kingdom, that land of liberty, does not tolerate these outrages so much as demand them.

The kingdom has become one giant rotten borough. Finance, business, corporate interests – all the euphemisms for money – took control of Westminster long ago. The self-interest is blatant, yet passed off as “wealth creation”. The crimes are heinous, yet no punishments follow. Still the boardroom nomenklatura expect to be obeyed.

You might call it a reason to be shot of the UK. Could Scotland do better? That's the wrong question. Instead we should ask: could Scotland, in reason, refuse to try? If the word “fairness” is being heard everywhere in these last days before the vote, we should consider the companies claiming the right, with menaces, to tell us how to think.

Last week, the bigger beasts piled into the referendum argument. RBS, the Lloyds group, Standard Life, BP, even the co-operative sorts at John Lewis: without saying as much – for they dared not – they let it be known that the consequences of Yes would be dire. The threat, plainly co-ordinated, bore but the wisp of a veil: vote for independence and you'll be sorry.

Had they consulted shareholders, employees, “partners”, or even – a novelty – customers? Captains of industry do not consult unless their jobs on the line. Did they rush to correct the false impression that mass job losses and price rises would follow their flight from the horror of independence? Only, in the case of the banks, after the fact, and as the law required.

For 24 hours it was a good tale for newspapers hungry for anything that might distract attention from the Yes campaign. If it later transpired that the Treasury had (allegedly) handed the BBC market-sensitive information about the intentions of RBS just to help a scare along, that could be brushed aside.

Instead, the preferred story was that Alex Salmond had been testy towards the august Nick Robinson, the BBC's political editor, at a press conference. Better still was the myth of big employers taking thousands of jobs and lots of money out of a Scotland “destabilised” by independence.

There are strands to this. One has to do with a legal responsibility to warn shareholders about the possibility – in the judgement of directors – of risk. Logically, executives are obliged to engage in contingency planning. Behind the “Banks Quit Scotland” headlines the reality was that RBS and Lloyds had laid plans to shift domiciles. In the case of the former, those involved moving its registered headquarters. Nothing less, but certainly nothing more.

After the BBC was done upsetting share prices, RBS made that much clear. In a letter to staff, the bank's chief executive, Ross McEwan, wrote that the HQ decision – if it happens – would be “a technical procedure regarding the rotation of our registered head office based on our current strategy and business plan. It is not an intention to move operations or jobs”.

Of course not. Despite any brasswork you might find in Edinburgh, Lloyds – with the remnants of Bank of Scotland in its bowels – has long had its HQ in London. RBS, that fallen giant four-fifths owned by the UK government, is a “Scottish bank” only in a formal, historical sense. It has operations based here because, as McEwan said, of “the skills and knowledge of our people”. Its true corporate identity is trans-national.

You could say the same of Standard Life and BP. They operate in many parts of the planet. Often they function in places that are less risky than downright dangerous. Somehow they cope. But when an extraordinary 97% of Scotland's adult population registers to vote in a democratic referendum, those who run these firms want us to believe they must club the panic button.

RBS, with George Osborne as its overseer, would probably claim it doesn't play with politics. So what are the risks it fears? Better Together's favourite tale is that an independent country would not be able to “stand behind” a bank with a balance sheet embracing hundreds of billions. Another collapse, we hear, would be another Darien. If not, the flight of RBS would cost Scotland millions in corporation tax.

First, the bank doesn't pay any of that, just at the moment, thanks to its parlous condition. Secondly, as Salmond explained to Robinson last week, the tax is levied according to the places in which commercial activity takes place. Unless RBS means to shut down every operation in Scotland – and it intends nothing of the kind – corporation tax is irrelevant to the argument.

For now, upwards of 80% of the shares are owned by the UK government. The risk of another RBS failure falls on London, not Edinburgh. But even that fact is not the entire truth. Who is this “lender of last resort” mentioned so often by Alistair Darling? The honest answer, for trans-national banks, is “lots of countries”.

As Business for Scotland has recalled, emergency loans of £285 billion and £115 billion were made available to RBS and HBOS respectively when global banking went to hell. Those huge sums were made available to “Scottish banks” by the US Federal Reserve. That's how the system (or scam) works. Barclays, the most English of banks, got £552 billion from the Fed. Everything depends on where a bank is doing business. The idea that such institutions exist thanks to one country is ancient history.

Those who run the things are cynical enough, nevertheless, to please their political friends and give the peasantry a scare. On Thursday afternoon the BBC's Robert Peston let it be known that David Cameron had been chatting with supermarket bosses to urge them – as the journalist tweeted – to “go public on how prices would rise in indie Scotland”. Just like that. It is not plausible to believe that RBS, Lloyds and the rest were not given the same friendly advice.

Is that what passes for democracy in Britain? Is that how you deal with a people trying to make a better society? Those are rhetorical questions. On Thursday, they will need an unambiguous answer. Better Together with the bankers and bullies of a corrupt UK? If that's still what you think, they saw you coming.

The Herald. September 13, 2014.

This morning, perhaps 12,000 members of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland and their supporters will gather on the green expanse of Edinburgh's Meadows. They will be preparing to march through the capital's streets for the sake of the United Kingdom and a campaign they call British Together. A lot of people who otherwise echo the slogan wish they wouldn't.

Evidently that rankles with the Order. They and their members, 50,000 of them in 600 lodges across the country, have been given a firm “No Thanks” by the official types at Better Together. A show of solidarity with the UK, and particularly with Orange brethren in the north of Ireland, is not wanted. Defiantly, the Order will march the streets of Edinburgh regardless. It's their Britain, too.

