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Wednesday, 17 September 2014

A 'Yes' vote isn't really about change

Ask yourself this question: If you are going to charge someone with the responsibility of making decisions which will impact on you and your family, who would you prefer to make those decisions? A stupid person who lives next door, or a smart person who lives 400 miles away? The answer to that should be obvious, but the Yes campaign asks us to believe that the person next door –by the very fact that he or she lives next door- will be better placed to make those decisions. The next-doorness of that person overrides any notions of ability, intelligence, vision, empathy or wisdom. In identity politics, it is an article of faith that next-doorness trumps everything. And make no mistake, the Yes campaign contains many of the key characteristics of identity politics: the paranoia, the sense of grievance, the absurd manipulation of ‘facts’ to suit an agenda, the demonising of opponents, the offence-taking, the scaremongering, the cultist absolutism. Some on the left may choose to believe that this is a rainbow coalition, a grass roots movement kicking against a corrupt and out-of-touch political establishment, a populist tide focused on optimism, hope and the invigorating possibilities of change. But to adopt that position requires you to put a blind eye to the telescope, because this is clearly a marriage of convenience between the disaffected left, a gaggle of disparate pressure groups and the Scottish National Party. And, as with all marriages, you don’t get to have much say about the in-laws you inherit. 

Imagine, if you will, that at some point in the last 50 years, Britain had elected a left-leaning government with an unshakeable commitment to political reform and social justice. What do you think the SNP would have been doing? The answer, of course, is that they would have been campaigning to break up the United Kingdom, because that commitment to separation is their raison d’etre. If you could provide empirical evidence that Scotland would be worse off as an independent country, they would still campaign for it, because that’s what nationalists do. The same is true of hard-core unionists, of course, but they are not trying to break a 300-year partnership that, according to every single post-war election, is supported by the majority of the Scottish population. Only a couple of decades ago, the SNP were pejoratively known as the ‘Tartan Tories’, yet they now present as a left-leaning party committed to social justice, greener policies, free everything for everyone, yada, yada, yada. But their radical conversion is little more than an opportunistic re-branding designed to exploit the frustration of disaffected Labour voters. Successive electoral beatings taught them that this was the only way they were ever going to have a chance of achieving their goal, so they changed tack. And it seems to have worked.  

It’s worth looking back to the period just before the devolution settlement to understand exactly how we got ourselves into this fine mess. By the beginning of the 1990s, devolution had come to be regarded by the powers-that-be as a bulwark against nationalism and, in a 1997 referendum, 74% of those who voted favoured the notion of devolved government for Scotland. Once we started down that road, we were assured by the great and the good that the Scottish Parliament would be a ‘parliament of all the talents’. We wouldn’t just have the usual party hacks; we’d have poets, artists, thinkers, business leaders, ordinary people. Believe me, some folk actually said stuff like that. Well, we certainly got 'ordinary', but not in the sense of representing the ordinary man or woman in the street. We got ordinary as in ‘largely devoid of any distinguishing characteristics’. We were also told by the architects of the new Scotland that devolution, with its cleverly-constructed voting system, would effectively neuter the separatist movement by giving Scots the representation they desired. 

Holyrood was set up with assurances that no party would ever have an overall majority, meaning that we’d always have consensus politics. At first, everything went pretty much as the smart politicos intended. We had Labour-LibDem coalitions between 1999 and 2007; so far, so cosy. The SNP upset the applecart by forming a minority administration in 2007 and, four years later, the thing that wasn't supposed to happen, happened: one party won an outright majority at Holyrood. Since that day, Alex Salmond and his team have played their hand brilliantly to the point where they have now pushed Scotland to the very edge of secession from the UK. This in spite of the fact that only around 12% of those eligible to vote in the 2010 General Election could be bothered to express a preference for independence.   

For proponents of next-doorness, who believe that ‘we’ know better than ‘them’, this point is worth emphasising: In attempting to come up with a blueprint to tame the separatist beast, Scotland’s smartest political brains produced the one mechanism that could give the nationalists a tilt at their holy grail. Some people did point this out at the time, but who wants to listen to a bunch of negative vibe merchants with their ‘what ifs’ and ‘have you really thought about thats’? (Does any of this sound familiar?)
So, barely 15 years into that ‘foolproof’ devolution settlement, we’ve got a nationalist government gearing up for its big shot. And, in case you hadn’t noticed, everything the SNP has ever said and done has been focused on this moment.

