I am greatly relieved that Philip Stephens wrote this piece in the FT today. The last time I commented on political affairs north of the border I faced a mini barrage of criticism, so I had been holding back on my dismay about the apparently unstoppable tide of Scottish independence. Philip’s excellent column gives me some cover.
Let me first say that whether or not Scotland leaves the UK is ultimately a matter for Scots. I respect the intentions and motivations of those who want independence, among whom I am sure there are many Scottish RSA Fellows. But as someone who would be deeply sorry if Scotland became a separate nation, I also agree with Stephens that the argument is currently being lost almost by accident.
It is difficult to know who to blame more. In defiance of the theory of loss aversion, the Conservative (and Unionist) Party is apparently substantially more motivated by repatriating some regulatory powers from Brussels than by saving the UK. Anyway the Party has almost zero credibility in Scotland. The UK Labour Party simply doesn’t care. If that seems like a bald statement, you must judge people by what they do not what they say and what almost every ambitious Scottish Labour politician over the last twenty years had done is the same – they have moved to London. And the Lib Dems are tainted in Scottish eyes both by their collaboration with previous Labour administrations in Scotland and now by being a part of the Westminster Coalition.
With the SNP and their strategically brilliant leader Alex Salmond in almost hegemonic political control and now awash with money, independence (or independence-lite which is probably a more accurate description of what the nationalists call devolution-max) seems inevitable when the referendum comes. You would have thought there would be signs of a ‘no’ campaign mustering but my Scottish friends tell me there are none. Beyond apathy and tribalism there are two deeper reasons why such a campaign may be difficult to develop.
The first is that in stark contrast to the inclusiveness of the rainbow coalition which comprised the Scottish Constitutional Convention (a body key to winning the case for devolution in the nineties) Tories, Labourites, and Lib Dems in Scotland must feel that if they joined forces they would only manage the not inconsiderable feat of looking even more unattractive than they already do.
The second problem is what on earth would be the top line argument of the campaign to keep the union in its present form? Virtually no one in Scotland wants to wear the mantle of unionism but to say instead that you are a bit of a unionist is like hoping people will warm to someone who admits to being only an occasional wife beater. The other tactic, which is to scare people about loss of public service entitlements or jobs, may be ever so slightly less powerful when the economy is tanking and the UK Government is perceived to be imposing the deepest cuts in three generations.
This will probably only reveal my gross naivety, but if I were crafting a campaign I would make it about choice. At the moment Scots can choose to be Scottish in most things, British in some things and European in a few. As anyone who has been to Scotland recently knows, the idea that the current constitutional settlement denies Scots a distinct identity or different policies is laughable. So my campaign would say ‘don’t let the nationalists tell you – you choose who you want to be’.
If I was running a subtheme it might be to ask what the effect on the Scottish coffers would be if tax powers are devolved and the many tens of thousands of middle class Scots who currently work in England during the week paid their taxes to a separate Whitehall Treasury (I really have no idea how much money this is but it would be interesting to know).
Anyway, I won’t be part of any campaign; my support would be bound to make it even more unpopular. But when the referendum happens and the Scots exercise their legitimate right to choose, I will be hoping against hope that a country I love and about which I feel genuine British pride (it was after all the cradle of the enlightenment) doesn’t become a foreign land.
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.