That fact, and all it implies, cannot be doubted. As we approach the vote, a great many people are proclaiming their Britishness. If opinion polls are right, perhaps half of Scots still assent to the idea. What's odd – and what has been odd for at least the last two years – is how few of them can manage a statement of what a belief means. A great many people with utterly contradictory claims about the UK and its values still want to say No to the alternative.

A few manage semi-mystical noises on the theme of a capacious dual identity, one that admits all who feel inclined. Those who are otherwise at each other's throats, politically, will tell you they are “relaxed” or “comfortable” with a grand coalition of the preposterously diverse. The only rule of British Club, on this account, is a desire to join the club.

As the treatment of “the oldest Protestant Christian fraternity in Scotland” would seem to show, that can't be entirely true. When Ukip's Nigel Farage came peddling his wares in the Union's name in Glasgow yesterday, the disdain from the cross-party Better Together coalition was icy. But isn't the Lodge part and parcel of a loyally British Scotland? Does Mr Farage not loom large in the politics of this Britain, if the BBC is – and you never know – to be believed?

Vote No and you vote to preserve the UK and all it contains: that's understood. So what does it contain? On the face of it, there are Labour people who style themselves progressives advocating the choice supported by Mr Farage and the Grand Orange Lodge. There are demure Liberal Democrats, otherwise fastidious about corporate predators, applauding when the bankers tell Scots how to vote. Then, memorably, there's a double act: Ruth Davidson and George Galloway.

Quite what the young voters gathered by the BBC for the televised Big, Big Debate made of that will become clear on Thursday. Mr Galloway had previously expressed a desire to be shot – his word – if he ever shared a stage with a Tory in this campaign. There is nothing new, however, under the hat. Nevertheless, the MP finds himself sharing an ambition in common with Tories, Mr Farage, and the Grand Orange Lodge. Irony doesn't cover it.

But what of Ms Davidson? Did she conclude that her new friend, the Respect member for Bradford West, has ambitions for the UK that she can tolerate? The question is not a joke. How did the leader of the Scottish Conservatives find the pairing tolerable? The tiny mystery of why Better Together preferred Mr Galloway to a Jim Murphy or a stray Lib Dem is one thing. The UK being promoted before first-time teenage voters via the BBC was a mess of absolutely contradictory propositions.

That UK is less a broad church than a gigantic cathedral full of warring schismatic factions. Should people vote No, what will they be voting for? Some Daily Telegraph souvenir Battle of Britain supplement with an imperial aftertaste? A trainload of imported Labour MPs who have just checked Wikipedia for the correct spelling of Keir Hardie? The Orange Lodge, Ukip, Mr Galloway, or something Nick Clegg said when he remembered that the Borders used to welcome Liberals?

The infinitely expanding British identity, elastic in all circumstances, might sound seductive. Multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, welcoming all: who could object? Mr Farage might. More than a few Tories certainly would. The Better Together people who have been telling Polish-Scots and others that deportation awaits if they vote Yes seem a little hazy, meanwhile, where infinite tolerance is concerned.

Each interview with Alistair Darling, chair of Better Together, brings its own entertainments. One comes, reliably, when the interviewer tries to discover how this veteran Labour figure feels about fronting a campaign for the coalition government and a rag-tag army of British patriots. The former Chancellor brushes it all aside with practised ease, of course. But the question has a point. Which Britain is he selling? Which Britain is supposed to make the heart swell with shared pride?

You could say, reasonably, that such is the nature of the campaign. On the Yes side a lot of us have become inured to repetition. Thus: the campaign isn't about Alex Salmond; his name isn't on the ballot paper; we're not voting for or against the SNP. Much of the media, and all of the London media, don't want to know. Nor do they listen to those who say they are Yes voters with no interest in nationalism, or identity, or Mr Salmond's devotion to monarchs and corporation tax cuts.

Those who find themselves on the left in Scottish political life are used to it. The slur that the SNP depends on “ethnic separatism” is just tiresome now. The idea that you could be voting Yes without the knowledge or wit to detect such a phenomenon is no better than vaguely insulting, especially when it comes from a disreputable Labour Party. But the claim that anyone of the left intent on independence is just another doomed romantic has already been answered.

You take the point, though. Why would Scottish Greens campaign alongside an SNP that makes so many claims for a carbon-based economy? Why would the Scottish Socialists support a First Minister bent on a corporation tax auction? On the face of it, the independence argument contains two motley crews, two groups forced to suppress profound differences for the sake of a single desired result. That's not the whole story.

There is a difference, a big one, between trying to preserve something that makes no sense and setting out to understand the world anew. When Labour or Mr Galloway line up with the Lodge, City bankers and Mr Farage, I know that someone is in the wrong, but I'm pretty sure it isn't me. I also know the Britain promised by these people is a thing so corrupted by its compromises and cons that there has to be a better way.

A No vote would not bother me overmuch. The fight, as Auden wrote of Voltaire, was always worth it. Scotland will be no worse off, if no better, and her children will not forget this argument soon. But still: those who would hide from the world within their fond, imagined memories of a fictitious Britain make me a little sad. They dream; they do not hope to wake.

The Herald. September 10, 2014.

When Johann Lamont, Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie stood outside Edinburgh's Dynamic Earth yesterday to announce a “delivery plan”, you half expected to be asked if anyone would be in between nine and 12 a week on Thursday to sign for the package.

In that event, I wouldn't make too many plans. The box is empty. Or rather, there's a great deal of wrapping around nothing very much. At the bottom of this gift from the parties of the Union to the voters of Scotland there is just a timetable, of sorts. The parties swear, hands on hearts, that it is utterly reliable.

