Sunday, 21 September 2014

Five takeaways from Scotland's independence referendum

Well, that wasn't close. We thought it would be, but it wasn't. The 'yes' camp in the Scottish independence referendum took a bit of a beating, albeit one partly disguised by its very strong performance in Glasgow and Dundee. Landslide victories for 'no' across great swathes of the country more than handsomely offset the radical 'yes' movement's very strong grass-roots mobilisation in those two big cities, sweeping through areas that the Scottish National Party has come to think of as 'theirs' in the Edinburgh Parliament. Middle Scotland, that little-talked-about but deeply conservative and cautious slice of the nation that explains why Scotland is actually much more like England than anywhere else, came out in its droves to defend what it saw as good economics and blatant common sense. For the most part, it was right to do so - despite an admirably multi-coloured and vigorous campaign from the other side of the debate.

And we do apologise for that outbreak of emotionalism at the end, by the way. It won't happen again. The normally calm, cool, detached and analytical order of service has been resumed. How embarrassing, eh?

In any case, it's all over - for a long time, if nothing particularly radical changes. But what can we learn from it? Here's the five takeaway headlines 'Public Policy and the Past' thinks are worthy of note, which are hopefully a bit different from the usual run of the mill commentary:

1. You can't fool all of the people all of the time. Gallons of newsprint have been spilled over the perceived weaknesses of a 'negative' and 'backward-looking' Better Together campaign. Except they won, and they did so in exactly the way their pollsters thought that they would: by calling forth a decision of the head to frustrate a potential decision of the heart. It was a triumph also founded in the fact that the formal 'yes' campaign was absolutely, unremittingly, indeed breathtakingly dire in a way that mattered much more than tone. It was this, by the way, that was behind the breach between the media and Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP): journalists who actually didn't have much of a dog in the fight were appalled by the evasions and straightforward, blatant untruths pumped out by the SNP. They tried to call them out on it, to little effect, and were then subjected to a public monstering for their pains. But let's run through some of the sub-GSCE economics of the 'yes' campaign, shall we? What currency would an independent Scotland use, they were asked. The pound, they said, first in a proper currency union, then as a 'sterlingized' rogue currency, then as a 'transition' (though to what, we were never told). We'll get the required currency reserves out of the Bank of England, they said - even though they must have known that Scotland's share by population would have been nothing like enough. We'll defend our currency without any public sector spending cuts, they said - even though a new state's credit rating would have fallen even as its interest rates shot upwards. The whole thing was - and we're genuinely sorry to say this, we really are - a complete and utter farce and a joke. By the end Mr Salmond was forced into saying that Scotland would 'get a share' of the UK government debts the Bank of England has bought under Quantitative Easing - even though that would just mean holding a load of debt at different levels of maturity to set against a load of other spending demands. Mr Salmond once worked as an economist in the oil industry. He must have known that all of this was a load of cobblers. Other Scots ran a mile from these unbelievably reckless gambles, just as Americans eventually recoiled from the truth-lite Romney campaign in 2012. Maybe Scotland will become an independent state in our lifetime. That's for voters in Scotland to decide. But the prospectus will have to be written on something other than the back of an envelope.

2. Our formal politics is in deep, deep trouble. Use the word 'Westminster' anywhere and you'll get a derisive snort - a fact that the 'yes' campaign used to great effect against its opponents. Fair enough. But that's yet another of those many ties that binds us together, because that's the reply you'd get in Lewisham, Luton, Leamington Spa and Leominster as well as in Lewis and Lerwick. Now this isn't new. Harold Wilson and Edward Heath hardly set the world alight in 1970 and 1974, and to be honest it was a bit of a reach to get all that many voters to really, deeply trust either of them. But the great Labour and Conservative Parties of the past are dead. Their mass membership has withered. The social lives which they offered have been wiped out in favour of a home-centred life that offers many Britons the promise of a more easeful, peaceful, less easily-identifiable and less clearly class-based life. What that means is that much of the deep, powerful resonances that they could once summon up are fading away: Gordon Brown's intervention in this campaign may therefore be a last hurrah for such old-time religion, rather than a symbol of its resurrection. Whenever formal politicians in suits try to say anything, they get shouted down - not always fairly, it has to be said. Interesting, innovative, multi-dimensional community groups organising at grass roots level often take their place, because they seem to listen to and represent local people more sympathetically. Women for Independence, the National Collective and the Radical Independence Campaign in Scotland are all good examples of this: glorious, riotous, optimistic and deeply heartening. But the problem remains that getting and sharing all your information on blogs, Facebook and Twitter lets oodles of deeply unrealistic propaganda spray out everywhere with no checks - the fantastical and mendacious Wee Blue Book, or the rumours of massive oil finds that were being hidden from the electorate, are good examples from this campaign. But unless the main UK parties do something to shore up trust in our politics, they are on a hiding to nothing in the long run.

