In a week during which Scotland celebrated the 260th birthday of Robert Burns, it lost another Ayrshire writing colossus in the shape of the peerless sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney. As a supporter of Scottish self-determination he would have known the question once asked by the Ayrshire farmer and exiseman. “I have long said to myself – what are the advantages Scotland reaps from this so-called union that can counterbalance the annihilation of her independence and even her very name?”. What, indeed.
A fellow writer who happened to know McIlvanney and who wrote a fulsome tribute to him just happens to be a close friend of mine – The Sunday Times’s Jonathan Northcroft. Reading his piece, my thoughts drifted to a story he told me about a conversation he had in the summer of 2014 with the Liverpool captain Jamie Carragher. One of football’s greatest myths”, said “Carra”, “is that the agony of defeat will be the catalyst for future success”. Jamie’s reasoning was that sport is often as much about opportunity as it is about talent, and he is surely right. He speaks from experience. His Liverpool team had an unexpected and sustained charge at the title five years ago but fell just short. The narrative was that the title win had just been delayed by twelve months. They had a brilliant young manager, great young talents, Luis Suarez. But Carragher wasn’t buying it. He knew that when opportunities present themselves you use take them as invariably it’s the best chance you’re going to get. No matter how fair the winds, you can fall victim to what Harold MacMillan called “events”. And in the event, the manager lost his touch and was sacked. Suarez went to Barcelona. Rivals improved. “Carra” was spot on. Life comes with no guarantees. Carpe Diem.
Scotland’s title bid fell agonisingly short that year as well, but it’s surely the case that we have never had a more propitious set of circumstances to finally get us over the line this time. Westminster has long since stopped pretending that they care about us. Two days after promising we’d have a say in the next stage of the Brexit process they cancelled the meeting. Diary difficulties, apparently. Two and a half years of being grown-up, collegiate and willing to compromise have got us absolutely nowhere and we’re leaving without a deal. Triggering Article 50 without asking us first was a less than subtle hint that we didn’t matter and were in truth barely on the radar. And, of course, we have a triple-locked mandate to call a second independence referendum, which includes a manifesto commitment to do exactly that should we be taken out of Europe against our democratic wishes.
So what is stopping us? If all this wasn’t justification enough, we have to call this before the end of the current parliamentary term in 2021, after which there may or may not be a pro-independence majority in Holyrood. The Section 30 mandate – the right to ask for permission to call indyref 2 – will have expired. We use it or lose it. What’s the worst that can happen? London says now is not the time. We do it anyway. We’ll win by a margin – we need a solid mandate, not another 52/48 – and London refuses to recognise it as it is only advisory. But so was Brexit, and it’s happening. By virtue of the result it became a political imperative and was called the will of people. That is exactly what would happen after a Yes vote. It cannot be wished away.
Do we have the numbers? For some, the polls are problematic, with Yes staying stubbornly at 45%. But that’s fine. We started miles back in 2014 and got within a Daily Record front page of closing the deal. My gut is that those numbers will rise as soon as we fire the gun, as an army of seasoned campaigners is unleashed. If a packed bar in Brechin where I spoke last week is any barometer, we’re good to go. Westminster knows this too, incidentally, which is why their only tactic is to deny us the franchise, the political equivalent of parking the bus.
The trick is to stop fretting about timing. Either independence is a good idea or it isn’t. If we wait much longer the boat will have sailed and there will not be another one. The likelihood is that, in that scenario, momentum is lost.
And we need to think about what the consequences of dithering would be. We need to think what our weans, and their weans, will think when they’re old enough to discover that we had the chance to make a real difference to their lives, to restore an ancient wrong: but didn’t. Because we couldn’t really be bothered. Because we thought it might be difficult. Because we were a bit feart.
In the end it isn’t about currency and pensions and the price of a dog license. It comes down to pride, to self-respect. When we lose that, we allow anything to happen in our name. It’s about how we see ourselves, about morality, ethics, doing right by each other.
This last week I’ve been speaking at Burns Suppers up and down Scotland. I think today about Auld Lang Syne, an anthem that celebrates the enduring capacity for people to reconnect, despite everything that has happened between us, and the human ability to be good to people and expect them to reciprocate. It’s the very antithesis of austerity and neoliberalism. It reminds us that a better world is possible. All we have to do go there.
As Hugh McIlvanney’s old pal and fellow Burnsian Muhammad Ali might have put it: let’s get it on.