The assertion provoked a few questions from the media assembled in the shadow of Arthur's Seat. Wasn't the sudden appearance of this party gift bag so very late in the day a sure sign of panic in the Better Together ranks? Why didn't the Unionist parties make this move months and years ago? What was the great announcement, in any case, if not a mere restatement of promises made previously?

The questions continued. Why, even now, could Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats not come up with a unified offer? How could voters be sure that the timetable would not be binned in the event of a No as – we can be sure – general election fever again took hold at Westminster?

A few more questions could have been added. The plan of action presented by Gordon Brown, the back-bench MP suddenly behaving as if he's Prime Minister again, is ambitious, to put it kindly, if only in its audacity. A White Paper is promised by St Andrew's Day and a draft bill by Burns Night. Forget the patronisingly daft choice of dates and the usual pledge to “consult”: is that even feasible when the three parties cannot agree on basic points?

Already there are mutterings from constitutional lawyers in Westminster and beyond. They reckon that “more powers” for Holyrood is a gesture with implications across the UK. They see a piece of major legislation requiring lots of the usual pondering. The idea that anything of the kind should be rushed through just because Labour is bleeding support in the referendum campaign is anathema. The sage types make an excellent point.

Voters might meanwhile question whether any of the Westminster parties will find reforms – whatever they might be – so desperately urgent once a No vote is in the bag. The Commons does not overflow with English Tories sympathetic to Scottish claims. None of the three parties, Labour in particular, has yielded ground on the powers that might be granted. And the objection sticks: why did no one in Better Together think any of this was vital before an opinion poll detected the rising tide of support for a Yes vote?

The permutations can be done in any way you like, but the things missing from Scotland's lucky bag are easy to list. Under no circumstances would a devolved Holyrood get a sniff of power over corporation tax, the instrument – or so Mr Brown used to say when he was cutting the thing – of job creation. Edinburgh would not be allowed near VAT. Labour is determined to withhold complete control over income tax. As for North Sea revenues, those symbols of Scotland's wealth: don't even think about it.

Even by the standards of Better Together, this is a mess. Amid the self-evident panic there is, too, a familiar arrogance towards voters. “Tell them something,” says the hard-pressed strategist, “tell them anything.” Above all, as George Osborne contrived while being interviewed by Andrew Marr at the weekend, tell the simple folk that repackaged old goods are new and irresistible.

The Chancellor, like Better Together generally, was naughty. The Scottish Referendum Act decrees that in the 28 days before polling neither of the governments party to the Edinburgh Agreement should publish new information intended to support one outcome or another, or information dealing with the referendum question, or information supporting arguments for one side or the other. So what was Mr Osborne up to? What was the unveiling of the “delivery date” if not a breach of this “purdah”?

Downing Street has a bland if flagrantly dishonest answer to that. Mr Osborne, a government minister, breached no rules, a spokesman said. The offer comes from “pro-Union parties, not the UK government”. Like it or lump it. Two of the parties making the incoherent offer happen to form the government in question, but the hair has been split, at least to the satisfaction of those bending the rules. Downing Street is meanwhile “content” - you bet – with Mr Brown's statements.

You could wonder if it matters, especially when the Better Together parties – not to mention the UK government – are floundering to stem the tide of Yes. That would miss the point. Some 200,000 postal votes were reported as returned before Mr Osborne spoke, before Mr Brown returned like Labour's Cincinnatus, and before three Scottish leaders found themselves grilled by the media. Those 200,000 voters knew nothing about any “fast-track plan” for still another devolution scheme. Whether you incline to Yes or No, that's wrong.

No one involved on the Union side – Jim Murphy, Douglas Alexander, Mr Brown himself – has bothered to do more than brush the issue aside. Had Yes Scotland been involved in such a swindle you would have heard the uproar all the way from Kirkcaldy to Westminster. When the sleight of hand is done in the sacred cause of the UK, however, we are told to look the other way.

First David Cameron insisted there could only be a “straight choice”, Yes or No. Now, desperate, he and his bedfellows would have you believe that a rejection of independence leads finally to the elusive “devomax”. Even that isn't remotely true. Nevertheless, 200,000 people are entitled to ask, “What did I just vote for?”

This is Better Together's last throw of the dice. The wailing calls of London commentators for that fabled positive case are irrelevant now. It was promised time and again and it failed to materialise. Revealingly, crushingly, none of the politicians charged with saving the UK has managed more than Mr Cameron's twee protestations of love for the Scots who decline to grant him more than one MP. Ed Miliband meanwhile asks for the Saltire to be hoisted above England's cities and towns. Perhaps he thinks people have forgotten what it looks like.

Both men will appear in Scotland today, as though to defy their miserable popularity ratings. English and Welsh Labour MPs are on their way too, to stiffen spines. But the telling statement on the state of the UK will be an act of omission: England's Tory MPs will stay away, as instructed. Having them in these parts might remind Scots of what being British means. That, reasons Better Together, will never do.

Instead, it is Mr Brown's job to shepherd former Scottish Labour voters back into the fold. While coalition politicians keep profiles lower than the horizon, the former Prime Minister is supposed to save the Union. Along the way, he might ask himself why the Labour vote strayed to begin with.

Sunday Herald. September 7, 2014.

In March, the Parliamentary Labour Party voted for the coalition government's benefits spending cap. Not just any cap, or even the principle of a cap, but George Osborne's precise, £119.5 billion punitive limit covering most things save pensions and the Jobseeker's allowance. Only 13 Labour MPs refused to follow their leadership.

