27 - 06 - 2020 / Your Story


On 10 Dec 2019, Richard Haviland, a former civil servant wrote a piece in The Times titled "Tories have pushed me towards independence" describing his journey from dyed-in-the-wool unionist to a tentative nationalist.

"Although what grumblings I had were mainly from unionists, one person took exception to my allowing my mixed Scottish-English ancestry, which informed my vote in 2014, to interfere with what he saw as his country’s right to self-determination.

"After a constructive exchange of views, we signed off with a Twitter handshake and agreement to talk again.

"It got me thinking. I refuse to accept that most of us aren’t still capable of having vigorous debate and polite disagreements without insulting each other.

"We are united by our love of Scotland, albeit with very different views about its future. How, I wonder, can we find a way forward that transcends the party politics that so inhibit civilised conversation?

"In that respect, you might say that those responsible for governing the UK through these past few years have done us a favour by providing a textbook example of how not to do referendums.

  • Where they should have sought consensus, they sowed division.
  • Where they should have been frank about difficult trade-offs, they pretended those didn’t exist.
  • Where they now preach healing, they do nothing to repair the wounds.

"Whether or not Scotland becomes independent, Brexit has shown us how vital it is for the health of the nation that the 'winning side' should display magnanimity and tact to the side that doesn’t get what it wants.

"If you want independence, as I now do, it’s obvious that you will have more chance of bringing others with you, either in one day voting for independence or at least accommodating themselves to it, if you can empathise with their position.

"Try to understand that, while it may seem alien to you, many people have grown up feeling British to the core. For them, to contemplate independence for Scotland is also to contemplate the break-up of the country that formed their identities.

"Try to imagine the feelings, particularly, of some of the older generation; those with childhood memories of wartime or the postwar years, for whom the thought of separation is painful in the extreme.

"Some, like me, will find our way to the case for independence of our own accord, but even in our optimism and determination to make it work, we will be walking uncomfortably, in shoes that don’t quite fit us, glancing back in sadness at the Union we loved and still love.

"Others will need more persuasion, and will easily be deterred by rhetoric. Many will feel a strong sense of guilt at abandoning English friends who, having suffered Brexit, will now face with sadness of the loss of Scotland. All will be committed to the closest of ties to what remains of the UK, whatever the nature of the Westminster government.

"If, on the other hand, you are a unionist, try to understand the anguish of those who will never feel British at what they see as the subjugation of their country’s — anguish only increased by the prime minister’s declaration that it is not for the Scots to decide their own future.

"Admit to yourself that the majority of nationalists are not English-hating xenophobes, but nationalists in the other sense of the word, in that they simply believe in the right to self-determination and government closer to home.

"Often they are what you might call internationalist nationalists, in despair over Brexit and keen to re-establish themselves in the family of European nations.

"Ask yourself why it makes any more sense to call the other side divisive than it does to call yourself the same thing for taking a different view to them.

"Try to understand, even if you disagree, that many, many people, having been told in 2014 that voting for the Union was the best way to preserve Scotland’s place in the EU, now feel duped and utterly disenfranchised when the UK government deals with that argument by ignoring it.

"If you regard yourself as progressive, particularly on migration, ask yourself if you have more in common with the present Conservative Party than you do with Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP. Try asking yourself if, were you an EU national, you’d feel more welcome in Scotland or England.

"Whichever side you’re on, accept that wanting independence doesn’t automatically entail uncritical support of the SNP, any more than believing in the Union entails loyalty to any of the unionist parties.

"Don’t allow others to conflate the parties with the constitutional causes as if they were the same thing.

"Above all, if you don’t accept it from the other side, don’t accept from your own side the ludicrous claim to represent the “will of the Scottish people”; a phrase, too often used unthinkingly, which only makes sense if your intention is to signal to people who disagree with you that their views count for nothing, and to strengthen their resolve to oppose you.

"Whether or not independence comes — and I believe it eventually will — it must surely be in all our interests to ensure that Scotland maintains a healthier democracy than that of Westminster.

"That we come together rather than push each other away. That we have sensible debates rather than shouting matches. Or am I being naive?

Richard Haviland is a former civil servant

End the shouting matches over a referendum first appeared in The Times on Thursday February 13 2020, 12.01am