Unionism’s Last Stand

They’ll be playing the Sash in Edinburgh on Saturday when the Orange Order takes to the Scottish capital’s streets to oppose independence. But it may be the last hurrah for unionism. There’s a bandwagon rolling, and it’s got the word ‘Yes’ written all over it.

The end of empire, decades of out of touch government from Westminster, and the centrifugal force of devolution has taken its toll on the United Kingdom.

Some 400 years after the English and Scottish crowns were united, and 300 after the parliaments were combined, the Union is on its knees, and on September 18 Scotland’s five million voters will decide whether it should be put out of its misery.

I will be one of them – an Irishman abroad who, as a Scottish resident, has been invited to join this act of self-determination.

The politics of the Green and the Orange, so much part of my growing up and working life, is evident in Scotland too. There are warnings on the trains about the consequences of indulging in sectarian abuse; issues of Church and state are still part of the political and cultural discourse and, although they are leagues apart now, Celtic and Rangers’ competition still has its edge.

Scots today try to play down the ancient enmities that have their roots in the Presbyterian plantation of Ulster, and the mass immigration of Irish Catholics to Glasgow and its environs. But every now and then it manifests itself – like the parade in Edinburgh’s Princes Street on Saturday.

I doubt they will scare many No voters into the Yes camp, but the Orange march is still an embarrassment to those campaigning to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom – as is UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s intention come up and campaign in Scotland for a No vote. The No campaign – whose banner Better Together is increasingly taking on the tinge of irony – needs both like a hole in the head.

It has disassociated itself from UKIP and the Orange march. You know a campaign is in trouble if it is constantly distancing itself from its supporters.

Sinn Fein has been sitting this one out, conscious that it does not want to scare off those who might be willing to take a risk with an independent Scotland. Officially the party says ‘it’s up to the Scots’. But you can be sure there’s a crate of Champagne in the Sinn Fein HQ’s fridge chilling in case the vote goes for the ‘aye’ camp. The phrase ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’ still carries its potency.

Republicans know that without Scotland, the UK as we know it ceases to exist, and we can only guess at the unintended consequences for the politics of Northern Ireland. The Ulster-Scots bond is strong – but working class unionists are as distrustful of Eton-educated English Tories as are their Scottish counterparts.

If Better Together loses the vote on the 18th, it’ll not be because of the boys in bowler hats, or the lunatic fringe on the British right. It will be because the people of Scotland have lost faith in the United Kingdom’s ability to deliver the quality of life they want for themselves and their children.

And it will because Better Together has been unable to articulate a positive vision of the United Kingdom and how it can benefit the Scots.

The No campaign – made up of Labour, Liberal Democrat and Tories – is an uneasy coalition of political foes. They proved to be incapable of finding a compelling message that resonated with the electorate – emotionally or intellectually.

It’s hard to champion the Union when so many of your supporters are still sore about Thatcherism, the Poll Tax, the Miners’ Strike, the war in Iraq, and the bedroom tax.

The polls have been narrowing, with the first registering a Yes at the weekend. It’s hard to imagine any poll that has been quite so much of a game changer. That said, I suspect the likelihood remains that Scotland will vote No next week. The status quo tends to have the advantage in referendums – particularly among the ‘don’t knows’ and ‘won’t tells’.

But I wouldn’t be willing to put my money on that outcome.

In addition to the final decision of the undecided, another unknown is the extent to which the Yes campaign can mobilise those who traditionally don’t vote.

This section of the electorate, alienated from the political process, will be tempted to give London a bloody nose, and the SNP has been paying particular attention to them. It has also been courting the Labour vote who feel disenfranchised by the Conservative-dominated coalition, and who have never forgotten Maggie.

Whatever the outcome, SNP leader Alex Salmond will almost certainly emerge stronger from the vote. If he loses it will not be a shock, and he will have built a platform for the next assault.

If he wins, he will join Robert the Bruce, William Wallace and Robert Burns as one of Scotland’s heroes.

He has already transformed the political landscape of the UK, forever.

The grim reality for David Cameron and the wider unionist family is that United Kingdom, as we know it, is dead in the water. Once the independence genie has been let out of the bottle – and it has been – it cannot be put back in. Greater powers for Scotland, certain whatever the outcome; and increasing frustration with a remote and out-of-touch government in London, will lead inevitably to a break.

Salmond is well aware of his history. It is not an accident that the referendum was called in the 700th anniversary year of the Battle of Bannockburn when Robert the Bruce routed the English.

From the ramparts of Stirling Castle, the statue of Robert the Bruce looks out over central Scotland – from the monument to Braveheart William Wallace and along the River Forth as it weaves its way to Edinburgh. In the 700 years since his victory over the English, Scotland has been through tough times. It has been battered and bloodied. But today it is self-confident and has developed a strong sense of identity that transcends the kitsch Scottishness of Andy Stewart and his tartan-clad ilk. Many feel this is its time.

If the vote is No, the debate about Scotland’s future in the United Kingdom will only intensify. If the vote is Yes – everything changes. “Hope springs exulting on triumphant wing,” wrote Robert Burns. Alex Salmond will be hoping that his sense of optimism for the future carries the day.

This article first appeared in The Irish News on September 9 2014