The Yes campaign argues that at least independence will give us the opportunity to build a ‘fairer’ society. Unless I’ve missed something, we’ve already got our own parliament with significant powers. What’s stopping us building a fairer society right now? What exactly is it that Westminster is stopping us from doing? It’s not as if we’re short of money. If our Parliament really believes that we have got disgraceful levels of poverty and ailing public services, why would they have spent £1 billion on a vanity project like the tram system that barely stretches across six miles of Edinburgh? 

Whatever else Westminster has done, it has certainly not stopped the SNP from exercising an authoritarian streak in attempting to micro-manage the lives of Scottish citizens. A couple of recent examples stand out. Scotland now has a law that criminalises people for singing songs at football matches and the context of whether or not the song you are singing is offensive is ‘at the discretion’ of the officer-in-charge. Which means, more or less: you are breaking the law if I don’t like the cut of your jib. Where does that one sit on the progressive /repressive continuum? Creepier still is their idea to appoint a 'state guardian' for every child born in our country. This state guardian will have the legal right to ensure that a child is raised in a government-approved manner and can report any issues about their upbringing to the authorities. I recall watching a TV discussion about this, during which Aileen Campbell -the Minister for Children- used this telling phrase: “Of course, parents also have a role in this” (my italics). Parents also have a role in bringing up children. Well gee, thanks, Aileen. I can only hope that me and the wife don’t let the government down by maybe giving our kids too many sweets, or by expressing opinions that don’t match the latest dogma. You’ll forgive me if I don’t feel like celebrating when people like this get what they want. 

The truth is that the drivers of this Yes campaign are offering a vision that has already been presented at general elections and been rejected by the electorate. But rather than fight for the ‘change’ they claim to believe in, they wish to set up a cosy northern enclave in which a built-in left-leaning majority obviates the need to win the battle of ideas across the whole country. It’s an extraordinarily defeatist attitude and an abject retreat from universalism.
And at the heart of this grubby accommodation is the biggest lie of all, the idea that Scotland is somehow more compassionate and progressive than anywhere else in the UK. To use that old phrase, it is ‘nonsense on stilts’ and is equivalent to saying that Irish people are stupid or that Germans don’t have a sense of humour. If it’s wrong to attribute negative characteristics on the basis of national identity, it’s also wrong to attribute positive characteristics on the basis of national identity. That many on the left have chosen to go along with the SNP's cynical propagation of the myth of Scottish exceptionalism represents a nadir for the movement which shaped the post-war settlement and which once stood for universalism and solidarity. 

I don’t believe that I’m any less Scottish or any less desirous of change for refusing to buy into the Panglossian cult of the Yes campaign. I happen to believe that the change we need in the United Kingdom is nothing less than a recalibration of the relationship between citizen and state, between the electorate and the political class. There are simple things that we could do now which would begin the process of handing power back to people: Granting power of recall to constituents would be a start; open primaries for prospective MPs would be another. The digital age offers limitless possibilities to enrich the concept of democracy, but we’re still practicing analogue politics. If our politicians really believed in people power -as opposed to just saying that they believe in it- they’d be doing this stuff already.

The disconnection between the electorate and the political class is so profound that it can’t be fixed by shifting a few powers from London to Edinburgh. We won’t be any more independent or better governed after a Yes vote and we won’t be any more independent or better governed after a No vote, because -until we fix that connection- we’ll be electing the same people in the same parties. 
Most folk will have already made up their minds how to vote, so I doubt that this polemic will change anyone’s mind. All I’m doing is pointing out the truth as I see it, using the evidence of my own eyes, my own experiences. I believe that on 18th September, we’re being asked to vote for Holyrood’s independence, not our own. So I’ll be saying: "No thanks".

I think that people can change politics, but it takes more than a leap of faith to believe that, after this referendum, Labour, Conservative, LibDem and the SNP will suddenly start recruiting from a different gene pool and begin to produce visionary political ideas in a new Scotland.

But if you believe that, I wish you luck.

And while you’re here, can I interest you in some magic beans?

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