A gloomy and foggy morning saw me down to the local polling booth five minutes before it opened to discover that the missus and I were the first voters on hand, although a small queue quickly developed. Like many, and despite the gravity of the issue, the length and nature of the campaign has meant that I’ll be relieved when it’s over. I’ve already said my piece on this issue, but those two factors lead me to add some reflections now that the day of decision has finally arrived.
My first thought is about the nature of that decision. Both sides of the debate have excessively emphasised the decisive nature of the result. I sympathise with the intention of the ‘No’ campaign to underline the fact that this is far more momentous than the normal election, where tactical protest voting will have more serious longer-term consequences. That addresses a portion of the ‘Yes’ vote who appear to see the referendum as an opportunity to end ‘politics as usual’, despite the fact that a post-independence Scotland will, of course, be dominated by the usual central-belt political mafia for inescapable reasons which have nothing to do with the flag flying over the town hall.
One feature of that is the evident hypocrisy of Salmond’s critique of the late intervention of the British liberal, conservative and labour party leaders being to ‘save their own jobs’. As none of them represent Scottish constituencies, none of them would in fact lose their seats (or jobs) as a result of Scottish independence. The might lose them subsequently as a consequence of the reaction of the Rest-of-UK (RUK) to Scottish secession, but that would be a subsequent issue for their non-Scottish electorates. This just one of a number of Salmond’s distortions during the campaign which, for all the ‘Yes’ campaign’s wailing at the pro-union bias of the British media, he’s effectively been given a free pass over. In the meantime, one of the politicians most set to benefit from tenure in more powerful but presumably at least equally well-paid jobs in a post-independence Scotland include, in their front rank, Alex Salmond.
But that’s just a minor point. The real issue is that nationalists have never accepted either now or in the past that a ‘no’ vote precludes secession being reintroduced in the future. I’ve always enjoyed exploiting the special pleading implicit in that position by demanding as many referenda to get us back into the union as they needed to get out of it. Their instinctually hostile reaction to that proposal indicates how they prioritise their favoured result over opportunities for ‘the sovereign will of the Scottish people’ (which Salmond has liked to invoke ad nauseaum during this campaign as an apparent deus ex machina to extricate him from the rejection of Scottish membership of a currency union with RUK) to be expressed on the issue. Nonetheless, I believe that the UK can only be legitimately held together by the consent of the constituent nations. That means that I believe a ‘No’ vote now should not rule out a further referendum in, let’s say, twenty-five year’s time if the Scottish electorate return another secessionist government with an electoral majority. Every generation should have the opportunity to reject the union if they chose; likewise, every generation should have the opportunity to rejoin the UK provided RUK agrees.
So much for the finality of the decision in my view.
The problem for me is that revisiting this campaign in the future will reveal some of the problems which have been evident in the campaign and which reflect larger underlying national and cultural problems.
To start with the ‘Better Together’ campaign. This has been unimpressive, although I still think they were right to attempt a low-key deconstruction of the ‘Yes’ agenda on policy grounds, most notably over the issue of currency. The flaw in this plan was it’s very lack of emotion. It’s tempting to observe, as many commentators have done in the past couple of weeks, that the ‘No’ campaign only managed to respond to the emotional enthusiasm of the ‘Yes’ campaign in the very last phase, and this was largely due to the loss of traction the currency issue experienced.
The watershed was the second TV debate between Darling and Salmond. While tackling Salmond about his lack of ‘Plan B’ was clearly telling in the first TV debate, I suspect the BT campaign HQ placed entirely too much stock in repeating the performance; having discovered one area where Darling, a less charismatic performer, could successfully tackle Salmond, clearly the more effective demagogue, they seemed unwilling to expand the offensive. In part this was a valid strategic move, in that the currency issue and even the selection of Darling as spokesman reflected an understanding that the ‘No’ campaign was immediately disadvantaged when it came to contesting the core ground of nationalism and national identity against a ‘Yes’ campaign and leader which relentlessly capitalised on their appeal in those areas.
I’ve certainly been heartened to hear Nick Clegg, David Cameron, Gordon Brown and even Ed Miliband intervening with relatively convincing, if apparently belated, appeals to inclusive British national sentiment in this last stage. But welcome as I’ve found this, attempting to do this earlier in the day – while it might have provided the ‘positive’ emotional dimension apparently previously lacking in the ‘No’ campaign – would not necessarily have had the same impact. One reason Salmond was desperately keen to pull Cameron into the debate was that having an English Tory Prime Minister, and an Eton-educated one at that, would have vindicated all the prejudices about an English Tory-dominated Westminster system that he needed to maximise his appeal to Scottish nationalist prejudices.
