Four years ago this month, in the febrile atmosphere of the final days before the momentous first independence referendum, I was sitting in a holiday cottage in Quoyloo, on the Orkney West Mainland. I was sitting with a dram, watching the first of the debates between First Minister Alex Salmond and former chancellor Alistair Darling.
As Mr Salmond admits himself, it wasn’t his best performance. In truth, he had a bit of a nightmare, something that has been variously explained away by tiredness (he’d been on full Commonwealth Games mode for a month) and suggestions that he’d been badly coached (his advisors thought he came across as a bit too clever, but his new humility seemed detract from his performance). He was much better in the second half – perhaps he’d discovered, like Muhammed Ali, that it’s hard to be humble when you’re this great – but by then the damage was done.
But I think it was something else. Darling is a feisty debater, but the First Minister would normally have handled him. But there’s a moment in the footage when Salmond makes a series of valid points about currency in an independent Scotland – and the audience is silent. His face tells you everything. He knows he can’t win this one. He knows that the lie about Scotland not being able to use the pound is just too big, too insidious. That whatever he said wouldn’t be believed. That enough people genuinely believed we’d be skint on September 19th and the oil would run out before we could pay back the reported £15bn deficit. That we literally couldn’t afford to be independent. He knew.
A week later, that moment came back to me during a debate on farming in Castle Douglas Mart. Only this time, it wasn’t currency – but Europe – that would break the deal.
The man leading the Better Together team got to his feet. “Dairy and bees will prosper in an independent Scotland” he said. “Because nationalists think we will be living in a land of milk and honey”. The joke fell flat, not just because it sounded patronising, but because it broke the golden rule of comedy: it wasn’t funny. Mind you, you didn’t have to look far into the tumbleweeds and the inference was clear enough. We were getting above ourselves. We were offering something that we were genetically incapable of and, anyway, I kent yer faither. Be grateful. Don’t you dare think you’re better than this. Let the big boys do the grown-up politics and you can stick to your pretendy parliament. There’ll be no shipbuilding or HMRC jobs in East Kilbride. You’ll be diplomatically isolated and an international pariah and nobody will buy your shortbread. There’ll be a political lurch to the right and a surge in terrorism. Worst of all, there’ll be no farm support payments because you’ll be out of Brussels so quick you’re feet won’t touch the floor. Eat your cereal and thank us at your leisure.
You know what comes next.
Just about everything he predicted would happen with a Yes vote has come to pass with a No vote. And just for the record, in two years of campaigning, and in all the years afterwards, neither I nor anyone else on the Yes side claimed to be delivering the promised land. It was much more prosaic than that. It was and remains the simple premise that the best people to govern Scotland are the people who live there. Not so much Scottish independence but political autonomy for the people. That’s it. Not a new Jerusalem but a chance to enjoy the privilege of existing in a state of affairs that the rest of the world sees as normal as breathing: self-governance. Not to be exceptional, just to be equal. It’s hard to conceive a more reasonable request.
And we blew it. Even when four highly respected ex-NFU presidents publicly declared for Yes, it made not the slightest bit of difference to the farming vote (although I was bloody proud of my dad). In the same way that the currency issue floored Salmond, the farming narrative – that we were turkeys voting for Christmas – was too big, too insidious, to counter. The fact that it wasn’t true was irrelevant. Plenty of us believed it was true, and that was enough. It was fake news, two years before Trump and the Brexit Bus. But it got the job done.
Truth is, four years on we don’t – any of us – know for sure what an independent Scotland would have looked like. But this completely misses the point, which is this. What it looked like would have been entirely up to us. Which is why, when we next ask ourselves the question that leads to our autonomy, we keep it simple. Because it’s not about having a Tory free Scotland, or a nuclear free one, or a monarchy, or a republic. It’s not about having EU membership, or EFTA, or choosing neither. There will be people who want some of these things or none. But we can’t decide these things until we are allowed to decide them for ourselves. By putting the constitutional debate to bed we can then get on with the ideological debate which will lead us to a consensus that will be imperfect but genuine and representative and, most importantly, ours. And we do this the day after independence and not a second before, because if we go near any of the political stuff we alienate people and we won’t have the numbers and we will lose. Which means it’s gone, maybe forever.
We also need to be honest. I remember saying four years ago that whatever happened after independence I’d take ownership of it. But moral hazard cuts both ways. Where is Salmond’s nemesis, Alistair Darling, amongst the wreckage, if not in Ermine or helping the super-rich? Whither Clegg, Cameron, Miliband, the signatories of the Vow? Where is the modern home rule, the federalism promised by Gordon Brown? And meanwhile the No farmer from the debate tours Scotland, giving lectures on “Brexit Opportunities”, whatever they might be.
And I’m sorry, but the same goes for those who voted no. Four years ago we had the backstop of knowing that whatever happened it was the fault of somebody else. But not any more. We need to take ownership of something we dodged at the time. That by failing to back ourselves we mandated away our powers over wealth distribution, our economics, our say over whether we bomb people or not or whether we accept people or deport them from our shores. We even outsource the decisions on whether our beef has hormones or our chickens have chlorine. We have no-one to blame but ourselves. We abdicated responsibility and told Westminster to fill their boots.
And fill them they have. Convergence monies stolen. The brand drowned under a sea of Union flags and propaganda. The power grab. The trashing of Sewel and the end of Barnett. Brexit, budget cuts, austerity. Your own neighbour taking you to the Supreme Court. Out of the single market. Out of the Customs Union. A part of the UK, but not a partner. This is where we are. This is what we asked for. And if you think this is unconnected to your vote against Scotland, then I am powerless to help you.
I left the Orkney County Show in good spirits – drink had been taken – and reflected that one of the great myths of 2014 was No meant no change. But things have changed at breakneck speed, and not in a good way. And I further reflected that for all the talk of uncertainty, the paradox is that in one sense things couldn’t be clearer. They will be clearer still this Autumn when the Supreme Court votes for the primacy of Westminster, as it surely will and as precedent dictates. Two divergent paths lie in front of us and taking the road less travelled will make all the difference. We either go down the path of austerity and the shutting down of Holyrood and throw in our lot with the Westminster death spiral. Or, we escape at the earliest possible opportunity – autumn works for me – and get on with the business of running Scotland for ourselves.
I had a blast last week. I always do. Driving home to Stranraer, I found myself missing Orkney, and tempered this by imagining the euphoria of coming over the Pentland Firth next year. The first County Show of a newly independent Scotland? I like the sound of that. I like it a lot.
But we have promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep.
Let’s finish this.