2014 Referendum, Alex Salmond, David Cameron, Democracy, Devo Plus, Edinburgh Agreement, Jeremy Purvis, Nationalism, Opinion, Politics, Scotland, Scottish Independence, Scottish National Party, Scottish Nationalism, SNP
Regardless of whether or not Scotland is ready for independence, it is increasingly necessary to prepare for the eventuality of a No vote. What will it look like if hundreds of thousands of nationalists see their prospective state killed off in front of them? Will these people make rueful, sporting remarks and then slink away to from whence they came, like those who had campaigned for the unwanted AV system in 2011? It seems improbable. Only around 30% of the electorate support Scottish independence, but nationalists figure disproportionately throughout Scotland’s political, cultural and, yes, online affairs. The underlying ideological premise of the ruling party – and in fact of the only fully-functioning political party in Scotland – is the drive to independence. We have too many eggs in this basket.
From a United Ireland to Chechnya, it is not unknown in history for a nation to be cancelled (at least as a political entity) but rarely has this occurred with democratic consent and in peacetime. Neither Quebec nationalism nor the Basque and Catalan stateless nations have ever received a knockout blow, and indeed both have lately taken heart from the Scottish example. The 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum is so ineptly engineered because a No vote will extinguish completely the ambitions of an influential aspirant class. There is nothing to sustain or placate the losing side.
I am not suggesting for a moment that the despair will be so dire that terrorism is likely. Erstwhile terrorist groups such as the repulsive and derisory Scottish National Liberation Army have not left a mark upon Scottish politics. But a No vote will be to the overwhelming detriment of Scottish democracy. Scottish nationalists may end up as wretched and demoralised as England’s “traditional” conservatives. Those old Tories no longer participate in politics anymore, or else they rally around ineffective, nostalgic parties such as UKIP. The Left, as we all know too well, is accustomed to defeat, but there is more at stake in Scottish nationalism than the Left.
We need to get serious about anticipating and managing the coming disaster, rather than persisting in barren fantasies about Scottish independence. Scott Hames recently commissioned essays from twenty-seven Scottish writers and poets on the coming referendum. These authors together generate an impression that there remain only a few details of the new nation to be ironed out, rather than a whole state to be fought for. The blog Wings Over Scotland presently provides rolling commentary on every speck of trivia about the independence campaign. The most frightening thing about this website is its readership: 400,000+ a month at the last headcount. The Lallands Peat Worrier and Michael Greenwell produce weekly podcasts in which a succession of different guests are interviewed about the controversies raging on the campaign trail.
This is as unnerving as the climactic scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho, in which Norman’s mother swings around in her seat to reveal a gaping corpse. There is no discernible campaign and no real controversies. There is in fact virtually no debate. We are preparing for a referendum almost unique in human history: even though the British state is pauperised and capitalism is apparently experiencing terminal collapse, we find both sides of the referendum debate defending the status quo. The poor devils at “Better Together” are in the awful position of having to champion the existing, tumbledown system; the other side claim that with everything from the head of state to the currency remaining intact, almost nothing will change with independence.
The most comical aspect of the referendum debate is the universal insistence that it hasn’t started yet. Last June an Ipsos MORI poll reported that, “69% of people still have not had any involvement in the debate.” At the start of May, the Daily Record demanded that the debate “start now.” A week later and the entrepreneur Sir Tom Hunter was qualifying his criticism that nobody knew what either side in the debate were talking about, with the declaration that, “we’ve got to get into the real fight and I’m really looking forward to it.” We are led to imagine that the public are waiting distantly outside the debating hall, and at some unspecified point, perhaps in the “run up” to next year’s vote, they will all suddenly file in and set about debating Scotland’s destiny.
The Scottish public seem to be amused by the independence debate, so long as it causes them no personal inconvenience – such as the inconvenience of having to actually think about it. A Daily Record poll from as recently as February found that independence or otherwise only limped in at eighth in a list of voter priorities. The polling witchdoctor Professor John Curtice warned that, “For the most part, only political anoraks are interested in how government decisions are made. Most people are simply concerned about what decisions are made.” By May, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations had discovered that “ordinary people” were writing off the entire independence campaign and accusing both sides of “dishonest” conduct.
Before we relinquish our debating hall metaphor, a lot is explained by the fact that the public were locked out from the beginning. It is hard for politicians to excite ordinary people about democracy after years of insisting that it is dangerous and unpredictable. The head of state is naturally not up for discussion. Greater powers short of independence? No, you can’t vote for that either. Even appearing to confine the debate to the powers of the Holyrood parliament is grossly dishonest, given that its sovereignty is circumscribed by European legislation. With rare, red-blooded democracy taken off the menu, and a flavourless vegetarian alternative dumped in its place, it is no wonder that the voters are turning up their noses.
There is a temptation here to caricature the nationalists as a lonely elite who are obsessing about fiscal autonomy in their own little world, whilst the masses have turned off and dropped out. Yet we should not take our politicians for granted. The apparent smile of the Edinburgh Agreement conceals a nasty bite. In 2012 the majority of Scottish voters had wanted Holyrood to have more powers within the Union, but the opportunity to deliver this would have potentially left the First Minister Alex Salmond with greater prestige and popularity. For party political advantage, David Cameron was willing to countenance the remote possibility that Scotland might vote for independence, in exchange for the likelihood that Salmond would be humiliated and that his parliament would be discredited. Time has shown that Cameron is gambling with good odds.
Iain Macwhirter argued perceptively in last week’s Herald that the Yes campaign may have to promote independence in order to safeguard the existing devolution settlement. Macwhirter tickles us with the end of Scottish civilisation:
Holyrood’s powers will likely go into reverse… Not only will the UK Government continue to keep oil revenues, it will axe the Barnett Formula and impose an inflexible version of Calman-style tax-sharing that will erode Scotland’s funding advantage. The media will become even more concentrated in London as the Scottish press declines and the BBC broadcasts endless stories on English curriculum reforms and foundation hospitals.
The Lib-Dem technocrat Jeremy Purvis has recently launched something called “Devo Plus”: a body of proposals for Holyrood to acquire greater tax and spending powers in the event of a No vote. We may dismiss this as a spivvy little think-tank. Purvis has sensed a gap in the policy market and when there is a No vote, he will be waiting.
Devo Plus may potentially permit Salmond to retire gracefully and claim that his unpopular and divisive independence campaign has actually achieved (to use a Blairite term) a legacy. Purvis highlights the impoverishment of the existing referendum, because if his package is so sensible and necessary then why are we not allowed to vote for it? Yet Devo Plus may equally disrupt the referendum campaign by licensing the insinuation that a No vote can guarantee both further devolution and a defence of the status quo. In not being enshrined within the referendum, Devo Plus can be quietly junked or diluted once the Unionists have won.
Paradoxically, Devo Plus may nobble the referendum, but if it was on the ballot paper it would win by a landslide. Devo Plus will only acquire legitimacy if there is an overwhelming democratic demand for it and a corresponding rejection of the Edinburgh Agreement. Caught at a crossroads, facing the dispiriting reversal which may accompany a No vote or the unknown paths of independence, Devo Plus appears to at least offer a destination.