Ed Miliband took this course despite warnings from Save the Children and others that the £3 billion in “savings” sought by Osborne would throw 345,000 children into poverty over the space of four years. He did not listen to campaigners who said that, once again, the disabled would be victimised. Labour's justification was that it would manage the cap with more “fairness” than Iain Duncan Smith. Such, these days, is the party's yardstick.

Obviously enough, even that achievement, if the word is deserved, would depend on Miliband winning a general election. At the time of writing, YouGov's September polls have discovered Labour leads over the Tories of between 1% and 3%. That might do, just about, if you set aside the fact that two-thirds think the leader of the Opposition is doing “badly”, and then forget that he and Ed Balls are not rated highly – to put it gently – for economic competence. Miliband is in no position to guarantee fairness to anyone.

That hasn't stopped him, of course, from throwing the word around during one of his visits. What else does he tell people who are deserting the Labour cause in the referendum argument? His party constitutes Better Together's last line of defence and the defence is crumbling. Precious few Tories would or could reject the Union that defines them. Labour people – if such a constituency still exists – need to believe that hope remains for social justice within the United Kingdom. So Miliband obliges.

The SNP, he tells us, is offering “a con”. The fact that no one will be voting for that party on September 18 is ignored, as ever. According to Miliband, “a Labour government is on the way, a Labour government with genuine proposals for social justice”. That this would also be a Labour administration capitulating in the argument over austerity, one that will abide by Osborne's spending plans in all things, one that can provide only a sketch of “more powers” for Scotland, is also overlooked.

In this country, Miliband's colleagues like to accuse the Nationalists of failing to use such powers as they already have. The argument runs that more could be spent on childcare provision, for one example, without the fuss and bother of independence. Labour fails to state what should be cut, from a Scottish budget shrunken by Osborne, to make such things possible.

They are not keen, either, to explore Jack McConnell's recent assertion that the Barnett formula will give way to a “needs-based assessment” - assessed by whom? - if there is a No vote. How this could ever sustain anyone's dream of social justice is a question unanswered. Why a country perfectly capable of independence would submit, in any case, to means-testing by a government bent on cutting its budget is another of life's mysteries.

Run your own affairs or squabble with Balls over the nation's wealth? Compete for a slice of the loaf you baked in the name of solidarity? The benefit cap vote was a sure sign of Miliband's intent. If he is elected – that gigantic “if” - there will be plenty of talk of fairness to go around, but social justice will remain a cap-in-hand affair for every part of his UK. To Scottish Labour voters choosing Yes, that sounds like the Union they know only too well.

To them, Miliband offers a faintly comical proposition: vote No for the sake of his ambitions and all will be well. If ever a plan was fraught with risk, as Better Together would otherwise say, that one leads the field. Even if you make the bet that Labour can fend off Ukip, prevail against voting habits in the English south, suppress its own worst instincts and see sense amid the austerity mania, you are left with a question. When did Miliband's party last deserve to be called progressive?

A typical Labour answer might be “It depends what you mean”. The leader would point, as he did last week, to plans for a 50p tax band and a 10p starting rate. He would assail the SNP, hypocritically, for planning to cut corporation tax after serving in government while Gordon Brown did that very thing and boasted about it. He would offer a (temporary) freeze in energy bills and then grow vague when more powers for Holyrood were mentioned.

But still: that benefits cap. Real money taken away from real people simply because Osborne means to diminish the state and because Labour no longer has the Balls to say that this is economically stupid and morally wrong.

Nothing progressive can come from a party bent on such a course. Nothing that party offers, circumscribed by expediency and electoral calculation, matches the opportunity of independence. You can have Miliband's remote hopes. Or you can rip it up and start again.

The fact raises another detail left unspoken by Labour's leader last week as he struggled to rally the troops and shore up a No vote. Nationalists themselves no longer pretend that the Yes campaign is their property. People, especially Labour people, insist noisily that their choice of independence has nothing to do with nationalism. This is fundamental.

These voters, these patient insurgents, are not interested in a Miliband policy auction. Worthless “guarantees” based on the theoretical possibility of yet another compromised Labour government no longer detain them. The point now is self-determination, not the SNP. If you want social justice in Scotland, design it yourself, argue for it, and vote for it. This is a DIY job; home assembly required.

Miliband has few choices in the matter, of course. He personifies all the contradictions of British Labour. Whom does he satisfy these days, where and how? His colleague Andy Burnham, he who set in motion the process by which Hichingbrooke hospital in Huntingdon became a privatised “operating franchise”, now warns against the privatisation of NHS England. Good for him. So below the border Labour campaigns against what was, barely five years ago, Labour policy.

No one can force a Scottish government to privatise Scotland's NHS: that has never been argued. Edinburgh's budget can be squeezed, though, and there is plenty of appetite for that, as Lord McConnell has illustrated, in Westminster. But the Labour voters turning to Yes have a still deeper understanding of reality: judge London's parties by what they have done, by what the Tories are doing, and by what Miliband would do while he serenades us with fairness. Contracts to private firms from NHS England topped £10 billion in 2013. Call it a clue.

“Trust me,” says Miliband, “I'm progressive. I ache for justice and fairness. Just ignore all the things my party has done and means to do if another generation believes a word of it.” In days of hope, the ambitions of this year's Labour leader seem like paltry things. Worse than that, they seem, because they are, all too familiar.

The Herald. September 6, 2014.

David Cameron probably wishes that, like most people, he had never heard of the 2nd Earl of Guildford, otherwise known as Lord North. The Prime Minister's 18th century predecessor didn't do such a bad job, by the standards of his day, but he did make a tiny error. He was the man who “lost America”.

