Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The long and boring road to referendum 2014

Tom Devine reckons the forthcoming referendum is the most significant event in Scotland's history since 1707.  As everyone who follows this debate knows, Mr Devine is Scotland's only historian so I suppose we should pay attention - but I'm fed up already and here's some reasons why in no particular order:

1)  I'm bored beyond belief with Nationalists who suggest - either implicitly or explicitly - that anyone who disagrees with them is suffering from some sort of pathology.  Sometimes it's posed as an inferiority complex they like to call the 'cultural cringe' but more often it's framed as a straightforward phobia.  "What are you afraid of?", is a common refrain - as if this was the only possible reason one could have for rejecting their rather protean arguments for something they still insist on calling 'independence'.  It doesn't seem to have occurred to any of them that there are not a few of us who think independence is perfectly feasible, it's just that we don't happen to find it desirable.

2)  What characterises the 'debate' so far is amazing short-termism.  Don't like the Coalition and their austerity?  Well obviously the thing to do is to rip up over three-hundred years of history come 2014 since waiting another year for a General Election is too demanding for the average Caledonian attention span.  Those who understandably have better things to be doing with their time than follow this could be forgiven for missing that this has been a perennial feature of Nationalist rhetoric.  Salmond used to argue for 'independence in Europe' based on something as ephemeral as the price of a currency in the markets.  He doesn't do this now for obvious reasons but it's ok because no-one was paying attention anyway.

3)  The 'vision thing'.  Here the Nats really have some brassneck.  They engage in senior-school level of political fantasy - "What kind of independent Scotland would you like to see?  Ooh, I'd like a republican, nuclear-free, wind-powered one with full employment, Scandinavian levels of public services but with Irish levels of corporation tax.  One where everyone is equal and we all hold hands and teach the world to sing, please" - and they have the gall to suggest we enter the debate on their infantile level?  No, they insist - and frame this as making a 'positive case for the Union'.  I decline to do so.  Is there no room in their world view for people of a sceptical disposition?  I'm not that optimistic about the future of any European country at the moment, although I hope we'll muddle through - and I happen to think my country will have a better chance of doing this as part of the UK.

4)  Alex Salmond.  Space prohibits the reasons one could give for having had enough of this embodiment of self-regard we call our First Minister but his latest in a long line of demotic suggestions- that he and Cameron should have a debate - is worth a mention.  His reasons for wanting this should be clear: in the Nationalist mind, the Union becomes the repository of everything the Nationalists claim to be opposed to and this is why he wants the Prime Minister to make the case - being as he is an Englishman, the sitting Prime Minister, one that happened to attend an elite public school and one who is an architect of the present fiscal austerity.  If Cameron is being properly advised, he will have nothing to do with this nonsense.  All the polling evidence suggests that a majority of Scots oppose independence and of these only a minority are Conservative voters.  Among the reasons we wouldn't care for the present Prime Minister to make the Unionist case is that he is unrepresentative.  

5)  The outcome is already decided.  This is my main reason for being fed up with the whole process.  This'll seem counter-intuitive to many but I reckon the option that we now know is not going to be included on the ballot is the most likely outcome, and this is 'devo-max'.  If the referendum is won, it'll only be because what it being offered as 'independence' will be a package that lacks the essential features of what one has become accustomed to thinking were the defining features of a sovereign state; if it is lost, the Holyrood Parliament will acquire further powers nevertheless.  Like Quebec or Catalonia, in other words - places where national disputes have lead to constitutional compromises, which in turn seem to institutionalise dissatisfaction.


Phil said...

Your last point is key, sadly (for anyone who has to live up there over the next two years). If Yes wins, it will rapidly turn out to have been "Yes, we do want to initiate a process of discussing how and when to hold consultations about negotiating an entirely new relationship between Edinburgh and London", which will take years to resolve - and in that time the word 'independence' will either fade away or become meaningless through over-use (knowing Salmond I'd bet on the latter).

And if No wins, well, Holyrood is there, and it wants a bit more power. And it always will, irrespective of the fortunes of the current administration - if the Tories had a majority Holyrood would want a bit more power. Institutional self-interest is pushing towards something like "devo max", and that's a much more powerful dynamic than political rhetoric. There won't be an option for less devolution on the ballot paper, after all.

Tom said...

I'd add

6. We still won't know exactly what independence means and therefore what we're being asked to vote for.

To some extent, this is unavoidable. The exact terms will have to be negotiated between the Scottish Govt and the UK one.

Things like border controls between Scotland and the rump UK will - SNP fantasies aside - need to be agreed by both governments. For instance, have the SNP any strategy in place for dealing with situations like the UK saying "OK, you can have movement across the border without passport controls as long as we can rent Faslane as a base for our nuclear-armed subs"?

But there are also things which just don't seem to be getting discussed at the moment and, unless the parties move beyond mere assertion and counter-assertion, or the Scottish media gets its act together, might well never be discussed before the referendum.

For instance:
1. There's been some talk about the future of the BBC, but nobody's yet mentioned that the southern third of Scotland doesn't get STV or Grampian, but gets Border TV based in Carlisle. How do you ensure that they get decent local and Scottish coverage on what will then be a foreign-based ITV channel?
2. One of the issues thrown up by the Leveson Inquiry was the unhealthily close personal connections between the press and some politicians. How do you ensure that something similar doesn't happen in an independent Scotland, given that the country's a lot smaller and that plenty of MSPs (in all parties) are either ex-journalists or have partners who are journalists?

I'm afraid that such issues simply aren't going to be addressed. We need definitive information, but for the next two years we're just going to be deived by unsubstantiated claim and counter-claim and the same handful of talking heads saying the same thing over and over again.

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