Reflecting on the French Revolution in the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens wrote:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”
This passage may serve equally well as a description of the competing claims that were made by the opposing sides in this year’s Scottish independence referendum.
The pro-independence campaign claimed that voting for an independent Scotland would open the way to the best of times, to the age of wisdom, to the epoch of (self)-belief, to the season of Light, to the spring of hope, in which Scots would have had everything before them and which would lead directly to an earthly (Caledonian) paradise.
The pro-union campaign, in response, struck a primarily negative note, seeming unable to find the words to sing the virtues of a British union continuing into the future. Instead, they said that an independent Scotland would open the doors to the worst of times, that voting in favour of separation would be an act of foolishness and of self-delusion which the voters in Scotland would live to regret in a winter of despair, with nothing before them but a road paved with good intentions and broken dreams.
I fear that similarly competing and irreconcilable claims will be made by the opposing sides in the campaign around the anticipated referendum on the United Kingdom’s continuing membership of the European Union, following the coming general election. Those wishing the UK to break from the EU will doubtless extol the mythic virtues and heroic vigour of Albion unbound. Those advocating the UK’s continued membership of the EU – like those who campaigned for Scotland’s to stay in the (British) Union – will find it difficult to articulate a positive vision of Europe which will resonate with (particularly English) voters and will, instead, fall back on emphasising the economic dangers and market uncertainties which will come with our “turning our back on Europe” and falling prey to those vices etymologically associated with island life: isolationism and insularity. Continue reading