Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Why I'm voting No

I'd hoped to do better than this for what is my last post before the vote on Thursday but like Chris Deerin, this referendum has quite literally made me ill.  I was struck how different one's perception of all this depends on the little slice of the world one inhabits.  One of my oldest friends finds the debate to have been a largely good-natured discussion about the sort of country we want to live in.  He was genuinely shocked when I said I thought this has been about the worst thing I have ever seen happen to my country.

It was good to be reminded that all this depends on your Sitz im Leben.  In my street, for example, you could be forgiven for thinking this wasn't happening at all.  There's a couple of posters but those who decline to wear their hearts on their windows are in the overwhelming majority.  Canvassers there has been none, at least not when I'm in, which to be fair isn't that often.  But elsewhere my experience has been this debate has divided our nation quite bitterly with friends and family who normally agree on most things at each other's throats in a plebiscite that reduces complex choices down to a 'you're with me or against me' binary decision.

This, I accept, hasn't been the experience of others but I think the chances of a Scandinavian social democracy at peace with itself emerging from a narrow Yes vote are precisely nil.  I have no idea how many years of austerity would face an independent Scotland.  Deutsche Bank's Great Depression scenario seems unlikely but no more than the suggestion that hard times would last a year or three, as one nationalist colleague suggested to me.  I doubt Scotland would have a functioning independent state in that time-scale and would expect austerity to last at least a decade.  I would feel more relaxed about this if I thought I knew people were aware that this is what they were voting for but as I said here, all the evidence I have suggests that they don't.

This getting the opposite of what people think they're voting for forms part of the reason why I'm voting No.  You don't want to live in a country that has foodbanks?  Well, you better move to one that doesn't have any because you have them now and they are still going to be there if Scotland votes Yes.  Those who don't like austerity better brace themselves for what's about to come.  As for 'neo-liberalism', wait until you see the stance the government in an independent Scotland will be compelled to adopt to replace the capital that will surely flee.  And regarding Europe, people need to understand that a Yes vote is a vote to leave the EU with no prospect of re-entry if Scotland refuses to acknowledge its responsibility for its share of the UK debt.

But while serious, all these are side-issues as far as I'm concerned.  I'm voting No because I'm Scottish and British.  It's not an abstract concept or something that has been imposed but rather what I actually am.  Scotland is my home and so is Britain; it would break my heart to see an international border erected here. Independence would make more acute that feeling I've always had of not really belonging anywhere.  I appreciate this is a bit selfish but Britain is as close as I'm ever likely to get and I don't want to lose it.  The answer to those who say I can lose this common home and keep it at the same time is, I simply don't believe you.  I don't believe the nationalists are okay with with me being British.  They claim I can keep this while their activists spew venom at the very idea on the streets and across social media.

I don't want to get into a boring argument about how representative the goons screaming 'quisling' and 'traitor' into people's faces are.  Most people aren't political activists and most political activists are not crazy like this but there's enough evidence in for me to stick to my original position*: what we are being asked to believe is that in our case, nationalism will turn out to be something other than what we already know it to be.  I'm sorry if this is too negative but I just don't believe them: this is why I'm voting No.

*I hope Chris Deerin will forgive me for re-working his turn of phrase in the piece linked above.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Yes Scotland's biggest lie

At the core of nationalism is the idea of a people in a given territory are bound together by a shared culture that demands the boundaries of the state should be the same as the nation in order for this to find its true expression.  One has been struck by the way how little of culture, in the sense of language, literature, art and music, has featured in this debate at all.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  One is that what cultural differences there are, we enjoy these this in the mix of a wider British culture, which in turn is part of a bigger still trans-Atlantic culture.  'Friends' has had immeasurably more influence on the way young people speak than Burns.  Like, totally.  The other more important reason is that no-one could seriously claim that Scottish culture has been oppressed by membership of the Union.  What self-respecting dictatorship wouldn't have Alan Bissett shipped off to a gulag to give him something to complain about?