In point of fact, North ceded the 13 Colonies to settlers who actually lived there, but at home his contemporaries didn't see things that way. Up at Edinburgh Castle there's an old door on which is carved the image of a scaffold and the words “Lord Nord”: you get the idea. If Scotland votes Yes Mr Cameron's Tory colleagues will be less crude, but the punishment will be just as certain.

There is no chance that impeachment – the fate that befell North – will be demanded. A leadership challenge in the modern style is the likely outcome. According to some reports, that very thing is already being discussed on the Tory back benches. For all the bland noises from Better Together, the talk is of catastrophe, humiliation, and a predicted “flood of anger”.

It's nice to be taken seriously, for a change. In any case, the chatter reflects reality. How can you continue as the Prime Minister of a United Kingdom that has ceased to be united? It speaks to the job description. It also asks a fundamental question of Mr Cameron's competence. If you can't keep Britain together, what can you do?

Perhaps for that reason, among others, the Prime Minister will have none of it. This week he told Radio 4's Today programme “emphatically” that he will not quit if Yes wins a majority. The issue at stake, he said, is “not this prime minister or that prime minister, or this party leader or that party leader. What is at stake is the future of Scotland…”

Translated, this was Mr Cameron attempting, yet again, to prevent the vote becoming a referendum on the Tories. He has a healthy appreciation of how that experiment tends to end. He has been less than prominent in the independence argument for the self-same reason. He has stayed out of it, for the most part, and avoided provoking the Scots while Labour has done the front-line work and suffered the – now considerable – damage.

Ironically, what must have seemed like tactical cleverness is now the heart of Mr Cameron's Lord North problem. If and when it all goes wrong, his unruly back-benchers will ask what became of Dave when it mattered most. They will say he took refuge behind the human shields of a Better Together campaign they derided. Most of all, they will say he was cavalier in discharging a solemn duty to the UK.

A lot of those preparing to do the talking are not much interested in what becomes of Scotland. People who have expended rhetoric on the topic of whingeing, dependent Jocks are not especially sincere when they invite Scotland to stay dependent. They'd rather take a sledge hammer to Barnett and budgets. Failing that, they will take a Prime Minister's scalp.

A Yes vote would just be another excuse to attack Mr Cameron for the sake of their real obsession, namely Europe. The catastrophe of independence – and so forth – would be an ideal opportunity to remove an obstacle, as they see it, on the road to their own referendum project. Getting the faintheart out of Downing Street in order to get the residual UK out of Europe sounds, for these Tories, like a double bonus.

Still and all these people, and many more besides, would have a point. It is unthinkable that Mr Cameron could cling on after a Yes vote. It is silly, if understandable, that he should pretend otherwise. But even on a personal level, it is hard to see how the Prime Minister can claim he would be “heartbroken” by a Yes vote yet determined to stay in his post.

The British state would be in crisis. His reputation, like his economic and defence planning, would be in ruins. Westminster would be facing the kind of upheaval it has not experienced in three centuries. It would be the sort of situation in which calls for the Queen to intervene would no longer sound quaint. And Dave would soldier on? That's risible.

It also does no service to the voters of England, whatever the “tactical” thinking. Most of what they hear about the referendum turns on explanations of how much it matters to the entire UK. This is Scotland's choice, as Mr Cameron himself would put it, but the consequences of Yes would be profound for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. We are supposed to believe, nevertheless, that the consequences wouldn't be too profound for Mr Cameron.

An English voter – or a Scottish No voter, come to that – is entitled to ask a basic question about all of this. If Mr Cameron refuses to pay the price for losing Scotland, in which circumstances would he resign? The guesses would make for an excellent parlour game, but they would not reassure anyone asking if their government is in safe hands. The evidence would be stacked high against the Prime Minister.

In fairness, Alex Salmond has also felt it necessary to say he has no intention of resigning if the vote goes against him. In this case, the mantra runs that he means to see out his term as First Minister, that he was elected in 2011 – handily, too – with a mandate to serve for five years, and serve he will. Marking a decade of his SNP leadership partnership with Nicola Sturgeon this week, Mr Salmond made his case again.

Clearly, he can't be forced to quit unless his party turns against him or, by some miracle, two-thirds of MSPs force an election. He remains a popular First Minister with a working majority. Besides, Mr Salmond and Mr Cameron are at one, for once: “it isn't about them”. But the SNP convener has spent his political life working for this referendum. Ms Sturgeon is a better than able successor in waiting. Would the First Minister really want to continue?

He reckons, as you would expect, that the question won't arise. Mr Cameron can no longer muster the same confidence: hence the growling from his back benches. Mr Salmond is also spared the prospect of the kind of Tory interrogation that will be inevitable if there is a Yes vote. For the Prime Minister, it could happen even if the vote is No.

Mr Cameron has worked hard to prevent a Scottish plebiscite on his party. His own Scottish leader, Ruth Davidson, has even been obliged to suggest that her Prime Minister won't be around for much longer. She has implied, in so many words, that if Scots have no taste for the paramount Tory they needn't worry their heads about it.

That isn't really the problem. The fact that Britain's Prime Minister has felt unable to lead a campaign to save Britain is one explanation of why a referendum is happening at all. Mr Cameron's blithe refusal to contemplate resignation on 19 September is another.

The Herald. September 3, 2014.

An opinion poll isn't often a scene of carnage, absolute or otherwise, but if your lead has dropped from 22 points to six in barely a month you can count yourself a bloodied casualty. This week, the Better Together campaign is among the walked wounded.

