Alex Salmond, you’re no Nelson Mandela – Scotland is free already

Telegraph, 12 September 2014

For anyone like me who waged the long and bitter fight against apartheid, hearing Alex Salmond rank it alongside his campaign for Scottish independence defies belief. Apartheid was one of the worst racial tyrannies the world has ever seen – it suppressed, imprisoned, tortured or killed opponents, and it stripped blacks of any shred of dignity, denying their common humanity.

Scotland is part of a UK democracy where human rights are deeply entrenched. It has almost complete self-government – and has been promised still more. I quite understand why Salmond contrives to present his campaign as a battle against the perfidious English, he as the “Braveheart” liberating his people from London’s dastardly despotism. Doubtless one of his spin doctors will soon invoke him as a Nelson Mandela-like freedom warrior.

All that neatly diverts attention from both the paucity of the separatist case and its deeply flawed expectations. A separated Scotland will be weaker not stronger, a tiny isolated nation rather than part of a world power, poorer not richer, its currency in the lap of the gods, its status uncertain.

Maybe still in Nato, but no longer with a voice through the UK on the United Nations Security Council. Maybe admitted back into Europe, but probably not. Maybe still with the Queen as Head of State, but her Balmoral estate now in a foreign country – possibly no longer such a favoured destination.

Where Nelson Mandela was demanding his African people take their rightful place at the centre of power, Alex Salmond seeks to withdraw his people to the margins of it.

But when he commented that a long queue to register to vote in the referendum was “almost reminiscent of scenes in South Africa from 20 years ago when people queued up to vote in the first free election”, that wasn’t just fanciful and absurd, historically and politically – it was downright insulting.

I was a British parliamentary observer on that historic Wednesday morning, April 27, 1994, driven at dawn to Soweto, near Nelson Mandela’s old home, gold mine dumps looming in the early mist.

Arriving at our first polling station half an hour before it was due to open, there were already thousands queuing up, their mood calm and expectant. More were streaming in out of the morning haze as the sun rose.

My official driver happened to be a local resident, and was therefore invited to jump the queues and vote first. He waited anxiously to have his hand stamped. Then, as he put his ballot form in the box, he turned to catch my eye, smiling – part triumphant, part astonished – before leaving the polling station with a broad grin, punching the air in excitement.

Hardly able to accept that, in middle age, he had actually voted for the first time in his life, he told me he had been worried in case his ballot paper might be snatched away at the last minute.

An old woman – perhaps in her nineties – was led shuffling away after voting, a smile of eternity gracing her weathered face, as young men bounced confidently out in their trainers, giving high fives to friends.

After all those years, all the animosity, the ugly discrimination, the lives wasted away in prison, here it was happening, amazingly, right in front of me: constitutional apartheid being exorcised.

When Nelson Mandela cast his ballot later that day, also for the first time in his life, he characteristically joked when the waiting media posse asked him who he was voting for: “You know, I have been agonising over that choice all morning!”

It is sadly delusional to imply that next Thursday’s referendum will be any such magical Mandela moment.