Free Oor Wullie?

When I was in Edinburgh, today’s referendum was definitely a popular topic of conversation and angst – then again, I was staying in quite a political household.  Upon my return to the deep South, you would barely have known anything was happening – or you wouldn’t until just over a week ago when it suddenly started to saturate the media (in a manner normally only possible if it involves Nigel Farage).

That’s the amazing power of one poll result.  As always, last week’s More or Less was fascinating, showing just how worried the pollsters were about the accuracy of their numbers.  They are not hoping for either YES or NO, but just that they won’t look too stupid when the results are announced.  Nevertheless, this one – decidedly uncertain – number was enough to move markets and PMQ.

As a neutral – or if not an actual neutral, then at least one of the un-consulted (a group which seems to include Scots living abroad, so Mr Connery will not be able to vote Yesh), there has been much else of interest in this whole process.

For a start, the degree of public engagement in the democratic process has been extraordinary – well, on the basis of registrations at least, the actual turnout still lies in the future.  It would seem that the public can be interested in something other than a mediocre singer with a mildly tragic past: who’d have guessed?  I suppose that unlike the vast majority of opportunities to exercise our franchise, the result is not a foregone conclusion and your vote might actually make a difference (a situation normally reserved for a lucky – or unlucky – few who happen to live in the right marginal constituency and which focus groups suggest could be swayed with the application of appropriate spin).  Could there be lessons for the future here?

It is also interesting that, at best, a tiny proportion of the electorate can possibly understand the implications of their vote.  I have tried to an extent (as you will see below) but would have no rational basis on which to decide, so I am in many ways grateful for my disenfranchisement.  Would I go with my deep-seated risk aversion or be tempted by devilment and the desire to see if something new and better could come?  So, I assume most voters are making a largely emotional (or party political) choice.

It has been fascinating to see how bad at politics all the main political parties are.  The SNP seems to rely on a combination of nationalism, the idea that change is good and we should ditch the Westminster elite (who are certainly well worth ditching, but do seem awfully similar to their brethren at Holyrood) and vague promises about the future being better (but also the same) backed up by some dodgy numbers.  The combined might of the remaining political elite seems to have worked on the basis that “we can change” whilst strongly demonstrating that we haven’t (and probably won’t) and attempting to terrify the Scots with the prospect of life without us, backed up by some dodgy numbers.  The UK does seem to have chosen to act as though they were the abusive spouse in a violent relationship (which I’m not convinced we are) – perhaps, Jerry Springer should have chaired the televised debates?

More recently, the Yes campaign has moved up a gear – with senior politicos molesting the Scots in the flesh, presumably to leave the bitter taste of the Westminster elite fresh in their mouths as they go to the polls today.  They have even tried to tempt the Scots to stay by offering Holyrood increased tax raising powers!  Now, I’m no political strategist – but promising the potential for higher taxes for all doesn’t strike me as an obvious vote winner.

One of the main bones of contention had been the admin that will have to take place as you turn one country, with one set of institutions et al, into two.  Mr Salmond would have us believe this will be a cinch, whilst his opponents suggest it will be virtually impossible and Scotland will be left as a smoking wasteland if you so much as try.  I’ve tried to think of any recent example of countries decomposing voluntarily, and the only one which came to mind was Czechoslovakia – however, in this case both sides voted to leave.  I don’t recall any major issues in this case, but then again it is hard to remember the last time the Czech Republic (let alone Slovakia) had any coverage at all in the main UK media – so it may have been a mess for years for all I know.  Czechoslovakia had also only been a country for a rather shorter period of time – only since 1945, rather than 1707  – and was probably only part way through moving from Communism to Democracy, so the process may have been a little easier.

My best guess is that there will be an awful lot of admin to do if we bifurcate, and bureaucrats and politicians will be very busy and lawyers will be buying third or fourth homes in the sun.  There will also be an extended period of uncertainty while all this back-room work goes on.  This is supposed to be complete by 2016, but re-organising the UK electricity market has already taken rather more than two years – and that is only one element of the work needed to set up a new, independent state (as but one example, it is not just relations with the UK that will need redefining, but those with the rest of the world which currently arise by dint of being a part of the UK) – so I suspect the timetable is a tad optimistic.  While the admin is underway, there will be a fair bit of uncertainty in the air – with people unsure just what the new Scottish State will be like – and this is likely to put the brakes on investment. Investors are strange folk, willing to gamble huge sums in some areas as we’ve all seen, but oddly shy of a little uncertainty in others.  So my best guess is that a newly independent Scotland will have a few tricky years to endure before the sunlit uplands of independence yield their potential benefits.

This brings me on to another pet theory of mine.  I suspect that independence (if achieved) will do for the SNP what being part of the coalition has done for the Liberals – basically finish them politically.  First they will have the difficult “admin years” as I am calling them, followed by full responsibility for everything that happens thereafter – but with no-one else to share the blame – and with even less control over monetary policy (if they keep the pound).  In particular, they will be responsible for raising taxes for Scotland, rather than just spending those raised by the perfidious English.  As a result, the SNP’s support for independence does seem oddly selfless – if they win, they just become another centre-left party in the new State, but one without its USP.  I also wonder if independence will create a larger space for a centre-right party north of the border?

