I wrote a couple of months ago on the myths which pervade the #indyref campaign and I don’t think much has changed on that front. It’s funny – a common theme from commentors on the debate is how mature and civilised it is, yet each ‘side’ delights in pointing out the myriad of ways in which the other is talking bollocks without ever removing the logs from their own eyes. Tonight’s debate between Salmond and Darling will almost certainly see more of this and it’s been fairly fascinating seeing the myths which sustain particular identities laid bare. Both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps have attempted to lay claim to ideas that they are beacons of fairness, tolerance and justice in the world. Writing from a left-wing perspective, it seems fairly accepted amongst peers that it’s at best ridiculous, at worst grotesque for anyone to argue this on behalf of the UK, which is beset by a bleak assortment of social problems and has some of the worst poverty and inequality in the developed world. So if I don’t write much about the myths advanced by Better Together and their ilk it’s because I take it as given that those of a ‘progressive’ ilk don’t buy into them in the first place.
The myths around Scotland, however, not only seem to be burrowed deep into the national subconscious but have found themselves flourishing wildly during this debate. The great unknown offered by independence sees every problem, from the arms trade through to uninspired Scottish architecture, reframed as a ‘Westminster’ or ‘England’ issue which the plucky Scots can solve by voting ‘Yes’. Sure, most people have enough sense not to say it as bluntly as this but the overwhelming narrative is the very familiar one of Scotland being both more progressive, and more oppressed, than its neighbour to the South. The troubling subtexts in this message can’t help but seep through the cracks, whether it be in the suggestion that opponents to independence are suffering from a “deep-seated cultural self-hatred” or in the utterly idiotic notion that voting ‘no’ is giving “Westminster permanent permission to do whatever it likes forever. No questions asked.” The choice is between an independent Scotland full of hope and optimism and general niceness or a UK which is dystopian and apocalyptic. All progressive thought, opinion and action in the rest of the UK is erased.
I was surprised to see this exact framing in the latest issue of London Review of Books, a journal which consistently presents some of the best writing in the UK (and beyond) The piece, called What Sort of Scotland? and written by Neal Ascherson, is behind a paywall but I’ve copied some relevant sections with my commentary:
It does Yes campaigners some credit that they haven’t launched their own ‘Project Fear’ concentrating on what happens if independence is rejected on 18 September. They don’t talk about it, affect not to think about it. But the landscape beyond that day is growing darker.
It does credit to Yes campaigners (which Ascherson clearly is, despite making an odd distinction by claiming to only be a Yes ‘voter’) that they don’t scaremonger…except when they do. It’s ironic that for all the (correct) complaints of Better Together’s ‘negativity’, much of the Yes campaign’s energy comes from its opposition to the current state of a Tory-led UK and its apocalyptic predictions of a ‘darker landscape’. How Lord of the Rings. As I’ve written previously, the UK-wide opposition to this is never going to be found in a campaign against Scottish independence – why would it be? It’s found in the recent strikes, in fights against changes to welfare, in campaigns for a living wage, in mass demos for Gaza. This progressive body of opinion exists across the UK but many independence campaigners pretend that it doesn’t while complaining that ‘unionists’ offer no vision of a better society. It’s disingenuous in the exteme.
The Unionist parties say that they will agree on further devolution of powers to Scotland. But these don’t seem likely to go much beyond a little more discretion on some taxes. There’s talk of calling a national convention on the constitutional future, but this would apparently be led by the Scotland Office – a London ministry – with Scotland’s elected government and Parliament reduced to mere participants among a crowd of British bodies.
This complaint has been voiced with increasing frequency: the UK government might promise more devolution but it doesn’t really mean it! And even if it did, it’s worthy only of derision because it would be led by…the UK government. ‘A London ministry’. The outrage that a parliament made up of the nations of the UK would ‘apparently’ lead on constitutional change, rather than the parliament which only represents Scotland! It’s all chip-on-shoulder nonsense relying on ‘Scotland vs London’ sentiment.
It’s possible that Scotland might decline too, sharply and even irreversibly, in that first No decade. It’s not just that pro-Europe Scotland might well be dragged out of the EU by a Europhobic southern majority.
I’ve long found it ironic that pro-independence voices are almost uniformally uncritical of the EU, a body which by any measure has greater problems regarding legitimacy and democracy than Westminster. Criticism of the EU is, however, largely associated with right-wing opinion and so isn’t helpful to the idea of Scotland as a progressive beacon. Leaving that to one side, the suggestion that Scotland could be forced out of the EU by a ‘southern majority’ is another one which you hear fairly regularly and is commonly accepted. Yet it belies a far more complex reality where a majority in Scotland have consistently adopted a critical approach to the EU. A recent Yougov poll on the EU, meanwhile, found majority support for remaining in the EU across the entire UK. Most interestingly, it found that if people believed UK membership had been renegotiated more favourably, opinion on EU membership was almost uniform with 54-61% opting to stay in.
