George Hepburn: The Scottish referendum has shown us that we must change - whatever the result

Journal columnist George Hepburn says the fervent nationalism emerging in Scotland cannot be ignored, even if there is a No vote

Danny Lawson/PA Wire A general view at the border between Scotland and England just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed
A general view at the border between Scotland and England just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed

What a summer: sitting on the beach happily reading endless articles about Scottish independence. Now the days draw in and the vote approaches to put an end to this season of sunshine and speculation.

Of what must be well over a hundred articles , letters and blogs discussing the oil revenues, the nuclear submarines, the monarchy, the Barnett formula and much more , two have impressed me so much that they are pinned above my desk. Their authors will vote in opposite ways.

The first is by Ian Hamilton QC, a lifelong nationalist who believes that the people of Scotland are not fighting for a political cause – they are fighting for their national existence and against Britain’s ruling elite.

The following took me by surprise: “Hardly any of us belong to the Scottish National Party. From the nooks and glens of my country have emerged a storm corps whose members have never taken part in politics. They are not the SNP. They are the people of Scotland.”

“The rustle in the heather which was the SNP has become the soaring anthem of a people awakening from a long sleep. When we awake, we will walk away from you”.

The latest polls appear to confirm Ian Hamilton’s prediction. At the weekend, one poll put the yes camp ahead.

There are too many unpredictable factors for anyone to be sure of the result. I have booked a chair in front of the television in the belief that this could be one of those moments comparable to JFK’s assassination or Mandela’s walk to freedom or even, for some of us, the night that Tony Blair was elected.

Ian Hamilton continues: “You may wonder why. I will tell you: we are repeatedly ruled by governments we do not elect. We currently have more pandas than Tory MPs. Ordinary English people will be on our side. It is the toffs who make the UK look so silly.”

All this summer, if pushed to commit myself, I have said that if I were a Scot I would vote for independence despite all the problems that the scaremongers have predicted - the banking system, the health service, the loss of research grants and even, I was amazed to hear, of UK charitable trusts withdrawing their grants north of the border.

Danny Lawson/PA Wire A general view at the border between Scotland and England just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed
A general view at the border between Scotland and England just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed

Guy Opperman and others point out the dangers to the North East. I still think these are all second order problems and that ways will be found to surmount them.

The other article on my noticeboard is by Murdoch MacKenzie a lifelong member of the Iona Community. The Community has not taken a formal view about independence, but asks its members, mainly Christian activists in Scotland, to vote for whoever they consider will best improve the lot of the underprivileged in Scotland.

I heard Murdoch MacKenzie preach in Iona Abbey some years ago, resplendent in a kilt and full regalia and so have no doubt about his allegiances. But he writes:

“I was brought up to believe that nationalism and patriotism were pernicious and usually led to war and conflict. In recent years nationalism rears its ugly head once again with the True Finns, President Putin being praised for his patriotic nationalism, nationalist struggles in Crimea and Ukraine, not to mention Nuers and Dinkas in Sudan, Hindu nationalism in India and Scottish nationalism in the UK.”

The prospect of further skirmishes with the Border Reivers seems far fetched but MacKenzie recalls the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn saying that people in the world could be divided into two groups: the harmonisers and the polarisers.

He concludes: “So let us ‘think again’ and with the Good Samaritan cross boundaries and become harmonisers and not polarisers. Let us live in dependence on and with our neighbours.

“We cannot ever be independent because, as John Donne so clearly said: ‘No person is an island’.” Let us vote and pray for unity in the UK and in Europe and throughout the whole wide world and not tear the world apart.”

As an Englishman, without a vote, I hope this greater sense of internationalism prevails both in relation to Scotland and in the mirror image debate about Europe but I worry that the Better Together campaign has misjudged the mood and not appealed to this higher idealism.

In the 1970s, 40% of the Scots saw themselves as British, now only 23% do. Whatever the result, the fervent nationalism described by Ian Hamilton and supported by almost half of the Scottish nation will not go away. It must not be ignored by Westminster or appeased by devo max.

If, as still seems most likely, independence is narrowly defeated, David Cameron should immediately announce a Royal Commission into the future structure of the United Kingdom and the powers of its constituent nations. The members must include wise people from outside these islands with experience of federal government and written constitutions. It should report in the lifetime of the next parliament. That would be the act of a harmoniser.

Andrew Matthews/PA Wire British nurse William Pooley
British nurse William Pooley


I am delighted that the brave nurse who caught ebola has recovered and been discharged from hospital. But am I alone in having an uneasy feeling that an RAF jet that went all the way to Sierra Leone to bring back William Pooley for the kind of specialist treatment that is thankfully available at the Royal Free Hospital? Why wasn’t the plane filled up with other ebola victims?

The epidemic continues to rampage and half of those infected do not survive. Why is not the experimental drug ZMapp given to Mr Pooley made widely available and funded by the rich nations?

There are two isolation beds in the secure unit at the Royal Free which are apparently only used once in about two years. Why cannot they be offered continuously to any victim while this current epidemic lasts? It is inhumane to leave a bed empty and put such a high value on a British life as opposed to the lives of others.


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