Its members are brave little soldiers, no doubt, and will go on saying that a lead is still a lead, that only one poll matters, or that the 1995 Quebec referendum followed the same pattern. All true. The fact remains that Better Together is bleeding support. In a long campaign its activists have succeeded only in losing support for the cause of Union.

This is a big deal, obviously enough, for Scotland. The YouGov poll showing a six point gap (excluding the undecided) confirms the findings of the most recent survey by Survation. The former has not specialised in uncovering good news for Yes. Now the margin of error becomes relevant, not to mention the ability of pollsters to capture the public mood in a plebiscite for which a turn-out without precedent is expected.

For students of these things, a test of received wisdom is taking place. A genuinely popular campaign has run up against a technocratic, top-down effort employing all of the thoroughly modern methods familiar to anyone who knows anything about Quebec, or North American politics. We know one part of the story. If 16 points can be whittled away in four weeks, can 6 per cent survive for a fortnight?

For Scots, the importance of these things no longer needs to be explained. No one, on either side, is in any doubt that September 18 means for them and for Britain. Yet even as the YouGov findings were being celebrated or mourned, according to taste, the Financial Times was reporting that the London government “has no contingency plans” for a Yes vote. David Cameron's spokesman told reporters, straightforwardly, that no such work is being undertaken.

The statement can be dismissed as nonsensical. What do we – and that would be all of us – pay civil servants for? In previous referendums preparatory work was a matter of routine on the simple grounds of common sense. It would be bizarre and criminally negligent if any minister decreed that a No vote is in the bag and no mandarin need break sweat. So why would Downing Street make such a claim?

The mantra of “no pre-negotiation” can be ignored. There has been plenty of that, albeit written in headlines involving the currency, immigration and other things. Westminster has been staking positions all year. The idea that no contingency planning is taking place might be another phase in the game. It might also be a sign that someone means to spin out post-independence negotiations for as long as possible. Delay would suit London, not Edinburgh.

If that kind of too-clever thinking is going on, however, it contains a nasty flaw. Don't the voters, particularly the voters of England, deserve something better than a business-as-usual sham? Shouldn't they be told, finally, that the United Kingdom as they know it might be reaching its end, but that their government is on the case, preparing to secure the best deal it can on their behalf?

In Scotland, things grow more frenetic by the day. Elsewhere, there is a sense that England's dreaming. Wales and Northern Ireland look on with acute interest. Internationally, there is an awareness that a historic moment approaches. In Catalonia, for obvious reasons, the precedent of a Scottish Yes is desired keenly. Yet in England, even now, the attitude seems to be that the Scots can “go off”, for better or worse, as they please, and nothing important will alter.

This is not just a matter of international status and institutions, though these are another big deal. It has nothing to do with the fictions of border posts or families turned into foreigners. Instead, it is a mark of divergence and drift between two countries. England's sense of itself will be transformed by a Yes vote, yet that country's elected government – not our government, but that's another story – pretends to be sitting on its hands, whistling a merry tune.

The tale told by the FT, by my colleagues in these pages, and by correspondents to this newspaper, seems to have produced neither shock nor outrage south of the Border. The fact itself illustrates the strange prevailing mood in England. We know that a Yes vote will cost Mr Cameron his job. We can be certain a tidal wave of “How did this happen?” comment will follow. But polling that puts the matter, in the cliché, “on a knife-edge” attracts no more interest than the affairs of Clacton.

If you intend to vote Yes, you might say, “So what?” The absence of knowledge and interest within the Union's biggest partner would probably do as a reason to vote for independence. But repeated attempts by writers in the London papers to rouse English opinion have had no real effect. Voters in England are variously reported as baffled, “sad”, annoyed that they have no say in the UK's future, dismissive, or supportive of Scottish rights. But they are not, in the jargon, “engaged”. And these, whether the vote is Yes or No, are our neighbours.

With six points in it, and with the reasonable suspicion that the next poll will tip the independence campaign into the lead, you begin to wonder who really does speak for the UK. Better Together's cast list, whipping up their souffles of outrage and offence, are well enough known. They have distinguished themselves in recent weeks by no longer bothering to attempt that famous positive case for Union. One reason, perhaps, is that they have found no echo, hand-picked celebrities aside, in England.

Who got their beseeching phone calls from family and friends below the Border when that was the stunt of the week? Who gained a sense of feared loss from the neighbours? My preferences are the opposite of a secret, but I admit to being just a wee bit surprised. A respect for Scotland's right to make its own choice is admirable. That sounds like the English voters I know. But if it is their UK too, as it must be, they have a funny way of not showing it.

Perhaps things will change over the next fortnight. If opinion polls can catch up with reality, perhaps the people of England will do the same. It would be little enough and late enough, surely, if 307 years of Union matter as much as is claimed. The decision is close and the simple numbers grow closer by the day. All the while, Whitehall pretends it hasn't given the matter a second thought. An English voter might surely want to ask what that piece of nonsense is supposed to mean.

The Yes vote isn't there yet. Those of us who remember the Thatcher years learned a few lessons about counting chickens, to say nothing – nothing at all – about eggs. But for the first time in three centuries a resumed independence for Scotland is a serious possibility. Someone should drop a card in the mail: “To whom it may concern”.
Sunday Herald. August 31, 2014.

Until last week, there was a very good chance you had never heard of Douglas Carswell, the man chosen by voters in Clacton as the Tory to convey their views to Westminster. This is less because he's a retiring sort than because busy folk retire, at speed, when he gives them the benefit of what he calls thinking.

