A Friday thought: Scottish independence

For a long time, I’ve chosen to stay quiet on the subject of the Scottish independence referendum. That doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about it, even though I do not get a vote, here are a few thoughts and observations as the campaign reaches its climax.

The democratic process

The wording of the question was a problem to begin with. You may recall that the initial question was posed as “Do you agree that…” which was deemed illegal as it was too leading. So that wasn’t a great start.

This was counteracted by the decision to extend the vote to 16 and 17 year olds. In my opinion, this was a very good move and I would be keen to see it extended to other elections and referendums. I recall being annoyed that there was a general election called in 2001 as I was a few months off turning 18 and hence I couldn’t vote. Yet while my views continue to evolve, even as a 16 year old it seemed wrong to deny my age group the vote. The argument has been that we lacked enough life experience or political understanding to be able to make an informed decision. I didn’t buy it then and I still don’t. If we denied the vote simply on the grounds of not being well enough informed then that would cut out a great many adults.

However, the democratic process wasn’t all that well designed. The issue here is that the vote was given to those resident in Scotland but the outcome would be to affect those who were born in Scotland. In effect, those who were born there but do not currently live there would have a change of nationality enforced on them by a vote which they were not capable of taking part in. Also one has the issue of non Scots who live there voting, though I am not opposed to that. While they wouldn’t have their nationality changed, it is a significant enough change to warrant them having the vote. Others may disagree with me on that.

The question of the economy

Much of the debate has revolved around the economy and so the debate has been shifted from whether Scotland should be independent to whether Scotland would be better off as an independent country rather than part of a union. This was always going to be a big issue, as emphasised by one of the names of the ‘No’ campaign – better together. Though I couldn’t help but think about it in a utilitarian way: what result gives the greatest good to the greatest number of people? Was it a case that Scotland was being held back by the rest of the UK and would prosper alone, leaving the rest of the UK unaffected or was it a case of “we’re off, screw you”? I think the answer is the former, even if it has been portrayed as the latter by some in the ‘No’ camp. But then comes the crucial question: is it actually true? This is a question I don’t know the answer to and haven’t found either side convincing on.

When the polls started to narrow and the markets had the jitters, I saw some comments from market fundamentalists to the effect that this proved independence was bad for business. For some businesses, I don’t doubt that independence will have an adverse effect. But how bad it might be and for how long, will vary from business to business. Personally, I think most will be largely unaffected. If a small number of big employers were to signal their intention to move south as a result of a yes vote, then I would anticipate something akin to a ‘corporate tax war’ whereby the Scottish government would seek to keep (and even attract business) by undercutting the UK corporate tax rates. Though, of course, this would mean they’d have less in their treasury to spend on the social welfare state. Which brings us onto the currency.

The currency issue has ended up playing a much bigger part than it probably should have done. The reason I say that is that it could have been avoided if the ‘Yes’ campaign had had the courage to plan for a new Scottish currency. As it is, their presumption of a currency union backfired. If they had a firm and workable plan in place, then as part of the wider economic question, the ‘Yes’ campaign would have been far stronger. Though as one parody site put it, Alex Salmond’s plan was akin to someone choosing to rescind their gym membership but insist that they can continue to use the equipment afterwards.

It is my belief that the it was the failure to adequately sort out the currency issue that soured the rest of the debate, which has only gotten worse as the date of the referendum has drawn closer. Having failed to come up with an alternative currency, the team behind the ‘Yes’ vote were unwilling to reveal a plan B, which was seized upon by the ‘No’ team who were unwilling to say that negotiations could be entered into. Stubbornness on both sides did neither of them any credit.

The bitter campaigns

All this set us up for an ever more divisive campaign. Given the nature of the referendum that shouldn’t be a bad thing. But it was worse than divisive. It got tribalistic. As is often the sad case with politics, the desire to hold the higher ground often leads to a refusal to acknowledge a good point made by one’s opponents. There have also been cases of demonising the other side and accusations of foul play.

In my view, the onus should have been on the ‘Yes’ campaign to make the case for independence. By and large, this has been what they’ve been aiming for, though of late a few below the belt aims seems to have had more effect. The job of the ‘No’ campaign should have been to critique the proposals. Starting with the currency issue, though, the flat denialism of the ‘Yes’ campaign, jointly with the scaremongering of the ‘No’ campaign, stoked the fires that meant reason and evidence were drowned out by rhetoric and emotionalism.

The fact that the ‘No’ campaign did resort to near-threats and scaremongering did them no favours at all. It also played into the hands of the ‘Yes’ campaign by giving them room to dismiss any fair and reasonable critique as similar scaremongering. As such, the noise from both sides made it more and more difficult to assess the truthfulness of each side.

Both sides have been guilty of saying some pretty stupid things. Alex Salmond saying that Scottish independence was like ending apartheid was monumentally crass. That was matched by some comments I saw on social media likening the SNP to the BNP. They may be one letter different but their ideologies are a world apart.

The ‘No’ campaign really shot themselves in the foot when the 3 main party leaders abandoned Prime Minister’s Questions and went to Scotland in a moment of panic after one opinion poll said the referendum was closer than ever, even if the ‘Yes’ campaign did celebrate it like a landslide victory. I alluded to demonisation earlier, which was most evident here in Salmond’s cry of “Team Westminster”.

I would not deny the ‘Yes’ campaign’s claim that consecutive Westminster governments have been out of touch. I knew a similar sentiment when I lived in the north-east of England. Yet to imagine that the further away you are from Westminster, the less they care is, I believe, wrong. Having lived in London for a year, I know areas 3.5 miles from Westminster that are just as neglected by Parliament as those 350 miles away. Yet that’s not a reason to vote ‘No’. If anything, it is a reason for greater reform in our politics.

If anything, the greatest reason the ‘Yes’ campaign has is one of principle; that it is inherently correct that they should have self-determination.  But self-determination is not a guarantee of prosperity, which is why the promise of economic benefits of independence ring hollow. If there was a promise of “it is right that we should govern ourselves, and it may be tough” then that may be more honest than the vision of independence that has been sold to the Scottish people.

Yet credence has been given to the ‘Yes’ campaign by the sheer panic and late promises from the ‘No’ campaign. The mixed messages of stick and carrot have done the unionists no favours and so it is understandable that people will vote ‘Yes’ on a promise given currency (pun intended) by the flustered nature of the response.

It has been interesting how ‘left’ v ‘right’ has played out. I’ve read some comments from the ‘Yes’ campaign that to vote ‘No’ is an act of selling out to the establishment. Yet the SNP’s socialist credentials were dealt a blow when they didn’t bother to turn up to vote on the latest bill going through to abolish the bedroom tax. There’s a very good analysis on that particular bill here.

Conclusion

Ultimately, there are some very good reasons for voting ‘Yes’ and there are some equally good reasons for voting ‘No’. No one can know for certain what the result of independence might be, all we can do is guess. As highlighted above, some of those guesses are questionable. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer, all we have is democracy on a subjective matter. If the opinion polls are to be believed, it will be a very tight vote. It may be interesting to see if a reasonable estimate could be made to see if the enfranchised 16 & 17 year olds make a difference.

Whichever way the vote goes, it will be interesting. I know that for saying that both sides have behaved badly that I have received some flak from ‘Yes’ campaigners and been accused of advocating a ‘No’ vote. I don’t advocate either side. If you are reading this and you have a vote, my only wish is that you exercise it.

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