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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The settled will of the people?

So no separation! 
I’ve waited a couple of days before trying to compose my reactions. Time to let the dust settle – and identify the best of others’ responses…
In the meantime I updated the preface of my little E-book, changed its title to “The Scottish Argument”, had it printed and bound (back in Bucharest) and read it over in the manner only a physical book allows. Forthcoming months will, inevitably, see several books about the campaign but they will be for a British audience. And I think it would be good to try to put the Scottish debate in the wider context of discussions about democracy and good government in Europe…… So I may well have a stab at that in the months to come.

It was only as I discussed the result with my Romanian partner that I realised how few had been the respected Scottish voices speaking reasonably for continued union. Our cultural elite supported independence so strongly that the minority who were for continued union seemed to have lost its voice – JK Rowling’s was an exceptional voice. Gordon Brown seem to have found his voice only in the last few weeks – until then only a couple of left politicians had dared to take to the streets and halls with arguments for continued union. The business sector also seemed cowed – although Tom Hunter had a Foundation through which some balanced papers were published.   The media was for union and increasingly attracted nationalist fury. And the academic community by and large maintained its academic distance. Religion is no longer the force it was – although the Catholic Church had noticeably softened its anti-independence stance…

Sunday gives time to read the Sunday newspapers - and get a bit of distance via its essayists. But first let me pay tribute to The Guardian which had a very good campaign. For me it was essential reading - with articles from both sides.
Andrew Rawnsley, the Guardian's political correspondent, has the most measured piece  in today's paper. But two of the big Scottish names – novelist Irvine Welsh and intellectual Neal Ascherson – also contribute powerfl bits of writing. Both were “yes” supporters – Welsh more recently but it is his article which has the angrier tone. It also, to my mind, gives a better sense of alternative scenarios than I’ve so far seen (apart from Rawnsley). His argument, basically, is that
·         It is not just the Scots who have been activated by this campaign – but many people in the rest of the UK (rUK)
·         The British Prime Minister – who was panicked into promises in the last week of the campaign - will be unable to deliver a credible package which will satisfy both Scots and English
·         The Labour party lost most credibility in the campaign – they were exposed for many undecided as the neo-liberals they are
·         The campaign allowed the genie out of the bottle. Apathy and cynicism have been rampant in Britain since New Labour disappointed so many hopes – the Scottish campaign has shown a new spirit and the democratic urge will not be repressed

There was much talk of how ineffective the no campaign was. In some ways this is unfair: you can only go with what you've got and they simply weren't packing much heat. The union they strove to protect was based on industry and empire and the esprit de corps from both world wars, and you can't maintain a political relationship on declining historical sentiment alone. With the big, inclusive postwar building blocks of the welfare state and the NHS being ripped apart by both major parties there's zero currency in campaigning on that, especially as they're only being preserved in Scotland by the devolved parliament. The boast of using oil revenues to fund privatisation projects and bail out bankers for their avarice and incompetence is never going to be a vote winner. Going negative was the only option.

Neal Ascherson’s article emphasises the last point and then tries to capture what actually happened in the last week of the campaign -

So this long campaign has changed Scotland irrevocably. Campaign? I have never seen one like this, in which it wasn't politicians persuading people how to vote, but people persuading politicians. At some point in late spring, the official yes campaign lost control as spontaneous small groups set themselves up and breakfast tables, lounge bars, bus top decks and hospital canteens began to talk politics. What sort of Scotland? Why do we tolerate this or that? Now, in Denmark they do it this way…

It was at this moment – 7 September – that the famous poll suggesting a yes victory appeared. Ironically, this may have ensured the yes defeat. It wasn't so much the scrambling panic at Westminster, the stampede of cabinet ministers and MPs for seats on the next train north out of Euston. It was the spontaneous initiative of thousands of Scottish voters, who realised that they could be out of the United Kingdom within days unless they took action. "No thanks" posters appeared everywhere in windows in the last week of the campaign and the undecided, suddenly under pressure from anxious relations and colleagues, began to veer towards a decisive no.

The weakness of the unionists, and of their Better Together outfit, was terrifying. Defenders of the union from south of the border almost all did their cause more harm than good, either by displaying ignorance about Scotland that made audiences laugh, or by imperial bullying. George Osborne's threat to throw the Scots out of the common currency if they dared to vote yes was perceived as shameless bluff by most Scottish viewers and nearly cost him the referendum.

The Better Together leadership, including Alistair Darling, relied on negativity and fear, issuing constant scare-statements that often proved to be misleading or even mendacious. Worse, they seemed unable to set the union to music, even though some of their unofficial followers could make a positive, emotional case for "Britain" which didn't have to rely on either "glorious history" or fancied threats from "forces of darkness". The no case, in other words, won by default; yes ran out of steam and became vulnerable almost within sight of triumph.

