LETTER FROM SCOTLAND 1st February 2013

Should anything distract from the referendum campaign?

“To be, or not to be” (independent) “That is the question.” The official wording of the question for the 2014 referendum may not be quite so Shakespearian, but let’s hope we can wrestle with it with less calamitous results. No one expects blood on the stage, but the next 18 months are going to be pretty divisive.

This week, at least, we are starting off with some agreement – thanks to the Electoral Commission. It recommended that the SNP’s preferred question “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” should be cut back, to simply ask: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” The words “Do you agree” were thought, by the Commission’s focus groups, to be a leading question.

All parties have now accepted this – the SNP most graciously. They have also accepted the Commission’s recommendation that no more than £3m should be spent, by each side, in the last 16 weeks of campaigning. But the Commission has also challenged both Yes and No camps to come up with more “information” on what will happen after the referendum.

And, as Shakespeare says, “There’s the rub. …..the undiscovered country from which no traveller returns.” It is all a leap of faith. David Cameron told us this week that he will not “pre-negotiate” the break-up of the United Kingdom. The European Union has made it plain that it will not negotiate the terms of entry for an independent Scotland ahead of the referendum. But on the other hand, the No camp have not yet agreed what their plans for greater devolution will be in the event of a no vote.

Meanwhile, Alex Salmond has been trying to move the debate away from the constitutional niceties and onto another question: “What type of country do we want Scotland to be ” He took welfare reform as an example, saying the Westminster government’s plan to cut incapacity benefits for around a third of claimants was “the biggest threat to human dignity” facing Scotland. The Yes campaign is sending out 500,000 leaflets warning that the United Kingdom is on track to become the most unequal society in the developed world.

Another favourite example is renewable energy. Mr Salmond announced that the Scottish government would accept a new target, set by the UK Commission on climate change, to cut emissions from electricity production to 50g of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour. However he came under attack from environmentalists for not spelling out how he hopes to achieve the world-beating target he’s already set for cutting greenhouse gases by 42 per cent by 2020.

Curiously, one part of the grand renewables plan we do know about may grind to a halt because of the threat to a rare and little known bird, the whimbrel (a delicate cousin of the curlew). Environmentalists have been in court arguing that Shetland Islands Council and the government have contravened the European birds’ directive by giving planning consent to the 100 turbine Viking wind farm project.

As if to mock us, the wind in Shetland, as elsewhere in the country, has been gusting at over 80mph for much of the week. I’ve been battered and soaked by the storms, even as I cycled through the sheltered streets of Edinburgh. Out in the wilds, there have been some tragic accidents. A woman climber was badly injured when a block of ice fell on her from a frozen waterfall on Creag Dubh near Newtonmore. Another climber was killed in a fall on Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis. And a man died after being struck by lightning as he was walking his dog near Appin in Argyll.

But back up in Shetland, the Vikings were not deterred by the weather. They turned out in force on Tuesday night- some 900 of them – for the annual Up-Helly-Ah celebrations. They paraded through the streets in a defiant fire-festival and pushed the traditional flaming galley boat out to sea.

In this stormy season perhaps we should all burn our boats and stay at home, preferring – as the Bard of Stratford says – “to bear the ills we have, rather than fly to others that we know not of.”