Monday, September 22, 2014

Some reflections on the referendum

Not jubilation but just overwhelming relief that it was over - something I felt about 98% certain of at the back of eleven on Thursday.  It's been a roller-coaster.  I find going on roller-coasters deeply unpleasant and pointless experiences and so with Indyref 2014, only it went on much much longer.  A few thoughts in no particular order, starting with what is for me the must read post-indy post from the Flying Rodent.

1) What he said.  Just to reinforce a couple of points he makes. Thank goodness someone else said this too: I couldn't be doing with all this positivity about how engaged people were.  People were engaged all right, but not in a good way.  More specifically I've been personally told on more tha one occasion that various ugly scenes we've witnessed on the campaign are explicable because people feel passionately about the issues, man.  My response would be that if 'feeling passionate' is what leads people to scream 'quisling' in people's faces and stand in a parking lot on a Sunday afternoon calling for journalists to be sacked for being rude to the First Minister then I'd have thought it was an obvious point to make that feeling passionate isn't necessarily, or even usually, a virtue in itself.

2) FR's right about the turnout too.  If change is big, clear and irreversible, then it's going to be much easier to mobilise people - even if, as in this case, it's to stop it from happening,  I hope people aren't too disappointed when they realise there's not the least chance of this being transferred to the beige world of parliamentary politics.

3) I declare myself vindicated on anything I have ever said about referendums.  I thought I had written something longer than this, and I may have but can't be bothered looking for it.  One of the many objections I have to them is they absolutely do not do what they say on the tin.  Politicians usually advocate them because they claim they'll settle an issue 'once and for all'.  We've already seen numerous international examples where the exact opposite happens.  We should be clear about this: they are repeated because the people who lost didn't accept the result.  The Irish with Europe and the Quebecois in Canada are obvious examples.  I have to say the speed with which Salmond & Co. have gone cold on the whole "sovereign will of the Scottish people" thing is pretty impressive, although we have a particular Salmond/Sillars twist with the idea that plebiscites are no longer a good thing at all, what with this one not yielding the desired result.

4) Salmond's departure is a wonderful thing, even if the manner in which he's doing so is more graceless than even I expected.  Nick Cohen is bang on the money here.  I can't do nuance with Salmond.  I consider him to be a sinister Putinist bully who has been an entirely malignant force in Scottish politics.  I can find nothing good to say about Alex Salmond at all.  His departure is a deliverance.

5) Many of the footsoldiers of the Yes movement were lions led by donkeys.  I was a little apprehensive about going into work on Friday wondering how my Yes colleagues had taken defeat.  They conducted themselves with grace and dignity - an impressive feat for the committed and the sleep deprived.  I'd imagine others have had similar experiences and I think it needs to be acknowledged.

6) This hasn't been universal, to put it mildly.  De Nile ain't just a river in Egypt - it's also the first in the stages of grief and I suppose it's understandable that we've seen a fair bit of this in the last couple of days.  But the speed with which some have formulated a betrayal narrative is truly awesome.  "They promised new powers and they lied!"  It's just a suggestion but I've have thought the weekend after the referendum was a little early to be pulling out a stab in the back myth.

Couple of points on this: any promises made in a referendum campaign are unenforceable.  All a referendum does is give a mandate for negotiation and people need to understand this.

The other thing people need to understand is the Nationalists don't want devolution to work because they don't believe in devolution.  I'd have thought it would be a better strategy not to make this so obvious, but that's just me.

The last point is I find it objectionable to be told as a No voter promises of 'Devo-mair' or whatever was all that stopped me voting Yes.  Hell would have frozen over before I voted Yes and I wasn't too fussed on more powers, personally.  One of the reasons for this is there's been precious little proper scrutiny over the exercise of the powers that the Scottish Government already has in Holyrood.  I personally wouldn't want a party as intolerant of disagreement as the SNP to have even a little bit more power over my life.  Again, that's just me but I know I'm not alone in feeling like that.

7) So far the regrouping strategy looks splendidly suicidal - like Yes voters calling themselves the 45.  Dig a trench and behind it you will find the righteous minority, unsullied by the world with white unspotted garments.  On the other side you'll find the 55% who hate Scotland and probably killed Bambi's mum.  Also note that the Sheridan/SWP/hard-left gang are gearing up to do an eighties revival and are planning SNP entryism.  One can only hope that works out as well for them as it did for the Labour Party.

Having a go at pensioners is much the same.  Hardly a smart tactic in a country with an ageing population.  Anyway, we only know from opinion polls how people voted but it is indeed likely that pensioners leant towards No.  So did women and so did English voters.  My mum's an English pensioner who is also by definition a woman.  Someone more impervious to the nationalist message you will never find.  The Nats might want to ask themselves why this is instead of accusing them of being selfish and risk-averse.  However, smarter and cooler heads in the Nationalist camp will ask themselves this very question and then they'll be back.  They'll be back because it needs to be understood that all the piety we heard about this being about democracy and not nationalism is just that - empty piety.  The fact of the matter is the Treaty of Union got something it never really had - an explicit democratic endorsement.  It's patently clear already that they're just not having this.

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.

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