Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire on New Zealand

Toby Manhire: Scottish plea 'manna from Mars'

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Kate Moss is seen on stage accepting the award for British Male Solo Artist on behalf of winner David Bowie from Noel Gallagher at the BRIT Awards 2014. Photo / AP
Kate Moss is seen on stage accepting the award for British Male Solo Artist on behalf of winner David Bowie from Noel Gallagher at the BRIT Awards 2014. Photo / AP

David Bowie couldn't make the Brit Awards in London last week, but as luck would have it he had a supermodel friend on hand to pick up the prize. Frocked in a Ziggy Stardust jumpsuit, Kate Moss concluded her acceptance speech on Bowie's behalf with the words, "Scotland, stay with us."

This really was manna from Mars for those who want Scots to tick the "no" box in answer to the question "Should Scotland be an independent country?" this September. One such no-advocate, British Prime Minister David Cameron, told reporters that Bowie's message prompted him to "let out a little cry of joy".

The referendum may still be 200 days away, but it is very much in the foreground of British news.

This week, Cameron staged a Cabinet meeting in Aberdeen. Alex Salmond, Scottish First Minister and leader of the ruling Scottish National Party in the Scottish Parliament - a result of a 1997 vote on devolution - convened his own Cabinet meeting less than 10km away.

Aberdeen was swarming with field-tripping politicians owing to its proximity to the lucrative North Sea oil fields. Cameron personally visited an offshore installation in a high-viz vest, delivering images to illustrate his insistence that such enterprise needs the "broad shoulders" of a major economy to ride out wobbles. The gruff but charming Salmond, meanwhile, pointedly noted that while he was working in the energy industry in the 80s, Cameron "was still fooling around on the playing fields of Eton". The Tories, Salmond has repeatedly insisted, have "squandered" the ocean riches.

In the lead-up to the clash of the Caledonian Cabinets, the "yes" camp suffered twin setbacks. Most crucially, Cameron's finance sidekick George Osborne announced - backed by the other main parties - that under no circumstances would the UK enter a currency union with an independent Scotland. Pro-independence campaigners insist it can be done unilaterally by simply sticking with the British pound. Critically, it would leave Scotland without the monetary levers and safety nets of a central bank. Which, for some, compromises the very idea of autonomy.

"It is an independence of sorts," says Guardian economics editor Larry Elliott, "but it is the independence of the granny flat."

Almost as damaging was a remark by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso that it would be "extremely difficult, if not impossible" for Scotland to join the European Union. Salmond has maintained that EU membership would be seamless and straightforward, but Barroso points out that Spain, especially, may be reluctant to go along with it, given the separatist movements it faces in Catalonia and the Basque Country.

What does Scotland's independence vote mean for New Zealand? Not a huge amount, let's be honest. But not nothing. There are important cultural ties: Scottish heritage is there to see from Waipu to Southland. And thousands of New Zealanders - myself included - have gained UK visa privileges thanks to Scottish grandparents. Should Scotland become independent, that would go, but citizenship of the new nation-state could be easier. Salmond said last year that anyone with a Scottish grandparent would be eligible for a passport.

The New Zealand republican movement would no doubt regard Scottish independence as a momentum builder even though Scotland would retain the Queen as head of state.

Some "yes" advocates have pointed to New Zealand as a sort of template in terms of constitutional connection to Britain. John Niven, a columnist for Glasgow's Daily Record, said the sight of the public gallery and many New Zealand MPs singing Pokarekare Ana after Parliament passed the marriage equality bill persuaded him. "As I watched it, as I contrasted this beautiful scene against the footage played out in our House of Commons every single week of the hateful, braying, chubby faces ... it occurred to me, Scotland could do a New Zealand, too." Best he doesn't tune in to Question Time.

But perhaps the most immediate impact of Scottish independence relates to a subject New Zealand has lately been chewing over: the flag. "A flag is an emotive symbol," Charles Ashburner of the non-aligned British Flag Institute told the Financial Times this week. "It has to be properly representative of the people and, if that means changing it, then change it should."

One suggestion is that the white-on-blue St Andrew's Cross should be replaced in the Union Jack with Wales' yellow cross, thereby remedying the absence of a Welsh component. It's safe to say that should the Union flag be redrawn, especially with an inelegant blast of yellow, New Zealand would take the opportunity to change more than just the top-left corner.

In Scotland no one can say for sure what the country will do for a currency, whether it will retain EU membership, whether there will be a patrolled border, what will replace the BBC. And on the list goes. Polling makes it clear it is still too close to call, but for the moment that muddle of doubt plays squarely into the hands of the No camp.

Toby Manhire is in London on the British High Commission/Financial Times scholarship, sponsored by British Airways.

- NZ Herald

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