THE British political elite has lately felt obliged to combat contingencies on two fronts. It’s not quite certain about how to proceed against the so-called Islamic State. There’s a greater sense of purpose in the context of a prospective state of Scotland.
The late surge in momentum for Scottish independence evidently took Westminster and the City of London by surprise. After all, when a referendum was first mooted and subsequently sanctioned, popular assumptions and opinion polls suggested it would be more or less a non-starter. Democracy would have its day and the status quo would be maintained.
But then the tide turned and the polling gap suddenly was reduced to a level that fell within the margin of error.
Taken aback, the establishment rallied to the unionist cause. The leaders of the three largest Westminster parties rushed to Scotland. Financial institutions chipped in, as did leading retailers. Independence, theysaid, would be a disaster in economic terms. The big banks will ship out. Prices will rise. Rump Britain won’t share its currency.
The message was: you’ll be ruined if you choose independence.
The message to Scots was clear: you’ll all be ruined if you choose independence. It wasn’t all stick, though. There were carrots on offer, too, notably the vow from all sides of mainstream politics that the devolution of powers would be substantially extended — almost guaranteeing virtual independence in effect, if not in name.
Hence the commonly held view that whichever way Scotland votes tomorrow, First Minister Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), will emerge as a winner. Unless, that is, the naysayers win by a substantial margin. That appears unlikely, although it remains hard to predict the extent to which the orchestrated prognostications of doom will have the desired effect.
It’s not just a question of whether the power of poetry can trump bare statistics, but also of the extent to which ordinary voters are able to identify the elements of deceit in the scare campaign. At the same time, there may, of course, be good cause to question the SNP’s poetic licence in declaring that an independent Scotland will be able to afford a grandiloquent welfare state sharply at variance with the depressingly austere norms in the rest of the British Isles.
In this respect, it is true that a devolved Scotland has to a notable extent managed to keep fundamentalist neoliberalism at bay — as evidenced, for example, by its proud dedication to a cost-free higher education. But even that, it is said, could be at risk.
That’s among the nitty-gritty that clouds the prospects of an independent Scotland — and the extent of the confusion is considerable, not least in respect of the constitutional implications, which reportedly have lately unnerved the monarch. Royal spokesmen have insisted on the neutrality of the House of Windsor, and on Sunday Queen Elizabeth publicly ventured the opinion that voters must think carefully before ticking their ballots, which has been interpreted as an inevitable endorsement of the status quo, albeit in a form cloaked in plausible deniability.
Republicanism is not a part of the SNP’s agenda, though, and Salmond has welcomed the idea of Elizabeth remaining the monarch of Scotland, continuing an arrangement worked out a century before the 1707 Act of Union that yoked the two countries together.
When the polls narrowed a couple of weeks ago, most observers reckoned that the eventual result would depend on which side succeeded in winning over the undecideds — many of them reckoned to be disillusioned Labour voters, which is one reason why former prime minister Gordon Brown was injected into the ‘yes’ campaign. It is notable that Tony Blair has been kept out, in tacit recognition of the fact that his legacy is perceived by many Scots to be almost as toxic as that of Margaret Thatcher.
Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged the level of hostility when he recently pleaded with Scots not to opt for independence merely in order to give another kick to what he called “the e----- Tories”. It is intriguing, meanwhile to see Cameron being lionised as a hero in Catalonia purely on the grounds that he is seen as having enabled the Scots to express their democratic opinion.
That aspect of the referendum campaign is indeed praiseworthy — there has lately been plenty of acrimony on the trail, but no violence, in strong contrast with the tactics necessitated by the Irish struggle for independence.
Given the barrage of alarmist propaganda, it is likely that enough of the undecideds will vote ‘no’ to pre-empt a split. That would be a disappointment for all those carried away by the prospects of Scottish statehood, even if they don’t exactly accept Scotland would miraculously emerge as another Norway or, as some on the left put it, a “successful Cuba”.
But all would almost certainly not be lost in the event of a ‘no’ win, given that even the pillars of the establishment would find it hard to retreat from the prospect they have held out of greater democratisation throughout the UK. Come what may, the significance of this key moment in British history is unlikely to be lost in a hurry.
Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2014