Scottish referendum: Alex Salmond failed to break up our family of nations
Last week's column was the last one written while I was Minister for Social Development. Today I have my first meeting as the new chair of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee. Naturally I have reflected on what I have achieved over the past three years in DSD and I will return to that next week. It has been a privilege to serve in the Northern Ireland Executive over the past five years, in DCAL and then DSD, and a privilege for which I am very grateful.
Today, though, I wish to reflect upon the poll in Scotland. The people there have spoken and they have wiped the smile off the face of Alex Salmond. Scotland has determined that it will remain within the family of nations that is the United Kingdom. As Johann Lamont, the Scottish Labour leader, has said, the United Kingdom is now the "settled will" of the Scottish people. Salmond is a canny politician but he failed to convince a majority of Scottish people that independence was a better way forward.
As we celebrate the result of the referendum and the fact that the family has not been fractured, there are nevertheless some issues that need to be addressed.
During the campaign Alex Salmond said that the referendum would settle the matter for "a lifetime" but since his defeat he seems at times to have reneged on that. It is clear that he and the SNP are struggling to come to terms with the will of the people. Salmond has been bitter and truculent and his truculence has demeaned and diminished him personally.
Moreover, if he and his party continue in this way they will damage the nation that they profess to love. That would not be good for the Scottish people.
Of course it is worth remembering that at one time Salmond was a leading member of the 79 Group, which was formed in 1979 as a pressure group within the SNP and was dedicated to a "socialist and republican Scotland". He has achieved much but ultimately he has failed to deliver either a socialist Scotland or a republican Scotland.
There was a clear majority for the Union but the majority could and should have been even greater. Unfortunately for much of the time the Better Together campaign was lacklustre. It lacked the passion of the independence campaign and that was illustrated in the weak and wooden performance of Alistair Darling. It was only at the end that Gordon Brown appeared on the scene with some powerful and passionate speeches. Brown got it in a way that Darling didn't.
The independence campaign was directed at the heart whereas the campaign for the Union was directed at the head. Only latterly did the Better Together campaign start to speak to the heart as well as the head. Monetary arguments really matter but for many people national pride and sense of identity matter as well. I was waiting to hear the case for the Union in those terms but for much of the campaign I didn't hear it.
That is something that deserves careful consideration. Britishness should not be taken for granted; it is something that should be nourished in the same way that other identities are nourished. The things that bind us together should be celebrated and the bonds should be strengthened. I really hope that in the rush to produce some agreement on greater devolution for Scotland that issue is not forgotten.
The campaign also exposed a sense of alienation towards Westminster and I suspect that many people who voted for independence were really taking the opportunity to express their alienation from what is sometimes described as the "Westminster elite". That alienation is not restricted to Scotland. It can be found in many parts of England as well, especially in the Midlands and the North of England. They believe that the government is too London-centric with little appreciation of the problems and the issues faced by people in less affluent areas further north. Westminster should take note!
Finally, during the campaign I noticed many badges and posters with the words "aye" and "naw". Quite a number of campaigners on both sides used the Scots words to express their position and there was even a website entitled 'Scotland says Naw'. I was pleased therefore to see that there was no mockery from the media towards Scots words or the Scots language and perhaps some people here in Ulster could learn a lesson from that.
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