So, I must admit a part of me does hope for a YES vote – largely to see what happens and whether I’m right about the future (forecasting is, after all, my day job).  However, any Scots reading this in time to have an impact, please don’t feel any obligation to vote just to provide me with interest and/or amusement in the years ahead: I do have Netflix and access to cinemas, theatres and bookshops so I’ll probably be alright even without your (indirect) support.

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Edinburgh epilogue

He’s not still banging on about Edinburgh is he? ‘Fraid so – well, he doesn’t get out much at his age.

My excuse is that (a) there were a few recommendations I failed to share with you, dear reader and (b) it provides a link to my post-Edinburgh attempts to deal with the obvious and sudden drop in cultural and creative input to my life.

Alexis Dubus, being himself rather than his French creation Marcel Lucont, told a very entertaining and amusing story (in rhyme) about travel and finding love.  It also took place in The Stand V which is a small, but still rather nice, room in a boutique hotel – rather than the usual, slightly tatty venue carved out of some of the student infrastructure owned by Edinburgh University.

Sheeps were very funny repeating the same sketch in preparation for a supposed gig at Wembley, providing a comedy take on that music staple of the theme and variations.  This took place in the Bedlam theatre, which is slightly tatty, but did offer the cheapest beer by far of my time in Edinburgh (albeit Deuchars IPA from a bottle rather than a tap) and will call you a taxi when you leave.

Des Bishop‘s show on his experiences learning Chinese while living in China managed to be funny, informative and educational.  His degree of application and linguistic prowess stand in judgement over the rest of us (well me, anyway).  The downside is that I do now eavesdrop on Chinese conversations to work out which of the four tones they are using.

This last show also slotted in nicely to a China strand in my recent life.  This started with Andrew Graham Dixon’s always surprising BBC4 documentary on the Art of China, and continued with an exhibition of Ming treasures at the National Museum of Scotland.  The wisdom of the Chinese also featured in the opening quotes of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings; a proverb states “The true measure of a mountain’s greatness is not its height but whether it is charming enough to attract a dragon”.  Very much my own view – and why I have always preferred Cader Idris to Snowdon (and Cader did, I seem to recall, attract a dragon in Smallfilms’ Ivor the Engine – and also is rumoured to be home to an afanc).  Des, however, did give me reason to believe the Chinese are not always quite so wise – the number of knock-offs of Take Me Out (albeit spared the Paddy McGuinness element) broadcast (and enthusiastically viewed) in China is not wholly compatible with a reputation of sagacity.

Since my return to the south, I have been (relatively) bereft – though have managed to reclaim some much needed sleep.  Still, to ease the pain of withdrawal I went up to London last Saturday to get a “fix” of culture.  I started my afternoon with Radical Geometry at the Royal Academy which appealed to both the mathematician (lapsed) and the art-lover within – a small, but perfectly formed exhibition at which all the works and artists were entirely new to me.

I then headed down to the St James theatre to see The Lion – a spoken and word and guitar-based life story involving the death of a father and recovery from cancer, but with no sign of Ant, Dec or Simon and no exhortations to vote.  It was a lovely show and my first time in the “studio” where I had booked the balcony (to show off my new-found lack of fear of heights, rather than based on any knowledge of the layout)) which offered quite the most luxurious seating I have ever experience at a theatre.

Finally, I had my first visit to the Old Red Lion theatre (I’m slowly working my way through London’s fringe theatres, though won’t be troubling Big Chief I-Spy for a while yet) to see The Picture of John Gray.  A story about people who knew Oscar Wilde (and our hero inspired one of his books), though Wilde himself never appears, which was very good – funny with some properly witty lines.  It did rather make me wish I had my own Andre Raffalovich – though probably more the figure from the play, with his flavour of a much less annoying Poirot, than the historical original (though the play does stick close to the facts as laid out by everyone’s favourite Hawaiian on-line encyclopaedia) – who did seem a particularly excellent friend and general factotum.  The ORL, as its name suggests, sits above a pub – which must be congratulated for its ability to serve a well-pulled pint quickly and efficiently to a thirsty theatre audience at half time.  Many a hostelry (and bank) could learn from them!

Even my train ride home provided culture as thanks to the 2i’s (Pad and Player), I watched the recent St John Passion from the Proms.  I’m not normally so high-brow on the train ride home, but a friend is the chorus master for the Zürcher Sing-Akademie (and I’d missed their performance in Cambridge) and this was my last chance to watch it before it once again became missable (and missed).  Bach’s music made for a surprisingly effective accompaniment as the train scampered home through the darkened countryside of Surrey and Hampshire – though I did feel slightly out-of-step with my fellow passengers (nothing new there, though).

So, with this cultural methadone safely injected, I have now survived a second week back from Festivals and fun.  With the summer holidays over and students returning to university, the cultural scene in Southampton and environs (and even in the nation’s capital) should all be starting up again soon: so I think I may just make it through (well, as far as the horrors of Christmas at least).