Welsh looks at the some of the political consequences already taking shape -

The referendum was a disaster for Cameron (UK PM) personally, who almost lost the union. The Tories, with enough self-awareness to realise how detested they are in Scotland, stood aside to let Labour run the show on the basis they could deliver a convincing no vote. But for Labour, the outcome was at least as bad; when the dust settles they will be seen, probably on both sides of the border, to have used their power and influence against the aspiration towards democracy. Labour voters caught this ugly whiff, the number of them supporting independence doubling in a month from 17% to 35%. In the mid-term, the leadership may have simply acted as recruiting sergeants for the SNP.

As Cameron was at first absent and uninterested, then finally fearful, so the Leader of the Labour opposition looked just as ineffective and totally lost during this campaign. He became a figure of contempt in Scotland: Labour leaders have generally needed a period in office in order to achieve that distinction.
As social media came of age in a political campaign in these islands, the rest of the establishment will be for ever tarnished in the eyes of a generation of Scots. The senior officials of banks and supermarkets dancing to Whitehall's tune, their nonsense disseminated by the London press, was not unexpected, but the BBC extensively answered any questions about their role in a post-independent Scotland……

This vote ensures that Scotland will remain central on the UK agenda. The union was on death row and the no vote earned it a stay of execution; the establishment parties are now in the process of organising their appeal. That has to involve real decentralisation of power and an end to regional inequities. Do the political classes have the stomach and the spine for this? A devo max that gives Scotland the power to raise taxes to pay for welfare programmes, but not reduce them by opting out of Trident and other defence spending, while maintaining the oil flow south of the border, without even an investment or poverty alleviation fund, is a sham, especially as it was denied at the ballot box. It may be perceived as setting up the Scottish parliament to fail, and undermining devolution.

However, it's probably the case that anything more than that would be unlikely to be palatable to the major parties or the broader UK electorate. The biggest problem for the Westminster elites now is not just to decide what to do about Scotland but, crucially, to do it without antagonising English people – who might justly feel that the tail of 10% is now starting to wag the dog of the rest of the UK.
The fact is that the majority of the 25 million who live in London and the south-east are perfectly fine with the bulk of tax pounds (to say nothing of the oil revenues) being spent on government, infrastructure and showcase projects in the capital – why wouldn't they be? The problem is that in a unitary, centralised state, the decision-making and civic wealth of the nation – and therefore practically all the large-scale private investment – lies in that region.
So how can you square the two? Scots are showing they won't go on committing their taxes or oil monies to building a London super-state on the global highway for the transnational rich, particularly when it's becoming unaffordable to their Cockney comrades, driving them out of their own city to the M25 satellites……

The yes movement hit such heights because the UK state was seen as failed; antiquated, hierarchical, centralist, discriminatory, out of touch and acting against the people. This election will have done nothing to diminish that impression. Against this shabbiness the Scots struck a blow for democracy, with an unprecedented 97% voter registration for an election the establishment wearily declared nobody wanted. It turns out that it was the only one people wanted. Whether this Scottish assertiveness kickstarts an unlikely UK-wide reform (unwanted in most of the English regions); or wearies southerners and precipitates a reaction to get rid of them; or the Scots, through the ballot box at general elections, decide to go the whole hog of their own accord; the old imperialist-based union is bust.

Ascherson shows the same scepticism as Welsh about whether the centre will hold in Scotland

Where does Scotland go from here? The last few days have produced a jostling mob of half-promises, most of them provoked  by the 7 September poll panic. David Cameron, borrowing a cliche, states that staying in the United Kingdom is now "the settled will of the Scottish people".
Even SNP figures say independence won't return to the agenda for a generation. This is unlikely to be true. Scotland is being carried along on a process of steady institutional, political and social divergence from the rest of the UK, which will continue.

The case for full self-government will make increasing sense in the next few years. The latest hasty suggestions for increasing the powers of the Scottish parliament are little more than a rehash of existing proposals judged some years ago to be hopelessly behind the curve. Anyway, Mr Cameron now proposes to embed them in a vaster constitutional reform for all Britain. This is unlikely to get anywhere serious, and would take many years if it did. If the Westminster system has one real expertise, it is for gently enfolding radical ideas, like a jellyfish with its prey, and dissolving them to transparent mush.
In the past three days, Scots have looked at one another and asked: "What do we do with all that joyful commitment, with the biggest surge of creative democratic energy that Scotland has ever seen?" For many, perhaps thousands of people, it has been the most important public experience in their lives. Must it go to waste? 

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