Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Scottish Play

Whichever way the vote on Scottish independence goes, the margin of victory will probably be small. This means either a democratic mandate or a moral obligation to change the status quo. "Do nothing" is the one outcome that now seems unlikely. Given that a victorious yes campaign would inevitably compromise on a lot of specifics, actual independence would perhaps not be that much different to devo max in the short-term, beyond the symbolism of flags and names, and in the event of a no victory, devo max would probably evolve into de facto independence in the long-term. Indeed, considering the major concessions floated by Gordon Brown and others this week, we may find pressure for Scottish independence building rapidly in a disgruntled England and Wales if the Scots themselves get cold feet.

The focus of the political and media caste on the implications of independence for British party leaders, Westminster elections and the EU indicates that the no camp (with some exceptions) remains more interested in London today than Edinburgh tomorrow. This is interpreted as English condescension by the yes campaign, but it would be more accurate to see it as the unthinking metropolitan bias of neoliberal hegemony. David Cameron's fleeting visit this week was to the Scottish Widows office in Edinburgh: an enclave of the City of London in an otherwise hostile environment. I doubt we'll see George Osborne, in hard hat and high-vis jacket, visiting Clydeside any time soon.

On both the left and right, Scotland is treated as an off-stage development, hence the degree to which the media debate is progressed by "noises off" such as opinion polls, the crude blackmail of business leaders (the only thing keeping us here is the goodwill of London) and the usual background hum of leaks and spin (it's Cameron's fault, it's Miliband's fault). In Scotland, the debate is taking place in the street, church halls and pubs, rather than being mediated by TV, which is probably why the late surge in support for independence, despite the best efforts of "project fear", has caught many by surprise. This very act of empowerment and engagement is likely to boost turnout, and may well boost the optimistic yes vote as a taster of self-determination. Just as the decision to not provide a devo max option on the ballot paper now looks like the unionists' first error of judgement, the lack of serious debate in England and Wales about the ramifications of independence (leaving the field to narcissistic "love bombing" by slebs) looks like having the unintended consequence of convincing the Scots that they should be the masters of their own fate.

Talking of unintended consequences, I recently saw King Charles III, the play that imagines constitutional turmoil following the queen's death (available only in London at present, if you're reading this "in the wings", so to speak). The Shakespearian influence extends from the blank verse to the plot, with knowing references to Macbeth and King Lear. The agonising and witless new king refuses royal assent to a bill on press regulation and dissolves Parliament on a point of misguided principle. The monarchy is saved from abolition only by persuading him to abdicate in favour of the more compliant (and scheming) William and Mary - sorry, Kate. The echoes of 1688 are rather loud. Though the play is funny, up-to-the-minute and dramatically (if not politically) convincing, it ignores Scotland (as it does Wales, Cornwall and all the other areas where the royals own land). I felt all it lacked was a flunkey wandering onstage to announce, Hamlet-like, "George Robertson and Annabel Goldie are dead".

This metropolitan bias has led to some illogical thinking. Consider the following from John Aziz: "Scotland has no real leverage to negotiate favourable terms other than the result of the referendum and a few vague gestures about Britain's currency being underpinned by North Sea oil. The UK is the one with the army, the NATO and EU memberships and the nuclear submarines. Alex Salmond can hand-wave and pontificate as much as he likes, but he will have to accept independence on terms dictated to him by Westminster. His desired formal currency union, off the table. British military bases including Trident in Scotland, irremovable from it." This combines economism's trivialisation of democracy (a vote does not constitute leverage), childish petulance (that's my ball, army and nuclear subs), and a startling failure to appreciate that the short-term immovability of Faslane and Coulport provides the Scots with major leverage in any negotiations (they're holding our nuclear subs hostage and demanding a currency union in exchange!)

The sudden lurch this week into emotionalism has also produced some top-grade nonsense, particularly among Tories. According to the Spectator, "The Prime Minister should not need speech-writers to extol the merits of Britain. He can just consider our history: in 1707 England was a hive of religious intolerance while impoverished Scotland was beset with feudal warfare. Within decades Great Britain had become the first industrial nation and led the world in scientific discovery". Though 1688 and 1701 enshrined anti-Catholic bias in law, this actually represented the last knockings of religious intolerance as the wellspring of politics (compare and contrast with 100 years prior); and while Scotland was certainly impoverished, due to economic depression and a run of famines in the 1690s, it was not beset by "feudal warfare" (this is just anti-Jacobite propaganda) so much as a stultifying aristocracy of absentee landlords. Finally, though the Scots were major contributors to scientific and technological advances, both before and after 1707, this was not decisive in producing the industrial revolution. Correlation is not causation.

One Conservative thinker who has better understood the risks that separation entails is Peter Oborne, who notes that the role of the monarch will inevitably be up for debate. The current silence of the Queen (on her hols at Balmoral, natch) is not just formal neutrality, but circumspection over the constitutional opportunities that Scottish independence would create. Though the monarchy would probably survive, there will surely be pressure to abolish the House of Lords. Scottish peers would have to quit Westminster, and I doubt an independent Scotland would create an unelected Scottish Lords, so why not boot the lot out? There would also be a resurgent clamour to adopt a constitution, or at least pass an updated Bill of Rights, which would provide a field day for Europhobes as well as civil libertarians.

To date the English and Welsh left have largely focused on an independent Scotland's role as a pathfinder for greater regional devolution, the abandonment of nuclear weapons, and the refoundation of the welfare state. Much of this is gestural - like admiring Scandinavian social democracy. More pessimistically, some fear that independence will guarantee Tory governments in perpetuity. This is nonsense. Labour would have secured outright majorities in the general elections of 1997, 2001 and even 2005 (despite Iraq) without the bloc of Scottish MPs. What few seem to be thinking of is the constitutional opportunities that the result will give rise to, whichever way Scotland votes. Typically, Londoners get it, noting that the Great Wen will benefit whatever the outcome, and that ultimately independence may be a pragmatic strategy for the capital itself.

1 comment:

  1. All a bit weird. Of course the South East *may* have significant gas, making it even more like Scotland - financial services plus hydrocarbons.