Both of these strategies – the focus on currency and the avoidance of a British/Scottish national identity debate indicate how the nature of the campaign has been shaped by a deeply-rooted reservoir of national prejudice. This was most evident in the second TV debate where Darling (assisted by frankly non-existant moderation) allowed himself to be dragged into a shouting match with Salmond, with the predictable result that Salmond was perceived to have won the debate. The reality was that Salmond still had no convincing answers to several policy questions, and remained wedded to distortions designed to mischaracterise both his opponents and the reality of the Scottish position today; more on that in a moment. The point I want to make about that debate is that Salmond responded to the attack on policy grounds by wrapping himself in the flag. And he was allowed to get away with it.
That says something disquieting about politics in an era where people like to believe that, post-Iraq, post-Blair, they are less easily duped into backing wrong-headed or contradictory policies presented by charismatic politicians. If the politician involved can wave the Saltire vigorously enough, and steal the moral high-ground brazenly enough, we – or half of the Scottish electorate at least – will indulge them.
A couple of policy issues should illustrate the contradictions inherent in the ‘Yes’ campaign, all of which indicate how central the currency and economic issues still remain to the utopian ideal implicit in their campaign.
First, the question of currency which in turn involves larger economic relationships. In my view an independent Scotland will probably have to use it’s own currency in the intermediate phase between separation from RUK and entry to the EU (which will involve final adoption of the Euro). This means firstly that a Scottish national bank, even with a per-capita split of Bank of England reserves, will need massive capitalisation which will require raising bonds (or equivalent) outside Scotland. If we really are going to use Sterling without membership of a political or currency union, Scottish fiscal policy will then be determined by the Bank of England on the basis of doing what’s best for RUK. Either way, so much for independence and hello to externally-imposed inflation/deflation.
This will be compounded by the need to meet a major borrowing requirement caused by the gap between SNP spending plans and the likely income from tax revenues. While I don’t share the visions of a Mad Max-style post apocalyptic wasteland the Daily Telegraph likes to predict for an independent Scotland, I have no doubt it will involve – at best – a marginal contraction of the economy. Couple that with the inevitability of higher interest rates being charged on foreign loans, and maintainence of existing welfare spending, never mind the additional utopian aspirations of the ‘Yes’ campaigners, will be unaffordable. While I’m sympathetic to higher levels of personal taxation to meet some of the shortfall our collective post-war European experience has given us plenty of notice that that is not an answer in itself. The ‘Yes’ campaign may well want to turn the clock back to a pre-Thatcherite era of ‘tax and spend’ but they appear wilfully blind to the magnitude and chronic nature of the problems this involved for the Heath, Wilson and Callaghan governments.
As it happens, I personally am in favour of more Scandanavian than Thatcherite redistributive taxation and welfare policies. Unlike the ‘Yes’ campaign, I don’t delude myself about the costs involved, not least in terms of taxation and financial policy. And on that score, the model represented by the Republic of Ireland, the last part of the UK to secede, is not encouraging. Removing the Westminster yoke did little to generate an Irish economic renaissance, to the point where for decades afterwards, generations of young Irish people had to emmigrate to find the economic opportunities denied them at home. The Irish experience also offers us a useful example of what can happen when the seceding state reneges on their portion of the national debt (or, in this case, public debt associated with land reform) – de Valera embarked on a decade-long trade war which was of little benefit to Britain or Ireland which remained largely dependent on trade with the UK. A similar economic asymmetry will also exist in the case of Scotland/RUK; with 85% of Scots export trade with England, and with the reality that the Scottish population and economic output will be about 10% of that of the rest of the UK, the post-independence reality will be that we will be economically dominated by RUK.
But the ‘Yes’ campaign need no rational response to this, when they can succeed by simply asserting the brilliance of the post-independence nirvana while questioning the patriotism of anybody who questions them. Given those economic realities, to resort to Lyndon Johnson’s colourful terminology, I prefer to be inside the tent pissing out rather than the other way around. This indeed sounds negative, but then from my perspective the ‘Yes’ campaign are unable to realise that the UK is an asset to the material achievement necessary for a fair and just society. Whatever economic disadvantages Scotland labours under will only be made worse by independence; there will be no ‘Westminster dividend’; quite the opposite.
One area where this dividend is confidently promised is in the arena of nuclear weapons. My problem with this is not with the emotive language Salmond has invoked over horrorific reality of nuclear weapons. That’s all true. But it’s not necessarily relevant. The question really is ‘are they necessary’? Well, if the ‘Yes’ campaign really do want to join NATO, as they suggest, then one of the fundamental reasons for the existance of that alliance is to allow European nations, otherwise threatended by (previously) the Soviet Union and (now) Russia, to shelter under the US ‘nuclear umbrella’. Which means, in the Brave New World of Scottish independence, we’re totally prepared to benefit from the necessity of nuclear deterrence, but we just want to off-load the moral responsibility as well as financial expense on to the Americans, who we can then criticise for protecting us with such unethical weapons. Forgive me for pointing out the colossal hypocrisy involved.