Rather, the dominant idea in this referendum is the notion that the national culture that has been held back is a political culture.  Britain has locked left-wing Scotland into a neo-liberal constitutional prison and we need only put a cross in a box to liberate us from the cold-hearted Thatcherites south of the border.  That's the narrative we're being sold so it's worth asking two questions: how left-wing is Scotland and how left-wing is an independent Scotland likely to be, should it be Yes on the 18th?

If being disinclined to vote Conservative is left wing then Scotland certainly is but I'm increasingly convinced that this is not necessarily so.  It's something that goes beyond the observation that Scotland does not vote as a homogeneous block (more Scots voted for the coalition parties than the SNP in the 2010 Westminster election) and neither does England nor, of course, Wales.  There has been a tribal hostility to the Tories in my part of Scotland for as long as I can remember.  It was never the epitome of rationality but at least it was based on the politics of class and party.  Now it has taken on an ethnic tinge that should worry everyone.  I'm increasingly wondering if tribalism is all that's left of it.  One aspect of this is the social attitudes of Scots to things like Europe, immigration and welfare that are not as nearly as different to the rest of the UK as the flattering self-image of ourselves that the nationalists like to sell.*  There's some data here.   One in five Scots want to quit the EU altogether and a further 40% want to stay but repatriate powers.  Only 11% seem committed to 'ever closer union'.  

Perhaps part of this is attitudes to immigration.  The irony is the notion that an independent Scotland could do with a different immigration policy to the rest of the UK is one of the few policies of the SNP that makes any sense.  Their problem is, as the data shows, it wouldn't necessarily be welcomed by the Scottish electorate.  Nearly half the population fear that greater immigration from Eastern Europe or by Muslims would pose a threat to national identity.  One could only imagine what these percentages might be if we had immigration anything like on the scale of the south of England.  

A similar pattern can be seen in attitudes to the unemployed.  More than half of Scots think unemployment benefits are too high, twice as many as think they are too low.  

The reason Scots don't have traditionally left-wing policies is that people in Scotland don't vote for them, not because we are in the Union.  It certainly is not the position of the SNP.  This point cannot be stressed enough.  They have not enacted one single redistributive policy in the last seven years.  The obvious response to those who cite free prescriptions, university tuition and elderly care is that the point of universal benefits is everyone gets them.  I tend to favour some of them on the grounds of efficiency but the point is, if they are redistributive at all, it tends to be towards the median voter.  Some sharper nationalists have been candid enough to acknowledge attitudes to the welfare state in Scotland are an indication of our conservatism as a nation, at least as much as our supposed socialism.  There's a whole bunch of people going to vote Yes because they want things to stay the same, not because they want change.  

So how left-wing would Scotland be if it were independent?  If your idea of left-wing is simply having a larger, more generous welfare state, not very, if Scottish social attitudes are anything to go by.  But there's another dynamic, which one might call the Slovakian paradox.  I'm wondering if there's lessons in the break up of Czechoslovakia that neither side in this debate wants to hear.  There was in Slovakia, as in Scotland, a fairly widespread discontent with the neo-liberal path being taken by its bigger neighbour.  While the break-up is described as a 'velvet divorce', it had in its initial stages some features that Yes Scotland are desperately insisting are inconceivable in their plan for a seamless, almost imperceptible shift to independence: bank runs, borders thrown up practically overnight, and a currency union that lasted only thirty-eight days.  

