23rd Oct 2016


Scottish referendum debate defined by political opportunism

  • The SNP has also been determined, after potential independence, to keep the British pound as its currency (Photo: Byzantine_K)

On 18 September this year, just over 4 million Scottish voters will have the chance to vote yes or no to the following: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

A simple question, but it ought to be a profound one, too.

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Since the then Labour government devolved certain powers to the re-established Scottish parliament in Holyrood in the late 1990s, Scotland has enjoyed a degree of national autonomy in certain policy-making spheres, from health and education to housing and agriculture.

But the referendum on Scottish independence still involves a decision that ought to be of massive historical significance.

Indeed, it ought to be a question of grand political principle; a question of sovereignty, of self-determination. This, after all, is a referendum on whether the Scottish parliament, to use the words of the post-referendum agreement, "becomes responsible for all aspects of government in Scotland".

And it ought to have grand historical ramifications, too.

It is nearly 300 years since the Scottish and English elites came together in the act of union (1707) to pursue their own mutually beneficial economic aims – as part of what was to become known as the British empire. (Despite the put-upon rhetoric of some Scottish nationalists, Scotland was a willing beneficiary of the union, not a colony).

And now, in just three months time, this union of "Two Kingdoms of Scotland and England ... United into One Kingdom by the Name of GREAT BRITAIN", as Article 1 of the Act of Union put it, might finally be no more.

And yet what ought to be a politically elemental decision has been approached by both nationalists and pro-unionists as anything but.


On the one side, the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) has rarely seemed to appreciate just what independence ought to entail; and on the other, the pro-union melange of Conservative, Lib Dem and Labour, meandering under the umbrella group Better Together, has shown little interest in making a strong, positive case for the union.

On both sides, then, the arguments for and against have been dominated less by questions of fundamental political principle than by political opportunism.

Take the SNP's pro-independence case, first.

What is most striking about it is just how little concerned the SNP is with actual independence. For instance, the SNP seems remarkably keen on keeping the British monarchy. As its white paper on independence stated:

"On independence, Scotland will be a constitutional monarchy, continuing the Union of the Crowns that dates back to 1603, pre-dating the Union of the Parliaments by over one hundred years. On independence in 2016, Her Majesty The Queen will be head of state."

The SNP has also been determined, after potential independence, to keep the British pound as its currency, a decision which rather than freeing up Scotland's powers over its post-independence economy would keep it in thrall to the Bank of England.

And perhaps just as at odds with the actual principle of independence is the SNP's willingness to leave one union only to sign up to a far larger one in the shape of the European Union.

Whatever one's views of the EU, few can argue that membership increases a nation's ability to govern its own affairs.

In fact, so unwilling to embrace independence is the nominally pro-independence side that the SNP even felt the need to reassure voters that post-independence Scots could still watch BBC TV shows, EastEnders and Doctor Who.

In some ways, the paucity of the SNP's commitment to national sovereignty is in keeping with its political impulse.

Its intermittent success since it broke through during the 1960s has always rested less on popular pro-independence sentiment than the extent to which it, and its impressively urbane leader Alex Salmond, have channelled disillusionment with mainstream Westminster party politics.

This disillusionment is not unique to Scotland, of course, but the SNP, with Salmond frequently mocking the posh Tory boys in London, has been able to give it a nationalist twist. There has always been a sense that the SNP is happier knocking its Westminster overlords than seeking to actually overthrow them.

The status quo doesn't anger it; it suits it.


But if the case for independence has been weak, the UK government's case for the union has been weaker still. In fact, Better Together has been concerned not so much with making a positive case for the union, than with warning of the terrors that await Scots if they vote to leave it.

We've seen this over and over again.

At the beginning of the year, a rather technical speech from Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, on the risks of post-independence Scotland trying to keep the pound – "sovereign debt crises, financial fragmentation and large divergences in economic performance" – was transformed into proof that independence would be economically disastrous.

More recently, Labour's ex-prime minister Gordon Brown told his fellow Scots that independence would threaten healthcare, jobs, pension provision and low interest rates.

And last week, John Major, Conservative prime minister during the mid-1990s, said that independence would threaten national security, because the military would no longer be able to house its nuclear-armed submarines in the specially appointed ports north of the border.

Given the steady diet of dire, post-independence prognoses emanating from the nominally pro-union, little wonder JK Rowling, the Harry Potter author and now a Scottish resident, seemed to have been scared into supporting the No campaign:

"The more I listen to the Yes campaign, the more I worry about its minimisation and even denial of risks, [from our] heavy reliance on oil revenue if we become independent, [to] what currency we’ll use, [or] whether we’ll get back into the EU."

The general pro-union message has been all-too-condescendingly clear: the Scots will not be able to look after themselves.

That the cross-party campaign in favour of the union is so negative is hardly a surprise. The days when a Conservative prime minister, still ideologically wedded to the idea of the union, could say that "the United Kingdom as a whole is, and always will be, greater than the sum of its parts'", as Margaret Thatcher did in 1979, are almost as distant as an actual Conservative party presence in Scotland. (Admittedly, it did win one MP at the last general election – which is one more than it did in 1997.)

Given the news in 2011 that the Scottish Conservative party was even thinking of changing its name so 'toxic' has the Conservative brand become, it is as if the Conservatives have already withdrawn from Scotland, both politically and emotionally.

As for the Labour party, the Conservatives' colleagues in Better Together, it does at least have electoral reasons for supporting the union in the shape of the 41 Labour MPs Scotland provides it with in Westminster.

But this also means that, in an attempt not to alienate Scottish voters by appearing too unionist, not to mention, too close to the reviled Tories, its support for the union is almost two-faced – complaining about prime minister David Cameron's meddling in Scotland's affairs while lining up alongside Cameron in support of the union. Its support for the union is pragmatic rather than principled – and it shows.

So, in the absence of anything positive to say about the union, the Better Together campaign is content to concentrate its energies on scaremongering about the consequences of independence. A politics of principle has been trumped by a politics of fear.

The effect of this lacklustre campaign, especially on the pro-union side, has been to make the result far less of a foregone conclusion than many thought possible two years ago, when the referendum was being planned and many observers confidently predicted a victory for the no vote.

But now, as 18 September draws near, and neither side seems capable of mustering a convincing argument one way or the other, numerous polls show the gap narrowing. A recent poll reported 43 percent backed the Yes campaign with just 46 percent opposed.

Scottish independence still remains unlikely, but thanks to the unconvincing, borderline patronising pro-union campaign, it is certainly not as unimaginable as it once was. There are still strong arguments for maintaining the union – after all, internationalism is far more progressive than parochialism – but as it stands, those arguments are not being made.

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