‘We’re great at celebrating defeats around here’
A Conservative ex-policeman has a stoic attitude to Scottish referendum poll’s outcome
John Prescott MP campaigning for a No vote in the referendum on Rutherglen main street in Glasgow yesterday. Photograph: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images
Jim Terras, chairman of the Conservative Association. “On September 19th, if there is a Yes vote, I will have no problem with it.” Photograph: Mark Hennessy
The Conservative Association in the Scottish Borders town of Selkirk boasts 600 members. Almost all of them are Conservatives, jokes the association’s chairman, Jim Terras, who says some have baulked at the idea of having to vote for the party, rather than just enjoy the bar in their headquarters on Etterick Terrace.
Terras is an unusual man. A retired police sergeant, he works in child protection services for the local council, while representing Unison union members.
During his days in uniform, first in Hawick and latterly in Melrose, he was a member of the central committee of the Scottish police federation – “the politburo”, he says, erupting in laughter.
Today, he can be often found in the association’s headquarters, sometimes helping out behind the bar. “It’s not a bad place to get an understanding of what people are thinking about the referendum,” he says. “There are those who are definitely No; there are those who are being cagey about their intentions; and there are one or two who are saying that they will vote Yes.”
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“The same arguments that Better Together have been using against Alex Salmond – that he has lacked detail in his plans – could be said now of what is being offered by them,” he says.
Terras holds opinions that go against the party grain: the Conservatives, he says, have failed, or refused to comprehend the damage caused to their reputation in Scotland by Margaret Thatcher. “Now I had a lot of time for her. I am right-of-centre in my political views, but that doesn’t meant that I thought, or think that her policies for Scotland were correct.
Selling council houses was a popular move, but “spending the money on other things or paying off debt means that there is a shortage of houses today, so that wasn’t very smart”. And present-day Tory policies are questionable, too: “I don’t fully agree with a lot of the welfare reforms, or all the talk about the unemployed being scroungers. I find that offensive. I’m sorry, but that’s the way that it is. Here in Scotland, the Conservatives are still giving out free prescription charges. There are times politicians just need to stop.”
He admires Scottish National Party leader and first minister Alex Salmond in the way a sports fan would have regard for a great heavyweight boxing champion. “There was a degree of disappointment around – even here – that he didn’t perform in the first debate, that it hadn’t lived up to expectation.”
However, he is less of a fan of some of the things that Salmond has done in power: the deeply unpopular merger of Scotland’s police forces and the centralisation of power to Edinburgh. His list begins to add up: the merger of fire and ambulance services, for example: “I suppose when you put it like that, there are quite a few things that I don’t like.”
Terras’s excitement is building as the referendum edges closer. “It’s getting interesting, isn’t it? It will be a fascinating few days, it sure will.
“On September 19th, if there is a Yes vote, I will have no problem with it. It will be a democratic decision and I will do everything I can to make it a success.
Terras rejects notions that Scotland will be divided. “Most folk are taking it calmly, accepting that people have a right to their opinions. One or two are getting short about it. Some people are taking it very hard,” he says. “A few might think about moving away, but most are really just stoic.”
Terras, however, is an optimist. “It depends on how you live. Do you relish challenge? Do you like something different? Can you see a way of making things better?”
In June, he spoke at the annual Selkirk Common Riding dinner, which each year remembers the 80 men of Selkirk who left to fight at Flodden in 1513 with James IV of Scotland.
Just one, a man called Fletcher, returned from battle, wearing an English flag around his head to show that none of the others would be coming back.
“We’re great at celebrating defeats around here. I raised a glass and told the room 90 people, mostly men – that win, lose or draw in the referendum – we would be back next year and that life would go on. Everyone applauded.”