It is all very well and good for Alex Salmond and the SNP to instruct the Scottish people to vote ‘yes’ in the independence referendum next year, but for all the imperatives issued by the First Minister, there are disappointingly few significant reasons that accompany them.
Now, even as somebody who will not be voting in favour of independence, I cannot deny the charisma of Mr Salmond. He speaks with ease and fluency, he mixes humour with his soaring rhetoric, and he holds the attention of his audience. When watching his speech to the SNP autumn conference, I realised how important theatrics, prosody and gestures are to a politician trying to present ideas. When you watch a speech, you find yourself getting taken in by all of the extra features; you find yourself thinking that the speaker must surely know what they’re talking about, given the levels of cheering and the frequency of applause; you think it is the most wonderful information ever.
Then I read the transcript. Suddenly, my disapproval returned. I realised that Salmond had stood on that podium and said an awful lot while managing to say pretty much nothing; he had expelled a load of hot air and built himself on bluster, while omitting substance and skipping out on big, bold announcements. Nicola Sturgeon may have explicitly requested a “resounding welcome” for him before the speech – and the audience may have acquiesced – but he did not deserve it. He did not deserve such a rapturous reception.
In short: the speech was brilliant, the script was abysmal. Salmond is indeed a clever political operator – and a shrewd one at that – but he is arrogant as well. He assumes that the general populace of Scotland will fall at his feet, under his charismatic spell, like the hundreds of sycophants before him in that conference hall (they were rather well trained, actually – they even mastered ending their supposedly spontaneous applause in perfect, unnatural unison). But he is wrong. Not everybody so adores him that they will inhale his every word as if it were more precious and more essential to their survival on this earth than oxygen. Idolatry will thankfully not replace common sense for all 5 million Scots.
The Scottish people both want and deserve a debate which is worthy of our country’s future. So that means Salmond should stop trying to big himself if it means he must belittle others in the process. His use of sardonic humour in his speeches is grating and essentially immature. It no longer comes across as charming or refreshingly ‘normal’ – it is irritating and repetitive. So when he stands there saying, “Here’s the deal” to try and act like he’s above his constitutional superior the Prime Minister, or when he remarks, “I thought Labour had been driving on the right for some time,” don’t buy the cheap laughs – question why he is not instead filling that time with vital policy announcements.
That is one of the Yes Campaign’s greatest flaws, I feel: it is all about what is best for Salmond, not Scotland; it is obsessed with pride, not people. The First Minister spends so much time trying to rouse patriotic sentiments (although I would ponder where the line is to be drawn between being pro-Scotland and anti-England), that he seldom leaves himself much time to give any essential information. When I go door-knocking with the Labour Party, it is often that I will speak to voters who say they are considering voting ‘yes’ in 11 months’ time, while still admitting something along the lines of, “but I’d like to know more about what will happen afterwards.” That, to me, does not suggest the Yes Campaign is delivering the way it should be. It might very well have an enormous budget and a charismatic leader, but it lacks something very basic and very vital: information. After all, that is the central ingredient to any campaign of any scale or any objective. If you want to bring people around to supporting your viewpoint, do not only tell them what that viewpoint is, tell themwhy they should support it. It is easy to blast Westminster for what it is doing wrong. Everybody does it every day (but it is worth remembering that many of the issues of the day, such as the Bedroom Tax and unfair budget cuts, are Tory problems, not union problems). Thus the real challenge for the Yes side is to explain exactly what Holyrood would do right; how would they rectify the mistakes of London? Just as the No Campaign really has to show how it will remedy the ills of the union – and that is being shown through the Power for a Purpose consultation set up by the Scottish Labour Party, which invites people to suggest a new approach to devolution, resulting in a fairer relationship within the UK.
I have grown up in an era of cynicism. Suspicion is unfortunately commonplace. Therefore trusting politicians is something a lot of people find rather difficult to do. So why is anybody willing to follow the SNP into the unknown? They are trying to convince us that we should vote yes, and then find out the supposed benefits of independence only after an irreversible decision has been made. What if it doesn’t work out? Or we don’t like the sound of what we’ll have to endure? We can’t go back. Even when politiciansdo say what they intend to do, people are reluctant to believe them; why should Salmond earn our trust when he can’t even bring himself to be upfront about everything? As he himself said with regards to the Prime Minister, I’d like to say: Mr Salmond, step up to the plate or step out of this debate. Be useful or be quiet.
Further to that, a lot of prospective ‘yes’ voters say that despite wanting an independent Scotland, they abhor the First Minister himself. Many folks are quite insistent that he will apparently step down after a yes vote; according to them, he only wants to lead Scotland to independence, not beyond it. To put it bluntly, that was perhaps the biggest load of rubbish I have ever heard (and I remember when Nick Clegg said he wouldn’t raise tuition fees). He is clearly not bothered about the good of the Scottish people, otherwise he would have something more substantive than ‘pride’ to offer us. To many voters – nationalists and unionists alike – he is merely looking to nestle himself among the pages of history.
Another example of his shrewd political posturing is the decision to extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds. It sounds like a brilliant proposal; I happen to think that votes at 16 are a great idea. But what many people do not realise – especially people in this age group (my age group) itself – is that they will not get to vote in the General Election 8 months later, which would be crucial to negotiating the new constitutional arrangement of the entire nation, irrespective of the referendum result. I, personally, will already 18 by this point, but that is immaterial, because it is still shocking how blatantly they are willing to administer false hope in search of undeserved help. Shamelessly, the Yes Campaign is duping and dumping young voters; they are offering us the opportunity to feel valuable in this debate, only to take it away again. In other words, they are giving 16 year olds the power to give support to the SNP in 2014, but not the power to then rescind that support in 2015 if things should start slipping downhill. Incidentally, the Labour Party supports votes at 16 across the board.
Besides, I struggle to comprehend precisely why Scotland needs independence anyway. Our country is as independent as it needs to be. Think of it simply: if the English were as oppressive as nationalists would have you believe they are, then the SNP itself would not be allowed to exist, and the referendum would never have been permitted in the first place. The idea to even discuss breaking up the union would be a crime. But, look around you: that clearly isn’t the case. So whenever nationalists start calling out “Freedom!” in the style of William Wallace, remind them that the 14th century is over, and that we are already free. Even the little things are identifiably Scottish: the company known as British Gas south of the border is known as Scottish Gas north of it; we don’t simply have the NHS, we have NHS Scotland; we are not only represented in the British Parliament, we have a Scottish Parliament too.
The only true way to show proper allegiance to Scotland is to vote unequivocally against independence. Say no next year. Give Alex Salmond the reality check he needs to extract him from his dream world. A vote against independence is a vote in favour of Scottishness as well as security and stability. With the union, we have the best of both worlds: we are free to identify as Scottish and we are free to fly the saltire wherever and whenever we so choose – but we are equally as free to rely on the collective security of these cosy islands, and we are free to let the invisible lines drawn across them be transcended by an ineradicable sense of community. Why should my generation gamble its future based on the hazy promises of a man who increasingly resembles a desperate salesman with a hollow pitch? Why should we sacrifice the unity of Britain when there is no certainty for Scotland? Why should we ditch what we know to blindly pursue what we don’t? Why?
So, here’s the deal, First Minister: give us reasons, not orders. Tell us why, not what.
By Marc Winsland