Thursday, 9 October 2014

The white rose and the red

There was little euphoria when the 'no' camp won the Scottish independence referendum. Partly this was because they were campaigning for the status quo, and the world went on going to work and school without the huge party that would undoubtedly have marked a 'yes' win. As that implies, the 'yes' camp had been more lively, more colourful, more hopeful and more fashionable all along, and they'd captured the hearts of many in the twenty- and thirty-something camp who are always more likely to have a big shindig in the first place. Then there was Prime Minister David Cameron's opportunist attempt to tie the promise of further powers for Scotland to 'English votes for English laws', since diluted (as it always had to be) with a sense of the possible - this side of a General Election, that is. That put the mockers on any sense that the new constitutional settlement in Scotland (and the rest of the UK) might meet with universal support and some acclaim. It reclaimed the whole debate for mere partisan advantage, where it should never sit.

For all these reasons, the days since the independence referendum have seen the nationalists continue to make the political running in Scotland. The Scottish National Party's membership has surged upwards, as has the pro-'yes' Scottish Green Party's. One opinion poll (albeit one commissioned by the SNP itself) has shown that party running ahead of Labour in the race for Westminster votes in May. Now that may not translate into many seats, given how Labour has always piled up votes in seats across the West of Scotland and Glasgow; but the SNP will be able to return MPs in ex-Liberal Democrat seats, such is the Lib Dems' toxicity in Scotland. They might aspire to gain between about 12 and 18 seats in May - enough, perhaps, to hold the balance of power in a hung Parliament. There is even talk of a combined 'yes' slate in May, which will further boost the numbers of parties standing on a 'yes' platform, and against the three 'Westminster' parties. All in all, it's been a good defeat for the separatists, who can say that they might be back for another referendum sooner than anyone thinks. If they can win more than 20 seats in May, or secure a vote to stay in the EU while the UK as a whole comes out, they're going to have a stronger case for a referendum rerun than anyone thought possible straight after the 18 September plebiscite.

But in truth all of this comes out of the fact that the 'yes' camp can remain ideologically and emotionally pure from a defeat that they are determined to say was close (it wasn't) and heroic (no, again). The truth is that the 'yes' camp didn't have to deliver on their promises of a free unicorn for every Scot, and that they didn't have to make the messy beaucratic choices and partisan compromises that any really existing politics involves. So the 'no' camp are having to struggle with what 'Home Rule for Scotland' will look like. Big deal. The alternative set of hard choices (as Tony Blair always used to call them) would have been much, much worse.

Consider this counterfactual, or alternative timeline. Now the use of this technique is controversial among historians, for it's a departure into an imaginary and speculative world of what didn't happen. But bear with us. We make counterfactual asserttions all the time. We say 'this happened because of this', implicitly arguing that 'it didn't happen because of this'. That means that we're always and necessarily reasoning counterfactually - i.e. imagining different worlds where we changed the variables.

Anyway. It's 19 September. There's been a very narrow 'yes' vote. A banking run begins. The Bank of England supports the Scottish banks, but most of them announce that they are leaving for England, taking their precious balance of payments-supporting revenue (though not most of their staff) with them. Scotland is left without a credible plan for a currency union (which is ruled out immediately by London) and has to issue an unwanted, unpopular new currency from independence in 2017 or 2018. This rapidly drops in value by 20% or 30% against the pound. Interest rates rise. Public spending has to be cut. Scotland is applying to join the European Union, and has to agree (with some relief) to join the Euro. Interest rates can come down on its entry in 2022 or 2023, but only at the cost of more public spending cuts to bring her finances in line with the European Central Bank's rules. Better Together's horsetrading about new powers for the Edinburgh Parliament? I think I'd take these any day over potentially losing my home and watching the Scottish NHS be cut to the bone.

And there's more: remember that this counterfactual will apply with even more power in the future. As Scotland's population ages, and its oil wealth runs down, the economic case for independence will get ever weaker, even as the 'yes' camp's continuing grass-roots organisation might cause it to grow and grow emotionally. Then the nationalists really will be in a bind, wanting to leave the UK, but knowing that Scots will almost certainly be much, much poorer for it.

Forget, for a moment, the wilder shores of conspiracy theorists who will always believe that the vote was rigged (though there are an awful lot of them, and far more for comfort). More honest 'yes' campaigners know that they just didn't have the support or campaigning muscle that noisy demonstrations in Glasgow made it look as if they had. SNP canvassing always looked like pulling them up some way short of their aim. They did nothing to win over 'Middle Scotland', which differs little from 'Middle England'. Focusing on expelling Trident, promising to raise benefits (how, exactly?) and trying to hold onto a currency it was clear they never could were all massive, massive strategic errors that the 'yes' camp's myth-making also wants to efface from history. Here's a tip: don't let them. There might be a post-'no' hangover, but it's much, much less of a headache than what would have happened had 'yes' triumphed.

In any case, this is the end of the argument for now. Hugh MacDiarmid's white rose of Scotland, so small, so sweet and so piercing, will continue to grow as one with its red-painted cousin. It will not just sit alongside or partner the red rose of England, but go on being historically, emotionally, familiarly and above all perhaps strangely entangled with its like and unlike twin. They are an unlikely pair, rambling, intertwined, complementary - and so, so odd. But their slow, uncertain progress towards whatever sun and storm awaits them continues. We on the 'no' side, at least, are grateful.

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