3. If the new settlement doesn't work, the separatists will be back - soon. Nationalism, now and forever, must inherently believe that its progress is natural, is inevitable, is without question the embodiment of the will of 'the people' it represents. This is, of course, nonsense. Plenty of 'national' movements have surged ahead only to then fade away - at least in terms of establishing a formal state for the group that their vanguards have claimed to lead. Quebec's example is an instructive one, for after its 1980 and 1995 referenda the independence movement there has gradually crumbled. Voters, quite frankly, have got bored with it and turned to other, perhaps more concrete, issues. But Mr Salmond's campaign rhetoric exposed that the SNP don't understand this: there were no actual 'no' voters, he said, but only 'deferred yesses', in one of the most offensive and counter-productive remarks of a long campaign studded with them. He revealed it again in his concession speech, saying that Scots did not wish to form a new nation-state only 'at this time'. Articles written by the 'yes' camp since the result came in are drenched with the idea: take Irvine Welsh's piece in The Guardian, for instance, which preposterously and presumptuously manages to say that pro-union voters have been engaged in a 'last-ditch' defence of the union which has only 'bought time' for their cherished (but apparently backward) ideas. A 'true' national consciousness is of course on the way whatever real people, with their fuddy-duddy ideas about individual liberty and independent thought, may want or say they want. It is a set of concepts that belongs to the nineteenth century: deterministic, one-dimensional, simplistic - and wrong. Nationalists linger over polling results which show that 16- and 17-year-olds voted heavily for the 'yes' side, without noting the small sample sizes involved - and the fact that many polls had them in the 'no' camp. Nor do they look at the 18- to 24-year-old age groups, which is pretty solidly in the 'no' column. 'Our time will come', they tell themselves, once the heavily no-voting older generation has passed on - without considering that present 'yes' voters might themselves get more conservative as they grow older and start to ask 'who's going to pay for my pension?' The idea provides solace now, as the 'yes' camp's reaction turns from shock, to disbelief, and now to anger. But it will also allow them many a myth to build on in the years to come. 'The 45 per cent', as they incrasingly label themselves, have not gone away. They'll be back, more rapidly than many think- which is why they're busy constructing a 'stab in the back' myth of betrayal even as we speak.

4. David Cameron is not as clever as he thinks he is. Gordon Brown came to his rescue. Bill Clinton came to his aid. Barack Obama sprang to his defence. Had he lost the Union, he would probably have had to pack his bags and move out of No. 10 Downing Street. But he didn't. His 'side' won, quite easily in the end (though they would have won by a huge landslide had their campaign been better managed). And he didn't even have to do any of the legwork. But then he did what he always does: as soon as the pressure was off, he started to fumble around in the mud for the ball. Again. He announced straight away that there would now be a consultation on 'English votes for English laws', since the unionist parties had promised Scotland so much more devolution that Scottish MPs shouldn't really be voting on English-only issues. Now put to one side that this is a bit of a diversion (there have been only two recent Parliaments - those elected in February 1974 and May 2010 - where this would have made much of a difference, and even fewer votes) and just consider the mood music. Forget for a moment that England is so dominant within the Union that a few non-English MPs voting on proposed laws should be the least of 'English' people's worries. Accept that Mr Cameron has to say something about England given the furious state of his back benchers, incandescent that so much had been 'offered' to Scotland without their say-so. This was still a blunder into a trap that he was trying to set for Labour's leader, Ed Miliband. By trying to strip Labour's Scottish MPs of wider voting rights, and thus entrenching the Conservatives' control of England, he was squandering the chance to celebrate and deepen unionism's victory - and threatening a furious backlash in Scotland if the joint UK party leaders' pledge were to collapse altogether. He was foregoing any attempt to win any more Westminster seats in Scotland, though the 'no' vote suggests that there might well be opportunities there, and he was yet again trashing his own best and most successful image, that of national Baldwinite unifier. Now Labour has rejected his idea, what if they get together with the Liberal Democrats, who also oppose tying English 'reforms' to more Scottish devolution, and just pass the Scottish package themselves without listening to the Conservatives at all? The Prime Minister will be naked before the storm. Way to go, Dave.

5. Ed Miliband is about to be subjected to a pasting. Scotland's 'yes' campaign reminds us of Labour's projected campaign in the 2015 UK General Election. It's apparently determined to be optimistic, offer a slightly more left-wing variant of social reform that's been on offer for a long while, and to be built from the ground up given how early Labour has got its target seats and candidates in place. Well, if Mr Miliband as Leader of the Opposition thinks that's how he's going to play it, he's now seen the ruthlessness of the reply. There'll be a 'shock and awe' campaign of businesses lining up to warn of the consequences of a Labour vote, just as there was in the campaign against 'yes' in this independence referendum. There'll be the fast-moving cynicism that the Prime Minister displayed when talking about 'English votes for English laws' before the last count on Scottish independence had even been completed. There'll be leak after leak after leak questioning the Labour leader's competence and team. It'll be very personal, very nasty, very concerted, very dirty - and probably very successful.

And that's it for now - except to reflect that our national life must now go on without some of the rancour of recent weeks. 'Yes' made a lot of important points. They did much better, in terms of the result, than we would have supposed when the campaign started out. Their ultimate ends are not yet extinguished. Once the initial pain has healed, the 'yes' camp will see how important its gains and arguments have become. The skill and the challenge now is for us all - 'yes' or 'no' in a debate now past - to put those insights and that campaign to good use.

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