It was the summer of 1988 and it was one of my first job interviews. I had studied at Edinburgh University but I had never been in the North British Hotel before. It wasn’t the kind of place a skint student went. We had, I remember, a pot of tea. Lavish hospitality wasn’t really Donald’s thing. By the end of it, though, he offered me a job and it was the beginning of a partnership that would see us working together for many years to come on the creation of a Scottish Parliament.
We were an unlikely pairing in some ways. He the archetypal middle class Scottish Presbyterian lawyer (“I suppose you’ll be wanting Christmas day off” he’d say, only half joking) and me, the seventh child of a Gaelic speaking Irish labourer. But together we tried to shape a future for Scotland that would answer the grievances keenly felt in the country but maintain Scotland’s place in the UK.
For all Donald’s wry pessimism, he was a passionate Scottish patriot, proud of the enlightenment and of the intellectual contribution Scotland has made to the world. He loved its universities, its distinct institutions, its civic values and decency and, when it came to places, he loved nowhere more than Glasgow, the city he represented and where I grew up.
For Donald, and for me, a Scottish Parliament was about giving Scotland legislative power to shape its own future but not about forcing a choice between different identities in our multi-national Union. There is always a discussion about what makes sense to do at the UK and Scottish levels and more locally. This changes over time, as shown by the discussion about new powers for the Scottish Parliament. This was never a vision about forcing people to choose between overlapping Scottish and British identities even if one was felt more strongly than the other.
Nor was it about seeing Scotland’s place in the world through the single lens of Scottishness. We were not trying to tear people apart or force them to choose whom they should be to the exclusion of other sides of their character.
Throughout history independence and self-determination have been important in securing freedom from colonial rule. But Scotland is not labouring under a colonial yoke. Our worry in the early days of setting up the parliament was that this was such a good deal for Scotland that other parts of the UK would look on with envy. Through the devolution settlement Scotland enjoys autonomy while remaining part of perhaps the most successful multi-national country ever created.
The question “if we are better together, why are we not better already?” is a good one but it ignores the exceptionalism of Britain’s story and the Scottish role within it. A country that faced down fascism in the Second World War, at times almost alone; founded and built the best, most socially just health system in the world; has a cultural reach way beyond its one per cent of the global population share; used its leadership of international bodies to put aid, trade and development at the top of the global agenda; and had the strength to withstand the financial crash that crippled smaller economies is a country worth being part of.
There are many nation states of five million people. The question is not possibility but desirability. In an interdependent world Scotland can enjoy self-government and be part of a union of nations that enjoys tremendous power and reach across the world. There has been a political tendency to try to withdraw from the world’s problems, to retreat from interdependence and free movement of people, ideas and capital. It is seen in the little Englander attitude of Ukip and their fellow travellers who seekto blame someone else for every grievance.
The SNP would furiously reject comparisons with Ukip but, however social democratic their language, blaming the English or the UK Government for everything and suggesting all our problems would be resolved if only we could withdraw from the neighbour who causes them has parallels with those on the right who blame the EU, immigration and globalisation. Both seek a solution in separation, even if one is on the right and the other on the left.
Heart and head should not be on opposite sides in the referendum debate. The smaller vision, the diminished view of what Scotland can be, is on the Yes side. Scots can say no thanks to independence and uphold an idealism that wants Scotland to play its part as a progressive leader in global ideas and change. The UK has played this role many times before and we can do so again. Scotland is bigger than the separatists. It deserves to remain bigger.
This article first appeared in The Herald on 16th September.