Carswell is – or was, until last Thursday morning – a certain kind of Conservative. He's a fan of the unnervingly inept Russian-American cod-philosophical novelist Ayn Rand. There's nothing about the European Union he likes. He does like to doubt that humankind has anything to do with climate change. He is also wildly popular with Spectator readers. The full card, in short.

As a politician, Carswell doesn't matter much. In some parts of these islands you can wonder why things grew so dull in Clacton that he wound up with a 12,000-plus majority, but such is democracy, Essex-style. Until last week, his colourful career was going nowhere. So Carswell joined Ukip, announced he was resigning his seat, said rude things about David Cameron, and tried to catch a political wave.

Why, pragmatically, not? Nigel Farage, the caudillo of suburban English outrage, reckons that Thanet South might be just the seat from which he can fight them – you name them, he'll repel them – on the beaches. Boris Johnson, still collecting a salary as Mayor of London, has nominated Uxbridge and South Ruislip as his favourite Tory rotten borough. Better for Carswell to be a Ukip coup, surely, than to fade away, dismissed as yet another bonkers back-bencher?

It's not quite so simple. Carswell and Johnson are not yet in the mainstream of Conservative opinion in England, but they feel their hour approaching. In the party the Clacton chap has just quit, you no longer get far, or anywhere, by seeming soft on the EU, immigrants, the welfare state, or any whisper of resistance against austerity. Farage, his Cheshire cat impersonation more obvious by the day, awaits his moment.

The deep fractures within Cameron's party are obvious now. In Scotland, the implicit contract offered by Better Together and its “best of both worlds” emollience comes apart at the sticky seams. Vote No for a Westminster hostage to Ukip? Vote No for BoJo as your prime minister next time around?

Labour's appeal to solidarity in these circumstances is puerile. We have a single Tory MP and a statistically marginal Ukip vote. In Clacton, Carswell has his legions of voters ready to make a gift of the town to Farage. The polls say close to half of the punters in England sailed to starboard long ago, to the Conservatives or to Ukip. When I vote Yes it will not be to leave anyone. It will be in recognition of the fact – fine, democratic, none of my business – that the majority in England left me long ago.

So the question becomes simple: Better Together with what and whom, exactly? The evidently popular pitch of Carswell and Farage? A Tory Party keen to strip me of my European citizenship? A Labour Party with its very own benefits cap and an immigration policy to suit any Ukip-inclined voter? Things have gone beyond the old games of right and so-called left. The divergence is real and profound.

I could write the “Ah, but” messages now. “The myth of progressive Scotland”; “The pretence of social democracy”; “The barely-marginal polling differences”: heard them, seen them, read them. They overlook the actual facts of how Scotland chooses to vote. When last I heard, those were the only tests to matter. The dismissals also overlook the important message of Carswell, Farage and their piece of puppet theatre.

If Scotland votes No on September 18 it will not have the slightest effect on what is happening within right-wing England, whether in the country or in Westminster. The No vote will be welcomed and the voters thereafter ignored while the plot to take the UK out of the EU continues. If Scotland votes No, Labour will meanwhile vent a huge sigh of relief and go back to pretending that Ed Miliband is a prime minister in waiting.

Better Together with what? Better to resume Scotland's usual role as a region dutifully making up the numbers? Patently, that arrangement has some appeal for those whose careers depend on it. Perhaps, for you hear it often enough, Scotland's poor odds in the Westminster game could be depicted as just another little wrinkle in the rules. You win some, you lose some, and you end up with another Tory-led coalition. This is, remarkably, what “better” means in some versions of a democratic choice.

The argument misses the point: why would you bother? Given the choice between a bad draw and a good draw, how would you play your cards? Carswell, the thinker of right-wing thoughts, is reported to be popular in Clacton. My response is simple enough: left him be popular with his intellectual bucket and spade. Let the nice folk of Essex acclaim him. But if there's a means by which I can keep his kind away from me and mine, I'll take it.

There are more useful ways to approach the issue. Last week, for one celebrated example, the Unionist campaign produced a TV film for the benefit of Scottish viewers. Specifically, the “target audience” comprised women. Many others exposed to the thing have made their comments. For reasons political, biological and born of daily experience, most were more eloquent than I can manage.

Still, once my astonishment subsided, I thought, “This is really, truly, how you regard 52% of the people you want to convince?” The precis remains straightforward. To the women of Scotland, the risible little movie said: “You're too thick to understand politics, so don't bother. Just vote No”. So the question returns: better together with the people who thought that piece of careless, arrogant work would do, that it would work?

After 307 years of political, social and economic Union, the broadcast would count as a nadir. After that grand span of time it's still only a matter of feeding pabulum to the carefully-rehearsed proles while telling them not to worry their silly heads about “him on the telly”? If you can't afford pabulum, said the film, give your family our patented cereal instead. And be content.

Why has this referendum arisen? Why – as an audience member wanted to know during the last Salmond-Darling debate – don't we know we're better together? If the Union was the great, historic success claimed by its proponents, there wouldn't be a bunch of Scots staging a democratic insurgency. If the United Kingdom is the triumph claimed by Cameron while he serenaded the CBI last week, there would be no argument.

Assimilation failed. We did not go quietly. We failed to disappear. Carswell and Farage, Johnson and Cameron and Miliband look, sound and act like voices from another place and time. Nothing they advocate has won the consent of people here. But should we vote No in September, they take charge again. Business, as they regard it, as usual.

You might call that the wrong result. I would also call it bizarre.

The Herald. August 27, 2014.

Televised political debates might not have much effect on the voting public, but their impact on those who comment on TV debates is fascinating. Grisly and predictable, but fascinating.

