Thursday, June 12, 2014

Oor Referendum, A Continuing Series

The last time I wrote anything about the referendum, some took it as sympathy for the Nationalists, so let's now redress the balance.

First, the good stuff about the Nats.  Their recent fortunes aren't well understood outside Scotland, but let's start by noting that the SNP has profited in a big way from the New Labour government's mis-steps, successfuly riding a wave of resentment against Tony's mob and squeaking the narrowest of wins in the 2007 election. 

They then followed that by pulling off one of the toughest tasks in government, running the country quietly and effectively with no grand plans, a couple of populist moves, and only the one major controversy that I can recall.

And the sky didn't fall; the crops did not wither on the vine and the lion did not lie down with the lamb.  The electorate noticed that things pretty much just ticked over inoffensively, broadly approved of it, and thus the Nats duly hoovered up a lot of votes that would otherwise have gone to Labour, the Lib Dems or the diddy parties, landing an astounding, thumping victory

But the key to understanding the upcoming referendum is that despite that triumph, most Scots aren't Nationalists or, indeed, even nationalists.  The SNP's current success was born of New Labour's many failures and while they've seized their opportunity with admirable skill and precision, their 2011 win won't automatically translate into an Indy Ref rout.

(And indeed, the referendum almost never happened, as it was a very late addition to their 2007 manifesto.  They even pushed it back past the 2011 election, hoping that they'd be able to change the lie of the land in the intervening period and unexpectedly, they've pulled it off).

In 2007, the idea of Scottish independence was still really only properly popular with the Nats themselves.  Their tireless plugging and continued success has now pushed what was a fringe idea into the mainstream, mainly by repeatedly asking the question -

Well, why shouldn't Scotland be independent?

And indeed, that's resonated with a lot of people who wouldn't otherwise have been much bothered either way.  Scotland's a country much like any other, so why couldn't it govern itself?

The Nats deserve a lot of credit for their success here, from a purely political standpoint.  Bringing a once-lunatic idea into common consideration isn't easy, and it's a huge achievement for their movement.

That's their good points.  Now, for the bad stuff. 

More so than most other major political forces in the UK, Scottish nationalism is an almost entirely faith-based operation.  Sure, the movement's leaders make the odd economic-sounding noise here and there but at heart, it's pure Caledonian Lysenkoism.  Like Don Rumsfeld casting about for weapons intelligence, they're only interested in the data that tells them exactly what they want to hear.

If you showed Alex Salmond some kind of Piketty-esque report that categorically proved beyond dispute that an independent Scotland would be a lot worse off than it is now, he'd still favour independence. Because that's just how he is - that's how they all are.  The policy comes first, and the supporting evidence will be found thereafter, although it's only needed to help rope the rest of us in.

Because Scottish nationalism may be less malignant than other nationalisms, but it still holds only a passing acquaintance with empiricism.  If an independent Scotland will be poorer, then surely the natural zest and industry of self-rule will spur us to make up the deficit and leap forward to a bright, new dawn.

And sure, you can throw that allegation at the unionist parties as well - God knows, their hysterical, trouser-browning displays of fake terror have been a sight to behold, this last year, and they all have similar glaring ideological flaws - but the bottom line is this... 

Will Scotland be better or worse off, on its own?  Alex Salmond doesn't know, and he doesn't much care*.  He believes it will be better, and thus it must be, and so it is with almost all of the SNP's supporters.

Ultimately, it's really a question of faith.  I think it'd be fine for the Nats to say well, we can't predict what's going to happen post-independence, but self-rule is its own reward, so why not just go for it?   

That is the question people are going be voting on, come September.  I think a majority of Scots have the savvy to spot that this is so, and will take that assessment with them into the polling station and que sera, sera.

But it's hardly a surprise that a movement that's so strongly rooted in heart and spirit rather than rationality goes absolutely fucking bananas when, for example, the writer JK Rowling chucks a few quid at the No campaign and announces that she's all for the union.

All Scottish politics is parochial**, and the Nats are more petty and suspicious than most, more even than our cranky local Labourites.  For a movement with almost eight years of government behind it, they're still incredibly paranoid, with an unshakeable conviction that the nation's institutions and its movers-and-shakers are all instinctively against them and their cause.  Thus, they habitually perceive slight and bias in every issue and article.

And sometimes they're right, but more often, they're embarrassingly wrong.

Scottish nationalism generally seems to be far more benign than most of its European equivalents - more tolerant, more welcoming of immigration and difference, more positive.  The SNP mean it when they say that they're multiculturalists, welcoming anyone who wants to help contribute to oor rich tapestry... But it's still nationalism, with all of nationalism's manias and quirks, and when you cut nationalism in any form, it bleeds defiance and resentment.

Which is why we so often wind up with, for example, lots of otherwise sensible people hurling insults at a children's author... Because dissent from the great project can't be rational or well-meant, and must instead be something else, be it bad faith, or malice, or - whisper it - treason.

And that sucks from a Nationalist perspective because, when you find that you've been reduced to hurling insults at Harry Potter...  Well, you've probably already lost the argument.

(For more on this topic, also see Shuggy on what happens when left wing movements yoke themselves to nationalist causes).


A note here, to fend off some of the more obvious complaints - I'm neither a nationalist nor a unionist.  I'm mainly a smartarse, one who concocted a nice, touchy feely global Benetton advert We Are The World mentality, which means that I'm pretty much required to dish out scorn to all nationalism everywhere, insofar as it manifests itself beyond putting on a Scotland strip during our many fruitless qualifying campaigns.

