The question of the referendum is not "could Scotland be independent?", but "why should it be?"by John McTernan / July 24, 2014 / Leave a comment
This piece is a response to Neal Ascherson’s cover story on the Scottish independence referendum in the August issue of Prospect
“Aye right,” I thought when I finished Neal Ascherson’s article, “Why I’ll Vote Yes,” in the current issue of Prospect. It’s the most Scottish of phrases. The only one in any language I know where two words for Yes when put together mean No.
Neal, like me, has lived in London for decades, and, again like me, loves Scotland. As Hugh MacDiarmid wrote: “The rose of all the world is not for me./I want for my part/Only the little white rose of Scotland/That smells sharp and sweet—and breaks the heart.”
But if I was living in Scotland, on 18th September—like most proud and patriotic Scots—I’d be voting No. For 30 years now public opinion in Scotland has barely shifted. Throughout that period at least six out of ten Scots have not supported separation, and four out of ten or fewer have supported it. Through Tory and Labour governments, whether the economy is booming or crashing, those figures have stayed stubbornly the same. That’s a story that is not reflected in Neal’s piece, and for good reason: he was speaking for himself. I want to explain why his passion and eloquence are not finding an echo among a majority of Scottish voters.
Robert Louis Stevenson rarely wrote in Scots, but he has a wonderful phrase—”a strong Scots accent of the mind.” There’s one word that expresses that “accent”—it’s “Why,” the fundamental Scottish word. It was the question asked by David Hume and Adam Smith during the Scottish Enlightenment. It was the question that spurred those great Scottish inventors and scientists from James Watt, who improved the steam engine in the West Midlands, to Sir Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin in West London.
Yet it is the great un-answered question of the referendum. Not could Scotland be independent? Of course it could. But why should it be independent? What are the benefits? What are the costs and risks? Neal can’t tell us. He sets out many noble aspirations for Scotland, but fails to explain why or how independence would achieve them.
His case is really that Scotland should leave the United Kingdom because it is increasingly different from the rest of the country. Now, as Gordon Brown says, Scotland does feel like a different country from England, but the country it is most like in the world is also England. None of the claims Neal makes for Scottish exceptionalism stands scrutiny. He writes: “The Scots, in their majority, do not want to live in permanent job insecurity, in a society of growing inequality, declining real wages, zero-hours contracts, food banks and beggars.” Nowhere does he substantiate the implication that “the English, in their majority” want to live in such a society. That’s unsurprising—with the Conservative Party entering their fifth year of flat-lining around 33 per cent in the polls there is nothing to support his contention.
Neal’s argument is essentially that Blair and Brown are indistinguishable from Thatcher, Major and Cameron. At best this is quixotic. At worst it is a deliberate denial of uncomfortable facts. Between 1997 and 2010 the Labour Government strengthened equalities by abolishing Section 28, introducing civil partnerships, passing the Equalities Act, increasing maternity pay and maternity leave. It transformed the UK with peace in Northern Ireland, devolution to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law as the Human Rights Act (HRA) and established a Supreme Court.
Whatever you think of Brown and Blair personally these are all things that a Conservative government would not have done. I raise this simply to rebut Neal’s underpinning argument that the UK is an unchanging, unreformable, broken state. There is nothing wrong with the country that a change of government wouldn’t sort.
The United Kingdom is not an enemy of the social democratic consensus that Neal holds dear—it is its very embodiment. Take public spending. Scotland has an ageing population. The costs—in terms of pensions and health and social care—is recognised by the £12bn fiscal transfer Scotland receives every year from the UK government. That’s not a subsidy, it’s redistribution. The United Kingdom is a massive engine for redistribution and social justice. We tax the wealth of London, a great world city, and distribute it across the country. Why would you want to restrict yourself to only taxing the wealth of Edinburgh? No answer comes from Neal, or the nationalists.
It is the unanswered questions which ultimately doom the independence campaign. The constant reassurance that everything will be all right on the night is anything but reassuring. Nothing in life, let alone government, goes exactly to plan. There will always be bumps in the road. But the Yes campaign refuses to concede that point in any way, however small. Voters see that and they are worried. “Alex Salmond’s a clever bloke,” they think, “he must know there will be some risks. They must be awful big if he doesn’t want to tell us about them.” So they’ll be voting No. As we Scots say, “our heads don’t button up the back.”