However, the initial disruption did not prove to be a lasting disaster.  Both countries joined the EU and adopted the Euro and the borders were brought down.  The Slovakian economy recovered and even closed some of the gap in terms of income per capita compared to the Czech republic.  But here's the paradox; it seems to have done so in part by adopting the very kind of neo-liberal policies that its electorate were largely hostile to.  Nobody knows what's going to happen in Scotland votes Yes on the 18th but something like this neo-liberalism out of necessity is quite likely.  The currency issue is a bit of a distraction from the fact that regardless of its monetary arrangement, an independent Scotland is going to have to run a tighter budget than has previously been the case in the context of the UK, especially so in the (hopefully unlikely) event that we opt for the lunatic dollarisation and default option that our First Minister seems to be seriously considering.  It is, in other words, completely unrealistic to think that if Scotland hit its target for being an independent state in March 2016, it would be able to announce in April that it had extra money to splurge on public services.

There are a number of reasons why the Czechoslovakian experience does not quite fit a putative break-up of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the UK but the most important for me as someone for whom this is not primarily about economics is that the Czechs and the Slovaks did not have to endure a divisive referendum.  There are some on both sides who think this debate has been, regardless of the outcome, a jolly spiffing energising experience.  This isn't a feeling I share.  It has, apart from anything else, shown some of the worst features of modern politics - personalisation of abstract economic issues and unbearable short-termism.  "It's not about Alex Salmond!", cry people who want to break-up the Union on account of a government that may not last beyond 2015.  And what has featured in this short-termism has been the biggest lie told in this campaign.  This is not a national independence movement that requires any struggle or sacrifice but rather one that promises that nothing and everything will change.  Keep the Queen, the open border, the currency - you'll hardly notice a thing, except your wallet becoming a bit fatter.  It is the lie of painlessness and that it is so widely-believed is storing up trouble for the future for this country, regardless of the outcome.  For who do you imagine the nationalists will blame if they're denied this decaffeinated national rebirth, or if they get it  and then realise it isn't how they were told to imagine it?  Certainly not themselves.

*I'm taking 'left-wing' policies to be those that are conventionally designated as such.  But I'm aware that there are good reasons why, for example, membership of the EU isn't everyone's idea of a left-wing position.

Correction: As pointed out by one commentator, whose comment I deleted by accident, Slovakia joined the Euro but the Czech Republic did not.

Friday, August 08, 2014

The perils of post-modern nationalism

Like the Conservatives and the Labour Party, the SNP has had a shifting attitude towards the European Union over the decades.  In the 1950s, they were supportive of Scottish membership of the proto-EU ECSC.  I'm not old enough to remember that but I am to recall their position in the 1970s, which was impressively isolationist.  As well as being opposed to membership of NATO (a position changed only very recently), the SNP actively campaigned on the No side in the 1975 referendum on British accession to the EEC.  There were a couple of reasons for this.  One was that they did not consider that Her Majesty's Government was the legitimate representative of Scotland's interests in this matter.  The other was that the EEC seemed to represent a larger version of  the sort of bureaucratising centralism that they were trying to break away from in the UK.

The anti-Europe position was never entirely unambiguous and was, in any event, dropped at their party conference in 1988, where they adopted the policy of "Independence in Europe". This marks the point from which the Nationalists' version of independence became what has sometimes been described as 'post-modern statehood'.  I'm not sure how satisfactory this term is but I take it to represent an awareness that in the late 20th century and into the early 21st, you don't get to be 'independent' after the pattern of states formed in the 19th century but rather the choice has become what kind of interdependence you want.  The Nationalists embraced the idea of inter-European dependency even more enthusiastically with the introduction of the EMU.  This 'independence in Europe' never really appealed to me but at least it made some kind of sense.  Why look to Westminster to represent the interests of Scotland in Europe when it could do that directly?  Disengagement was made simultaneously safer and apparently more outward-looking.  Membership of the EMU would free Scotland from the 'millstone' of Sterling membership and access to European markets would be secured by the treaties of the European Union.