*Neither does e.g. Alasdair Darling or any other No campaigner, for that matter, but they at least have a functioning example to point to. 

**Most British politics usually is too, but that's a post for another day.


Phil said...

What's this story about a "Labour for Independence" group which actually isn't (Labour), given that Scottish Labour is in the No camp? I raised it with somebody and got what I thought was an "(innocent face)" we-all-know-what-I'm-really-saying sort of reply - trouble was, not being in Scotland, I didn't know what he was really saying & remained mystified.

flyingrodent said...

Either the SNP's Trojan Horse operation or turkeys voting for Christmas, would be my guess.

Anonymous said...

Though I'm not a fan of breaking up countries, I've come round to Scottish independence as being a good thing for Scotland and England as it might force some positive change in the rump UK if Scotland leaves.

The Brits have a long history of never missing the opportunity to miss an opportunity when it comes to political reform, so I say don't make the mistake again and go for it. The low turnout in the 1979 referendum on home rule was a perfect example of this, it would have protected Scotland (at least a little bit) from 18 years of Tory government. Do they want that again? Any chance to cut the rope from the Tories and and the London establishment must be enough of an incentive. Surely?

Anonymous said...

Agree with that last comment. This is from a different Anonymous: a Londoner who'd qualify for a Scottish passport under the White Paper offer, and who follows the debate almost hourly on Twitter and the activist websites (Bella Caledonia, National Collective).

One of the reasons that the main Westminster parties don't want to think of independence is that it will shake Westminster and the system of Britain to the core. The whole system will have to be rethought. If Scotland votes Yes, ten years down the line we'll have in the rest of the UK some of the things that some of us have been arguing for for years: proportional voting, no second chamber, a written constitution, a severely curtailed monarchy, stronger local government – and so on. Scotland will have all that too, and will act as a stimulus and a reproach to the rest of us in "the country formerly known as Britain".

So far, among prominent Scottish Labour figures, it's been oldies with nothing to lose (e.g. Dennis Canavan) who have come out in favour of independence, as a necessary first step, without which nothing will ever change.

Anyone can speculate (thinking of Shuggy's piece that you link to here). My prophesy is that after a Yes, it's the SNP that will fracture into its incoherent parts. Certainly Jim Sillars will resign on day one, and should take some with him. Scottish Labour, breaking free of London, will move left. The Greens will grow. Ukip will sink to nothing.

So, go for it Scotland.

flyingrodent said...

There seems to be a lot of this kind of thing around, i.e. "I'm English and Scottish independence will shake up Westminster". And it will but, you know, it'll probably shake it up even further rightwards if you take Labour's heartland out of the equation.

Certainly Jim Sillars will resign on day one, and should take some with him.

I don't see why anyone would think the SNP would break up, post independence - the Irish nationalist parties certainly didn't, for instance. Also, Jim Sillars hasn't been a major figure in Scottish politics since circa 1993.

Anonymous said...

Don't think Ireland is much of a comparison, given that their independence was a traumatic affair and followed on after fighting in the streets. Ireland did have rightful claims to being a subjected nation, as Scotland doesn't. Plus there was a religious dimension, as there isn't in Scotland. Plus, the struggle isn't quite over in some parts ... The Irish nationalist parties could claim more historical glory than the SNP ever will be able to.

The SNP is obviously a stitched-together grouping that has been making it up as it goes along, shifting direction every 10 years.

Seen from down here, the whole indy happening seems pretty peaceful and "civic".

Yes, the weakness in my argument is the assumption that a lot of Scottish Labour toadies will suddenly start to think for themselves.

(BTW I'm British, not English!)

Shuggy said...

I don't understand why people think the SNP will fragment. It strikes me as one of the least likely outcomes of this, regardless of the outcome in September. The notion that the forces of social democracy in Scotland will dispense with the nationalist movimento once it has delivered the constitutional mechanisms they want is heart breaking naive, in my view. As for the idea it'll make Labour England arise from its slumber? What you'll get from a nationalist victory north of the border is more nationalism south of the border. I don't think that would be pretty. I hope to god it doesn't happen.

Rosie said...

Agree about the SNP. Even those who were suspicious of it have said they don't think it makes a bad fist of things at Holyrood. Do political parties fall apart when they're playing a winning game? And if the Yes vote wins Salmond will have been seen to have played a blinder. With a one chamber Parliament I can see it becoming more authoritarian as well. It seems dissenting voices at Holyrood's scrutinising committees are shut up by the SNP.

Anonymous said...

"With a one chamber Parliament I can see it becoming more authoritarian as well."

There is a constitution to be written if/when the independence process starts. That is proposed for after the first Scottish general election (2016?). The proposed model constitution (not written by the SNP) looks an awful lot less authoritarian than the Westminster "crown in parliament" non-constitution.

Under the archaic Westminster system, we've been living with a very authoritarian mode of government for years: parties with under 40 percent of a vote get substantial majorities. A dominant PM like Thatcher or Blair has far too much power.

The present SNP majority at Holyrood is a function of the poverty of Labour in Scotland. As long as Scottish Labour is tied to the dominant English Labour Party, and the best Scottish Labour talent migrates to London, this will go on.

You need a bit of dialectical thinking to work this out ...

gregorach said...

"The present SNP majority at Holyrood is a function of the poverty of Labour in Scotland."

I think this is very much the thinking behind the "Labour for Indy" group mentioned up top. There are a lot of Scottish Labour members / voters who are royally pissed off with New Labour, and (rightly or wrongly) view indy as an opportunity to try and recapture their party. I wish them the very best of luck.