Or that English hysteria about immigration could block young European incomers to Scotland – a need first recognised when the then first minister Jack McConnell sent recruiters to the bus-parks of Poland in 2004.
A consistent majority in Scotland want less immigration while a very small minority want more. As we saw in my previous blog, 49% in Scotland thought that Scotland would ‘lose its identity if more Muslims came to live’ there, and 45% thought the same about more black and/or Asian people living there. None of this is good, of course, but it demonstrates how smugly complacent it is to believe that immigration ‘hysteria’ (and by extension racism) is an English problem.
It is, above all, the damage London governments might well now inflict on Scottish social policies. After eight years in power, the polls still give the SNP a startling lead: it is currently at 43 per cent. This is mainly because it has carried on the social policies of the Lib-Lab coalitions which preceded it in Edinburgh. These parties barricaded the welfare state – higher education, free social care and the Scottish National Health Service above all – against the tide of privatisation and marketising ‘competition’ which is washing away the British postwar social settlement south of the border. But that barricade would probably crumble in a post-No Britain.
Again, an argument you hear frequently – that even the devolved NHS will crumble if Scotland votes against independence. Putting aside the question of how that would actually happen in practice, this would have us believe that people ‘south of the border’ want to wash away the ‘British postwar social settlement’. There are wide and loud campaigns against the changes to the NHS which have led Labour to pledge a reversal of the Health and Social Care Bill. Then there is the fact that over half (52% in 2013) of people in Scotland complain that unemployment benefits are ‘too high’, which doesn’t exactly suggest it as a welfare state valhalla.
On top of that, the neoliberal Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership may soon force all public health services in the UK – Scottish as well as English – to invite competition from American private firms. This ravenous alien was only able to squirm into the UK spaceship because in 2012 Cameron’s coalition had already legalised an internal private health market in England.
This is the most bizarre complaint, to put it generously. The TTIP is being negotiated by the EU (which, lest we forget, the writer was fearful of leaving) and the United States. It’s about far more than ‘public health services’ and the idea that it’s somehow the doing of David Cameron is risible beyond belief. While there are several campaigns against TTIP I can’t find any indication that an SNP (or indeed any other party) government in an independent Scotland would oppose it.
The piece advances a heap of unexamined half-truths and distortions about the evils that will be visited upon poor, defenceless Scotland in the event of it remaining in the UK. It’s embarrassing stuff yet sadly typical of the level of debate. To underline how far these myths endure without question I want to look at one other issue: that of Trident. The British Social Attitude survey looked at this and found that “public opinion on the subject of nuclear weapons is nothing like as different on the two sides of the border” as we’re led to believe. The most interesting finding, however, was that in Scotland “slightly more people agree (41 per cent) than disagree (37 per cent) with the proposition that:
If Scotland becomes independent, Britain’s nuclear weapons submarines should continue to be based here”
In England and Wales, however, 63% thought the weapons should leave Scotland if it became independent! This doesn’t fit the common narratives around this issue at all.
It seems odd to me to have a debate around ‘the kind of country Scotland would like to be’, based on noble ideas about furthering democracy and improving people’s lives, which relies so much on myths and a refusal to engage with existing opinion. Indeed, when I’ve raised e.g. the matter of public opinion in Scotland being firmly against more immigration or more unemployment benefits, the response I invariably get is ‘well of course it is, they are brainwashed by the UK media’. Quite how the media in an independent Scotland will be different so as to help these poor brainwashed, self-hating masses, I’m not quite sure. Presumably this media will also report on the secret oil field which the dasterdly Cameron is keeping from the poor oppressed people of Scotland.
It’s all pretty gruesome, desperate stuff. Just to repeat, there’s plenty of that from Better Together and it’s covered in detail elsewhere. I don’t endorse it. Yet if I’ve always been against Scottish independence, my one abiding hope were it to happen has been that it would lead to a more mature Scotland where we don’t feel the need to revel in a sense of victimhood, inventing paranoid conspiracies and blaming the wicked English for our woes (as many in England blame the EU – as I say, we all have our enduring myths). I remain strongly of the opinion that the Scottish form of social democracy lives and dies in the perceived gap between it and England. If and when that gap goes, I would hope that attitudes would change. I’m sad to say that this seems further away than ever.