Belfast Telegraph

Scottish independence: Logic of staying in United Kingdom is slow to sink in

If you believe the polls, Yes supporters are closing the gap on the No campaign in the Scottish referendum. That's because voters just won't accept that independence really will make them worse off, writes Alan Cochrane

If there's one thing that the people of Northern Ireland know about, it's "experts" from the London media and political worlds telling them what they're doing wrong.

I know, because, for a while, I was one of them. As a Lobby correspondent for several Fleet Street newspapers during the Troubles, it was as clear as the nose on my face what you lot had to do to sort yourselves out and it wasn't until I got over to Northern Ireland, on regular visits organised by the NIO, that I had the chance to see what was really happening.

A similar situation is on the go now with regard to the referendum campaign on Scottish independence. Those same "experts" – well, they're all not exactly the same people – are pontificating on what's wrong in Scotland and what might lead to the 300-plus-year-old Union of Scottish and English parliaments being abolished.

The reasons for their most immediate concern are two-fold – it's less than two weeks until that referendum and, perhaps most significantly, the polls, or at least one poll, has shown that the separatists are closing the gap.

Aha! But the experts from within the M25 know exactly why this poll-narrowing has occurred; it's because the unionist community is putting not nearly enough passion into the argument for remaining British.

Jim Murphy, Labour's international development spokesman, is hailed as a hero because he has taken to the streets and has been roundly abused, howled down and had eggs thrown at him. Only he passes muster in the "experts" view.

I have nothing but the utmost respect for Mr Murphy. He is a cracking politician, even if he is a teetotal vegan, and has done a brilliant job in taking the fight to the nationalists on all manner of Scottish street corners.

But the difference is that, whereas Jim has had his meetings covered on the telly, principally because he was being attacked by a bunch of nutty Nats and because he had to call a 72-hour pause in his one-man campaign while the police sorted out what was going on, other unionists are doing their stuff away from the TV cameras.

And, of course, only the TV counts nowadays. That's why Jim is being feted all over the London media for his sterling work and being hailed as the only man worth a lick of praise. And, while I begrudge him not a syllable of any of these accolades, it is far from being the whole story.

A couple of nights ago, I chaired a public meeting in Haddington, in East Lothian, just outside Edinburgh. It's a prosperous wee town, almost certainly leaning towards the Tory party in what is otherwise a Labour constituency. There were more than 200 people in the old Corn Exchange, which is badly in need of a revamp, of whom all but two or three were solid unionists.

The speakers were Sir Malcolm Rifkind, secretary of state for just about everything in the Thatcher years – including Scotland, Defence and Foreign – and Iain Gray, former leader of the Scottish Labour Party.

Both men live in the constituency, both went to the same school and had spent much of their political lives fighting each other tooth and nail.

Now they're joined at the hip fighting for the cause that both believe in – the maintenance of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as presently constituted.

There was no shortage of passion from either man, to the extent that, in sitting closer to Mr Gray, I could feel him shaking with the strength of his convictions. The audience were alive, too, and we had a good couple of hours of, frankly, energetic Nat-bashing.

And so, if the passion is there and just not being covered by the broadcasters, what about those poll figures? I'm bound to say that I'm mystified by the scale of the drop in unionist fortunes. It's easy to allege that the pollsters, in this case YouGov, have simply got it wrong, but that's the easy way out.

There is something going on and it is, I reckon, that the voters are simply not ready to believe that independence really will make them worse off.

Alex Salmond (left), the SNP leader, has thus far managed to counter every dire warning from the leaders of business, commerce and even international statesmen – like President Obama (right) – with supporters of his own.

And he has also managed to convince the voters, again so far, that the unionist leaders in London are bluffing when they say that they won't share the pound sterling with an independent Scotland. They'll come round, he insists, and see reason after a big Yes vote.

Frankly, I don't believe it for a second. An independent Scotland would be in serious trouble if it didn't have a currency to call its own and using the pound without the permission of the English, Welsh and Northern Irish is a recipe for further disaster. No central bank and no reserves of currency is a situation just waiting for an all-out attack by international speculators.

Mr Salmond did win the second leaders' debate with Alistair Darling, the former Labour chancellor and leader of the Better Together campaign, last week and this is still accounting for some of his opinion poll success.

But the questions on the currency and, hence, the economy after independence, won't go away, nor will doubts about his bland assurances that the revenues from North Sea oil and gas will continue to grow and grow.

Their tails are up at present and, no doubt, the separatists will be further encouraged by weekend polls showing, who knows, that maybe they're in the lead.

But from this unionist's perspective, I am still confident, although far from complacent, that division will not triumph. The huge risks and manifold doubts about the Salmond prospectus will loom ever large in the last 13 days. Whoever wins will do so only if they capture a sizeable proportion of the traditional Labour vote in West and Central Scotland. That is the battleground that is being fought over most keenly.

There is no doubt that the SNP have made inroads there, but with the likes of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who still retains a great deal of support in Scotland, determined to fight the good fight, I am pretty sure that things will begin to turn back towards the Union fairly soon.

Of course, Scotland could be a successful independent country. But I firmly believe that it will be a whole lot more successful if we forget about separation and maintain the Union. Wish me luck.

  • Alan Cochrane is Scottish editor and assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph. He is co-author (with George Kerevan) of Scottish Independence: Yes or No (The History Press)

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