Naturally, after the Euro-crisis membership of the EMU is impossible to sell to the Scottish electorate, even if Salmond thought it was a good idea, which he probably doesn't.  This is the background - and the explanation - to the mess that Salmond and Yes Scotland have got themselves into over the currency issue.  The Nationalists are still arguing for 'post-modern statehood' but the problem for them is that what they are now arguing for is 'independence within the UK'.  Both versions of post-modern independence required the agreement of other parties (something the Nationalists never seemed to have grasped) but the new position has two additional problems.  One is that it the continuity-UK currency union has no precedent, whereas EMU obviously did.  The other is that Salmond and the Yes Scotland camp have taken an extraordinarily belligerent attitude to the successor state with which they hope to make mutually-agreeable monetary and fiscal arrangements, which they never did with Brussels in their 'Independence in Europe' phase.  Discussion of how any such currency union might work is entirely superfluous when you have the leader of the Yes campaign who thinks it's a reasonable proposition that 55 million people in one country are obliged to enter an international monetary arrangement because it is the 'sovereign will' of another country of 5 million that they should do so.

I can't quite decide if Salmond is talking like this because he has, as some have suggested, effectively given up or if he's gone slightly bonkers but his response to the fact that the Chancellor, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Shadow Chancellor have ruled out a currency union has led the Yes campaign down a blind alley.  Historically the SNP have favoured two forms of post-modern independence but the position that Salmond now seems to have taken would result in Scotland getting neither.  There is no particular reason to think that the government of the UK are bluffing about a currency union, although I might be wrong.  What I am assuming definitely is a bluff is Salmond's crazy comments about walking away from Scotland's share of the UK's debt but just in case he isn't, it would be worth pointing out the implications of this.  Nevermind the obvious problems an independent Scotland would have borrowing money after it had behaved like this.  It would settle for certain Scotland's membership of the European Union, which is to say membership is something Scotland would not have because it would set a precedent for other heavily-indebted putative independent European nations to do the same.  'Worried about debt?  Help is at hand.  You can get rid of it all through the power of constitution change!'  This is just one of the reasons that I think no-one is really taking Salmond's 'dollarisation and default' line seriously.  The Yes campaign will not acknowledge any of this.  It's probably too late for them to do anything other than lash out at anyone who interrupts their dream with inconvenient facts.  Such is the fate of Nationalists who promote a version of statehood that is not in their power to deliver.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Against TV debates

Political debates on television are a terrible idea.  Given their history of giving undesirable candidates potentially decisive boosts prior to elections, you wouldn't think you'd need to make this obvious point but in the context of the referendum debate in Scotland, apparently you do - to both sides.

In American Presidential elections, the story is pretty familiar.  In 1960, Kennedy debated with Nixon on television and won.  No bad thing in itself, perhaps - but the manner in which he did so had absolutely nothing to do with the quality of either the arguments or the candidates.  Kennedy - then the underdog - appeared at the studio looking fresh and suntanned.  He declined the offer of make-up for the studio lights so Nixon felt obliged to do the same.  But Nixon was pale and sweating profusely, recovering as he was from a recent illness.  Kennedy won the debate - in the eyes of those who watched it on television.  Those who heard it on the radio thought Nixon had won.

They've had them in US Presidential elections ever since.  Among the candidates who have done well out of them include Ronald Reagan, Bush Snr, Bill Clinton and George W Bush.  It isn't an argument that would appeal to me but at least in this context I suppose people could claim the personality of the candidate is important.  Less so, however, in the context of our parliamentary democracy - yet they insisted on having them here too.  If you recall, Nick Clegg did rather well in 2010 only to go from being, in terms of popularity, Churchill to Chamberlain.  You'd think that in itself would be enough to illustrate the superficial nature of these media arm-wrestling contests but Clegg certainly didn't seem to get it, which is why he decided it might be a good idea to appear on national television with Nigel Farage, who of course won. 