What did we learn after the first Salmond and Darling contest? That the Guardian/ICM “just a bit of fun” snap poll had no resemblance to what proper surveys call reality. In three of those, the Yes vote went up. The alleged drubbing that left the First Minister bruised, bloodied, on the ropes – fill in the rest – in that “crucial contest” did not produce the proclaimed result. Quite the reverse.

Yet what did we hear, endlessly, before Monday's fight night? Now it was “make-or-break” for Mr Salmond. He was in desperate need of a comeback, of – that word waiting to be banned – a “game-changer”. Never mind those polls: once again, everything was hanging on a weird symbolic contest conjured for TV. The inconvenient facts of public opinion were simply ignored.

On Monday, the First Minister delivered: by now, that much should go without saying. The ICM scorecard was unambiguous: 71 per cent to 29 per cent of a group of 505 decided that the triumph in this bit of politics-by-proxy went to Mr Salmond. But had it altered voting intentions? A thoroughly unrepresentative sample, one who's views turned out to be irrelevant after the first contest, said that it had not.

Funnily enough, most professional witnesses to the latest TV show also managed to decide that the humbling of Mr Darling had not changed anything. When the First Minister was judged to have lost things were said to be grim for the Yes campaign. When the Better Together chairman took his hiding it was, instantly, “too early to say” whether a floundering, evasive performance mattered.

Double standards are nothing new in this campaign. Strange twists of logic have become commonplace. In other circumstances, both sides have been keen to say that “it's not about personalities”. Turn on the TV cameras, roll out the sports metaphors and wheel in that carefully-selected audience: suddenly all that matters is one man in a suit against another.

Has the Yes campaign said endlessly that this referendum is not about Mr Salmond? It happens to be true, a fundamental fact, but that was ignored on Monday night. Talking about “him” has been the tactic of Mr Darling and his Unionist friends for months. As two over-rehearsed politicians went at it, independence campaigners cheered their man regardless.

Have the Labour folk in Better Together been desperate, meanwhile, to avoid the charge that the former Chancellor is just a human shield for a Tory-led coalition? More than desperate. It would be very wrong, they reckon, to “personalise” their cause. On Monday, nevertheless, they bet the house – Labour, Tories, Lib Dems and various strange bedfellows – on one man.

He lost. But if the poll findings after the first debate are the reliable guide, it shouldn't matter. If anything, we should be ridding ourselves of a taste for gaudy spectacle and asking if these TV debates have any point at all. They don't fit the facts. Why bother with them unless we're determined to satisfy political hacks who've watched the West Wing too often?

The first proper polls will be interesting, then. If No has been damaged by Mr Darling's performance it will tell us something about the nature of the two campaigns, given that Yes prospered after Mr Salmond's setback. Either these TV debates are worse than useless, or one side in this contest is more resilient, more deeply-rooted and better connected to the public mind, than the other. We'll see.

My partisan belief is that Better Together can guess the truth. That fabled campaign software is probably delivering its doleful tidings even now. This is less because TV debates win hearts and minds than because too many Unionist hearts were not in it, so it seems, to begin with.

Monday's debate was Mr Darling's last chance to articulate the positive case for Union that he has been promising for months and years. He didn't even bother to try. The things that could be said for and about Britain, the things David Cameron has now and then attempted to state, formed no part of the charge of the lightweight brigade into the valley of prime-time death. There was not a word. Even for this Yes voter, it was faintly shocking.

Three hundred and seven years of Union. An “irrevocable” (as Mr Darling has it) vote almost upon us. Three centuries of amity, argument and allegedly common endeavour. All that culture, all those bonds, all those presiding spirits of the Labour Party hovering beyond the lights. Surely there would be something? All the former Chancellor had to hand was another querulous attack on the relative merits of currency arrangements. The audience groaned.

What became of solidarity? What became of the universal rights of working people? Mr Darling instead turned out to be ill-briefed on child poverty, evasive on Labour's embrace of welfare spending caps, obdurate in his refusal to condemn the futility of Trident, and a poor gambler with currency, his own chosen sport. Which currency plan – A, B or beyond – would he recommend for a country recovering its independence? Mr Darling is another of those proud Scots who's too proud to say.

In terms of the campaign, the tactic of “going” with the currency issue yet again was the most fascinating item of the evening. After the first debate those legitimate polls had shown the tactic to be, at best, ineffective. On Monday, even the No-supporting part of the Glasgow audience seemed less than enthused by Mr Darling's return to the attack. This time, Mr Salmond was ready with a menu of choices that have worked well enough around the world. Still the former Chancellor ploughed on.

It made sense only if you are wedded to the playbook from the last Quebec referendum. This holds that fear works in the end. Keep nagging away at any hint of unease, it suggests, and you will herd the sheep back to the paddock in the last weeks of the contest. The Better Together case might sound technical. It might sound abstruse. All that matters is the ominous hint of impending doom. Then you call that “the positive case”.

We were supposed to believe, meanwhile, that the NHS is safe because health is devolved entirely to Holyrood. The same cannot be said of all budgets. The Westminster parties each surrendered to privatisation years ago. Have their Scottish branch offices now renounced that ideology? Does Mr Darling find it as despicable as Andy Burnham, shadow health minister, the man with a whole privatised hospital to his name who now, too late, warns England against the great sell-off?

It might not matter in the polls or in the vote. Perhaps the First Minister's unfortunate habit of emerging from behind his lectern like a timeshare salesman will prove another of those “blows to Salmond” on September 18. Somehow, I doubt it. Better Together is a Potemkin village of a campaign. The only important things to stand revealed in Monday night's entertainment were the deep cracks in the facade.