Forgive me for also pointing out that the cost savings of a nuclear-free Scotland will not fund the Tory-free social democratic utopia promised, either. However, I’m sure some further savings will be found by down-sizing the Scottish armed forces to Icelandic or Irish levels. While that might appease the neutralist sentiment of the Greens in particular by ruling out any significant overseas interventions (bar perhaps manning small UN peacekeeping contingents to provide hostages for next year’s fashionable Middle Eastern terrorist group), if you believe the British armed forces have played a generally positive role in interventions since the Second World War, the Scottish part in that will now be terminated. To a degree that kind of thinking has been facilitated by the self-defeating indulgence of the received wisdom over the Iraq and Afghanistan interventions by all political parties and the media. But that only muddies the waters; what really matters is that NATO, as an instrument of collective security, represents the culmination of the most expensive human lessons of the First and Second World War. Even excluding the nuclear issue, Scottish armed forces following the Icelandic or Irish models will make no worthwhile contribution to deterring conventional attack upon other European states by an aggressor. Anybody viewing Russia’s behaviour over Georgia and Ukraine in the past few years should be given serious pause by that prospect. And, again, by opting out of the British security structure and culture of military involvement, and reducing the amount of GDP spent on conventional forces able to deploy to defend other NATO members, Scotland will simply end up riding on the coat-tails of the United States for conventional defence just as it will on the nuclear issue.
Cumulatively that is not my idea of a worthwhile independent Scotland, but the success of the nationalists in evading the necessary consequences of these issues by appealing to emotion (anti-intervention, anti-nuclear, anti-establishment, and ultimately anti-English emotion) indicates how deeply-seated the relative discounting of the value of the UK and the British identity is in Scottish national culture. Promoting the value of the British national identity can admittedly be hard when the spokespeople involved include Nigel Farage (the English Alex Salmond; charismatic secessionist demagogue), George Galloway (charlatan), and – as I discovered when walking to Edinburgh central public library last weekend – the Orange Order. And yet there are some encouraging signs that an appeal to British nationalism – not the rancid bigotry peddled by the BNP – but an inclusive, tolerant and even social democratic British national identity can avoid the negative anti-English stereotypes which ultimately underpin the ‘Yes’ campaign.
After all, despite Salmond’s attempts to appropriate the NHS as ‘Yes’ property, all the meaningful steps towards social democracy we have experienced in Scotland came from British politicians – notably those typical examples of English Tory public-schoolboy-dominated Westminster, David Lloyd George and Nye Bevan.
It has been said to me that one positive outcome of a ‘Yes’ vote would be that Scotland would no longer be able to blame England for everything (I should point out that this observation was made by a relative who lived in Scotland, and experienced anglophobic bigotry at first hand). Sadly, the anglophobic impetus is so central to the Scottish national identity, and so easily exploited by unscrupulous politicians, that I have no doubt a victorious Salmond and his successors will, for decades to come, blame all the ills evident in an independent Scotland on the continuing and baleful influence of Westminster. I can understand the appeal of this; after all, if there isn’t a pre-determined ‘other’ to use as a scapegoat, we might actually have to begin the hard work of sorting our problems out for ourselves. But it remains a gaping flaw in our political culture and national identity which has only been brought to a head, no resolved, by the referendum.
One last word on a successful ‘No’ vote – frankly, for once I find myself in agreement with the Little Englanders among the Conservative MP’s in Westminster who are quailing at the price Cameron appears to be willing to pay to preserve the union. Firstly, the West Lothian question must be finally resolved, and Scottish MP’s should not vote on English domestic matters. Tough luck, Labour. Secondly, the Barnett formula should also go. Redistribution of resources should flow impartially to regions and localities across the UK on the basis of need, with no national bias distorting that allocation. Tough luck to Scotland, but tougher luck to South-East England.
And finally, the result? My money remains on a 52%/48% ‘No’ vote, but it could easily go the other way. I doubt either side will approach 60% of the vote whatever happens. Whatever the result, Scotland will retain an anglophobic kernel to our national identity which secession or continued union will not resolve. In that respect the referendum will not, sadly, be decisive and we will be dogged by that handicap until we lift the mythical yoke of English oppression from our own minds. And that, as I have said before, will not be achieved by changing the flag over the town hall.