I wouldn't know who has learned anything from this in the rest of the UK but I have yet to read one single comment anywhere in Scotland suggesting that a debate of this nature on the independence referendum would be a truly awful idea.  The Yes campaign realised some time ago that Alex Salmond is like Marmite: SNP voters - or most of them anyway - like him a lot; those of us who are neither SNP nor Yes voters can't stand him.  As a consequence, one of the most frequent refrains from Yessers is to cry, "It's not about Alex Salmond and the SNP!".  The same people invariably insist that it is, however, all about David Cameron and the Tories - which is, of course, why Salmond wants to have one of these daft TV debates with him.  The Prime Minister of the UK is usually told by nationalists to "butt out" of the debate over whether Scotland secedes from the Union, except in this context.  What they want is a staged event that would be the very incarnation of the SNP narrative about being ruled from London by a posh Tory elite they didn't vote for.

Cameron would lose before he even opened his mouth.  I'd like to think that he understands this is the reason he's declined the idiotic invitation to prove he's not 'feart' but for whatever reason, it's a good thing that no such event will take place (hopefully).  No so Alistair Darling who will - or perhaps won't - debate with the First Minister prior to the referendum.  I am dismayed that so many people on my side of the debate seriously think this would be a good idea.  "He'd run rings round Salmond".  No he bloody well wouldn't.  When he was Chief Secretary to the Treasury and later Chancellor, I half seriously wondered whether he had been chosen for the job because he was so boring that he could deliver quite bad economic news without too much controversy, on account of the fact that his audience had fallen asleep before they'd had a chance to absorb it.

The one pro-union politician who could wipe the floor with Salmond in a debate of this kind is George Galloway and if this doesn't serve to illustrate the point that these events lend themselves to populist pugilism, I don't know what would.  Alex Massie has just been tweeting that a Spectator debate in Edinburgh has been host to an unironic audience of lawyers and bankers cheering a barnstorming performance from our George.  Such is the nature of these things.  It's supposed to be about profound changes to the constitution that will endure long after Salmond, Darling, Cameron and Galloway are worm-food but the fact of the matter is that the short-term politics of personality are the order of the day.  If any of these debates go ahead, there will not be one single piece of new information  presented.  This is one of the many reason why I find the prospect of anyone changing their mind after watching any of this on colosseum TV pretty depressing.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Nationalism: means versus ends

One of the disfiguring features of the referendum debate is that it is dominated by arguments about economics by people who aren't, in the final analysis, particularly interested in economics.  What is not well understood - particularly by London-based commentators who enter the fray - is that there is in Scotland roughly about 25% to 30% of the electorate who are nationalists that would support independence no matter what the consequences.  They may believe all this stuff about Scotland being like Norway or Sweden and becoming a beacon of social democracy for the rest of the UK but at base relative poverty is for them preferable to maintaining a relationship that they liken to the occupation of Poland circa 1940.

The softer, and for me more congenial, support for independence comes from means-ends nationalists who view separation as a mechanism to get the sort of policies they want to see.  This I've said this already but most of these are socialists and greens.  The overwhelming majority of Yes voters in my acquaintance belong to this category. If there is a Yes vote in September, it'll be because the Yes campaign have persuaded enough Scots to be nationalists like this, at least for a day.  I understand this but it is desperately naive, which is why I was grateful to Torquil Crichton for reminding us of a lesson from the Irish experience: when socialists hitch their wagon to nationalism, the former invariably lose:
"There have been 29 general elections to the Dàil, Ireland’s parliament, since independence. Ireland’s Labour Party have won precisely none. When socialism goes up against nationalism in a country where all civic politics is about the nation, then Labour doesn’t stand a chance."
This is one in the long list of reasons I have to answer the Nationalists' rhetorical question: what are you afraid of?  Politics that is 'about the nation' creates forever a cross-cutting axis over the normal politics of class, which smothers the latter.  As Alex Massie and others have already suggested, a post-referendum battle between the SNP and Labour is going to be essentially one to see which becomes the Fianna Fail of Scottish politics.  In this I have no doubt the Nationalists would win.  Understood like this, Labour for Independence - along with the other Labourists prepared to throw their lot in with the separatists - are signing their own death warrant.

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