2014 Referendum, Better Together, Daniel Hannan, Democracy, EU Referendum, Euro-Scepticism, European Union, George Orwell, Lallands Peat Worrier, Opinion, Politics, Project Fear, Scottish Independence, Scottish Nationalism
The 2014 referendum on Scottish independence was won, or so the chroniclers and balladeers now attest, because the Unionists had mounted an extremely effective PR campaign called “Project Fear.” Scotland, or so it goes, had emerged from Project Fear remodelled as a slippery, decidedly untrustworthy little nation. Its currency was a bodge, its economics were a gamble. The voters agreed not to go to sea in a boat which looked like the bottom might fall out.
One of the most vivid features of this retelling of history is the wretchedness of the Unionists. Flatly incapable of championing the Union, they could only ever disparage an independent Scotland. The Union was never going to flood public squares with chanting young supporters. An entire generation wasn’t going to piss away all of their idealism in campaigning hopelessly for the City of London and statues of Queen Victoria. The Union was eminently unqualified as a glamorous lost cause.
The wretchedness of the Unionists currently remains the keenest note in this song, even though Project Fear now appears to be almost cheerfully quaint. The sudden collapse in the price of Scotland’s kingpin export, oil, weeks after the voters had rejected independence, meant that the nation had enjoyed a particularly dramatic hair-breadth ‘scape i’ th’ imminent deadly breach. On Wednesday the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that Scotland would have fallen stillborn from the Union, with an estimated £10.6bn missing from its budget. With farcical aplomb, the SNP, a movement which is largely fuelled by resentment at Thatcherism, would have been forced to make cuts that would leave Mrs Thatcher resembling the manageress of a holiday camp. So Project Fear turned out to be Project Bang On or Project Putting Things Rather Mildly.
Although Project Fear was one of the few economic predictions which today’s crop of politicians has ever gotten right, their wisdom is seldom celebrated by those looking back on the independence referendum. It is viewed as a detail which can be glossed over. Moreover, if Project Fear has been lately promoted from its regional office to front the Remain campaign for the EU referendum, this is exclusively for PR reasons.
Project Fear has lost its economic coherence somewhere on the road down from Scotland. Upon arrival, it is all bark and no bite. David Cameron seems to have decided that Project Fear may be inglorious, that it may be wretched, that it may be stinkingly negative, but that it nonetheless, for all of its faults, works. Project Fear is today’s political equivalent of Viagra. The Remain camp takes no pride in using it, but without it a certain crucial swagger is missing from the performance.
Allow me to outline for you Project Fear’s true place in history.
Back in 2014, when the world was so young and we were all like children, the voters were being required to take a risk. An independent Scotland was going to be thrown on the mercy of international money markets and the EU. There was going to be all of the disruption to capitalism of cutting off UK funding and taxation and replacing them with untried Scottish substitutes. None of this was in itself especially scary. After all, merely seventy or so years beforehand a great wave of nations had broken away from European imperialism, and this process had been repeated anew after the downfall of the Soviet Union. The small independence-seizing nation had, as a road model, been exhaustively tested. Still, Scottish voters paused in their deliberations over only one question.
What do we get in return for all of this?
Yes, in exchange for the short-term inconvenience and uncertainty of becoming independent, what was on the table?
The Lallands Peat Worrier put this very well when reflecting on the referendum in 2015: “the Better Together parties looked deep into the eyes of the Scottish people, and found dealer’s eyes peering back at them, unsentimental, commercial, counting the pennies, weighing the odds.”
In the new independent Scotland, the UK’s meandering economy did not look like it was about to break into strides. The only available ruling party was the same unimaginative, centrist, half social-democratic kind of a party which was already established at Westminster. The idea that the SNP are left-wing and the Tories right-wing is always fun to sing along to, but most of the voters probably realised, down in the basement of their souls, that this was 2014, not 1982. The UK and an independent Scotland promised two largely indistinguishable versions of the status quo, a state subsidised capitalism with lacklustre productivity.
Neither was there any more democracy on the table. The existing Scottish government had been elected on a 50% turnout, significantly lower than the turnouts at Westminster elections. The Holyrood parliament was obviously immature, still dominated as it was by a single party. And the SNP’s fervour for democracy was switched off abruptly whenever anybody mentioned the EU. The SNP wanted the European Commission to provide unelected parental oversight for their “independent” nation.
So all that the voters would get in return for enduring the birth pains of the nation was more nationalism. And this wasn’t very inspirational. No doubt the voters remembered the previous twinges of nationalism across these islands and how embarrassing they had been. The Millennium Dome and Geri Halliwell draped in the Union Jack. Closer to home, Scottish nationalism had been only ever authentically consumed by American tourists and tweed-wearing, poetry-spouting buffoons. The greatest indictment of an independent Scotland was, however, that its chief enthusiasts, those cheering loudest in the nationalist revival, were young people. Perhaps their dayglow tartan and self-congratulatory flash mobs would prove to be only as fashionable as the summer’s pop songs. Perhaps, like Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” this nationalism would become inevitably annoying and boring. But everyone would still have to live forever with the nation that it had produced, as a sort of geopolitical tattoo or a permanent memento of a passing trend.
In the forthcoming referendum on the UK’s EU membership, the voters need to be persuaded that there is more waiting for them through the fog of Project Fear than drippy nationalist sentiment and a reorganisation of the status quo. I have no idea as yet what this reward could be. It could be an empowered mass participatory democracy, which is throbbing with awakened vitality. It could be renewed international trade. Whatever it is, it has to be something! It has to be something more than the dentist-like reassurances from Daniel Hannan that the pain won’t be too savage or long term.
What do we get in return for all of this?
It probably won’t deal any prompt blows for originality to end on a quotation from George Orwell, but this one is just perfect, so please trust me! It is haunting rather than trite. In 1943, Orwell made some comments on the Spanish Civil War which are worthwhile for 2016’s Brexiteers to contemplate. They can be reliably applied to the politics of every time and place. Their idealism is strangely enhanced by the unique succulence of Orwell’s pessimism:
To win over the working class permanently, the Fascists would have to raise the general standard of living, which they are unable and probably unwilling to do. The struggle of the working class is like the growth of a plant. The plant is blind and stupid, but it knows enough to keep pushing upwards towards the light, and it will do this in the face of endless discouragements. What are the workers struggling for? Simply for the decent life which they are more and more aware is now technically possible.
This – as Orwell had concluded – is “the real issue.” It is the only issue.