The difference between before and after the Scottish referendum is as fundamental and unknowable as the black hole between life and death. Yet the fate of the Union may depend on what people believe now about what may happen then, in that currently unknowable state. With the polls narrowing near the point of cross over, London- based politicians and commentators are at last stirring themselves, the Conservative commentator and ex-MP Matthew Parris in the Times (£) being the latest in assuming a torrid fall-out from a Yes vote.
We would be shaken within hours by the biggest and most protracted constitutional earthquake since the Act of Union. It would dwarf the independence of Ireland, which most had long come to see as unavoidable whatever politicians did. This time many voices — of friends as well as enemies — would blame the loss of Scotland on one man’s political judgment. That man would not be Alex Salmond.
Who (they’d cry) do we have to thank for this referendum? David Cameron took the decision alone. In no way was his hand forced. He didn’t have to take any decision at all. He didn’t have to do anything
David Cameron would have one hope. Short of political hara-kiri his best way of salvaging honour would be to do what he does so well: fight his way out of the corner. He would have to show immediate grip and have a clear plan ready: and it would surely have to include calling an early general election, in which (I’m afraid to say) the Conservative party would have to promise to impose a very tough deal indeed upon Scotland; a promise that Labour couldn’t match.
It would be the England v Scotland election of November 2014. The Tories would probably win such a contest, on English votes. And how sad if things should come to that.
Parris leaves out the salient fact that brave Dave had little choice. Salmond had not only campaigned for a referendum in the election to the Parliament in 2011 but he won an overall majority for it in a second term, against the odds of the electoral system delivering a majority at all. On the surface at least, it seems that warnings of the dire consequences of independence over the pound and EU membership have backfired. We’re assured private polling still records a steady 10% gap in favour of No but who can rely on that?
The problem with dire predictions is that they focus concentration on the Yes campaign and Alex Salmond is all too happy to hurl then back with renewed faith and optimism. The Scottish first minister’s great strength is what Aneurin Bevan grudgingly conceded to the appeaser Stanley Baldwin: “Baldwin was a master of the art of creating feeling, but an even greater one at the important art of detecting it. He would attack, not the argument being put forward, but the feeling behind it of which the case was the expression. When defending himself, he would not deploy fact after act in skilful order, but appeal to the nobler and more humane feelings of his enemy. He was a great disarmer, though now and again he hit back like a butcher.”
The” feeling” Salmond exploits and which even plenty of sceptics share is that whatever the doom mongers say, it’ll be alright on the night for Scotland. Salmond has for long been adept at identity politics, the dimension of politics we in Ireland obsess about but over which the English are floundering. He has co-opted “Scottishness” for the SNP cause even more successfully than Sinn Fein ever did in Ireland for the Irish. It’s going to hard to prise them loose in the available time. His only real rival is the tarnished figure of Gordon Brown who emerged from sulking in his tent last week to utter more dire warnings, this time over the long term affordability of pensions but also to strike the positive note of “solidarity.”
“Given we are already a nation, have our own distinctive national institutions and have a Scottish Parliament whose powers are about to expand, the referendum comes down to one unresolved issue: do we, the Scottish people, want to sever all political links with our neighbours in the rest of the UK? My answer is no. With our partnership for pensions, NHS funding, more jobs, lower interest rates and strong cultural links like the BBC, all the evidence is that we are better together”.
It’s no accident that while the Scottish Nats are indulging the neurosis of blaming “London “ and the “Tories” for their supposed ills, the English neurosis is “Europe. ” and “immigration.” Both are examples of nationalism running ahead of itself. And – you might have noticed – the different neuroses at work in England and Scotland emphasise their separateness. Can business as usual ever be restored? The Economist magazine’s columnist Bagehot has this telling piece of observation from a public meeting in East Kilbride on what’s missing.
The inquisitors, typically retired and articulate, asked the assembled politicians—including a Conservative cabinet minister and a serving and former Labour MP—to make a “positive case” for keeping the 307-year-old union intact. “Why are we better together?” said one.
This was awkward. But what was most dismal, for Bagehot and the other assembled unionists, was the lack of a good answer to the question.
Justine Greening, the well-regarded international development secretary, from Sheffield and Westminster, appeared to have given it little thought. Visibly bothered by her failure to offer a bold defence of Britain as we know it, she roused herself, as the meeting was closing, for a last hurrah: “I don’t know why it works, like a wine (I don’t know, can you bottle it?), but somehow it does.” With that, she was up and off to the airport, trailed by brief applause.
There is no doubt whatever that the Union cause is on the defensive. The embarrassing U turn by the CBI over registering as a No campaigner shows not only tactical incompetence but exposes uncertainty over whether those who would prefer to stay in the Union should come out and declare it or stay above the fray, in order perhaps to avoid antagonising the SNP government . Apart from media members of the CBI such as the BBC and STV who are legally bound to observe impartiality you might think that the vicar of Bray’s position is a pretty craven position to adopt over the future of your country. But that is a striking measure of the SNP’s effectiveness not only in the campaign but after a term and a half serving competently in government.
A crucial question now is whether Labour, the only possible candidate for it in Scotland, should lead a united fight back or go it largely alone under a loose Better Together relationship. Brown for example is passionate for solidarity between Scotland and the rest of the UK but is not at all keen on solidarity with the other pro-Union parties. I’m reminded by another judgment on Baldwin, this time by Churchill in an index entry in Vol One of his history of the WW2, “The Gathering Storm”. Baldwin, Stanley. Confesses to putting party before country.”
Can Labour defy this sort of self serving charge and get the best of both worlds? Going it alone seems to be what Labour is preferring judged from Ed Miliband’s speech assuming defeat in the referendum. His reluctance for a united fight back makes sense in terms of Westminster politics, to avoid raising the spectre of another Westminster coalition at this stage. Another reason now seems utterly perverse ; the reluctance of Labour and Lib Dems to offer Scots sweeping new devolution terms before the referendum rather than after when they may be irrelevant. As John Curtice observes :
No less than 68 per cent of Scots agree that, in the event of a No vote, the Scottish Parliament should become primarily responsible for taxation and welfare. But just 39 per cent think Holyrood will actually be given more powers and responsibilities should Scotland vote No.
Even among those who want more powers, only just over two in five (42 per cent) believe the promises of more powers will be delivered. It is here perhaps that the unionists’ credibility gap is at its most striking.
The lessons for the No side are clear…. Frightening voters with messages of economic doom and gloom is not working…..
Labour’s vision of the UK as a ‘sharing Union’ is evidently not one that comes readily to most voters’ minds.
It all seems so narrowly party political compared with the great issue at stake. Why has this gone so far, goes up the cry, not only from the English? It’s notoriously difficult to discern the tide of affairs in humankind but perhaps we can put it down to backwash of anxieties over financial austerity battering the shores of the ancient political system. The Yes campaign has just over four months to turn the tide. Meanwhile I can imagine Alex Salmond jeering that they can but try, like King Canute.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London