Friday, 12 September 2014

Reasons to oppose Scottish independence, #7: 'yes' can't have its cake and eat it


The Scottish independence referendum remains very tight in terms of its final result, and it almost certainly will do now right up until polling day itself. We are unlikely to know who has actually won, or be able to predict with any confidence who's going to win, until 5am on the morning of 19 September - when the city of Glasgow is due to report its results. Stand by for a rollercoaster over the next few days, with most polls showing 'no' with its neck just out in front a little bit, but maybe one or two surveys showing 'yes' with a tiny lead. It's going to be one of those nailbiters. Which is hardly good for Scotland or the rest of the Union (rUK), but still, that's democracy for you.

Here's our seventh thought for you if you really still are contemplating a 'yes' vote: the 'yes' camp is trying to have its cake and eat it, and it shouldn't be able to get away with their evasions scott free. Oh don't worry, they say, there'll still be the Queen, still be the pound sterling, still be no borders and no travel restrictions, still be the same or better levels of public spending. There'll still be access to all of Britain's shared services and institutions, such as its big supermarkets' distribution networks, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the UK's energy market.

None of those institutions are free from their own problems, to say the least, but Scots seem genuinely to value and regard them. Trashing them would hardly amount to a referendum-winning strategy. Saying that everything will be fine is designed by the 'yes' side to soothe voters who would inevitably otherwise be worried about taking a huge leap in the dark. Except that they should be worried, because almost none of the assertions above are definitively correct. Scots can't rely on any of the promises of the 'yes' campaign before any treaty negotiations are over; before a constitutional convention has worked out the basis for a Scottish state; and before that has put (probably) to a referendum of all Scots and a Holyrood General Election. And it is curious that, in a campaign dedicated to saying 'oh, horrible Tories, horrible Tories' all the time (as Alex Salmond did in the second televised debate), the separatists and their leaders continue to insist that they would make great gains at the negotiating table. This despite the 'other' side being staffed by a Conservative-domianted rUK negotiating party that might just shrug and yawn whenever the Edinburgh team made demands.

Let's take these three instances one by one. First, the supermarkets. They're hardly paragons of virtue, but their costs are supported by massive distribution networks. Place a border in the way, and you imperil that - as the supermarkets themselves have been encouraged to say by the 'no' campaign and the government in London. Differential pricing in international markets is adopted as a matter of course across most of the European Union. Costs might well rise (though we should, in the name of balance, note that some others might fall if Scots-produced groceries stay more generally in Scotland, for instance). Higher supermarket prices - tougher, of course, for poorer than richer Scots - may well be the upshot overall.

Then, the BBC. The Scottish Government proposes setting up its own state broadcaster after independence, using BBC Scotland as its seedcorn. So far, so good. But there's just no way that BBC Scotland could make the same raft of programmes on its existing budget. It would rely on a joint venture with the BBC in rUK to deliver all the other programming - except that no-one south of the border has agreed to any of that, and they don't have to if they're dealing with a new state. Something will probably be stitched up, but if rUK doesn't want to play ball (and stripped of Scots Members of Parliament, there's absolutely no reason why it has to) the new SBC will be buying in BBC programmes or relying on individuals to just download the BBC as a whole via cable, rather as consumers do in the Republic of Ireland. Neither alternative will deliver the economies of scale that the BBC as a whole has managed.

Now, lastly, the power market. The National Grid itself is in precious need of upgrades, and little thought seems to have gone into how to pay for (and how to pool the payments for) the cross-border infrastructure in the event of two successor states requiring to co-operate; Scotland will need transmission upgrades more than rUK, if it wants to sell its electricity cheaply and efficiently, and it might get left with the bill. Not only that, but large amounts of the structural organisation and funding for Scottish renewables has come from rUK, which will have to be disentangled, very slowly - still leaving a lot of the companies involved south of an international border whether Scotland quickly re-enters the European Union or not. The SNP says that there will just continue to be a 'UK-wide' energy market - unlikely, firstly because there won't be a UK (or at least one containing Scotland), and because transaction costs in the inevitably different regulatory regimes are bound to rise.

The reality of higher prices and poorer services are not exactly electoral gold. The 'yes' campaign doesn't want to face them. Ask yourself: what do you do instead? You lash out. You go on the offensive against journalists who ask you questions, as the First Minister did the BBC's Nick Robinson at a deeply strange and confrontational press conference yesterday. You threaten businesses helping the 'no' side with retribution after a possible 'yes' win, all the while pushing forward your own 'businesspeople' via Business for Scotland - which, given their roles and experience, is a pale imitation of a Scottish business platform if ever there was one. You organise piped marches on a distastefully-named 'short walk to freedom' to the polling stations. You talk about 'team Scotland' as if that was just you and your 'side', rather than all Scots.

Now a lot of this comes just from the overheated tempers of a critical campaign boiling over. Most of it will calm down again. Who now remembers the 'war of Jennifer's ear' from the 1992 General Election, for instance? Or the way in which Labour was initially put on the back foot over its remaining links with the unions in the 1997 election campaign? Historians, that's who, and it's their job to keep those memories going.

But all the nastiness and the snarling still exposes the central incoherence at the heart of all so-called 'civic' or 'liberal' nationalism - that it must say, of necessity, that the nation or people being defined are in some way different to others. Better? Maybe not. But different, all the same - a revelation that true believers must believe to be sadly lacking in non-nationalists, who must in some way be less truly 'national' than them. It's linked to the other contradiction exposed today - between the language of reassurance and the reality of schism - because it's at moments like these that the mask slips. It's only now, as we look out over the cliff edge towards the creation of two new, poorer and weaker states, that the reality of that national divorce as it will truly feel is revealed: nasty, brutish, and long.

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