Saturday 6 October 2012

Why independence is not a matter for children

Recently I came across an old friend of mine from the Aberdeenshire village where I grew up and we got to reminiscing and somehow or other she mentioned a story about the 1979 General Election. She had been a teacher in the primary school and told the story of how an English family arrived in the village, no doubt because of the oil industry. There were very few incomers in those days and the people there universally spoke Doric. Well, it seems one of the children of this family attended the primary school and initially found it quite tough, not only was he mocked for being English, but he could barely understand the language in which he was being  mocked. The upshot of this was that within a few months he picked up the language, was as fluent as anyone who had been born there, was vehemently pro-Scottish and during the 1979 election put up SNP posters in the windows of his parents’ house and threw mud pies at posters depicting Albert McQuarrie, the Tory candidate for East Aberdeenshire. My teacher friend used this example to explain a couple of things. Nearly all primary age Scottish children support the SNP, in the same way that they nearly all support Scotland at football. It’s a way for them to express their sense of patriotism and it gives them a feeling of belonging and also of exclusivity. It’s as if by the simple means of expressing support for a political party they all get to shout “Here’s tae us, wha’s like us?” The SNP would win every election if only those under the age of 18 could vote. Nationalism is a superficially attractive ideology, appealing to the tribal instinct which is present in all of us the world over. It is for this reason that politicians everywhere are so tempted to play the nationalist card appealing to the emotions of the electorate, their prejudices, hatreds and fears. Children are particularly susceptible to this, for which reason the voting age quite sensibly is set at 18 in nearly every properly democratic country.
The other thing that this anecdote explains, is the phenomenon of people who are not from Scotland voting for the SNP. It’s a matter of conformity. The English boy had a choice of remaining fully English with his accent and allegiances intact, or he could try to become like his friends. He chose the latter and took on the identity of the community around him. Adults are faced with the same choice. Some choose to retain their identity complete, others choose to assimilate. One way of assimilating is to vote for the “Scottish party.”
After this conversation I began to reflect a little further about 1979 and what seems now to be a strange political world. Albert McQuarrie won East Aberdeenshire despite the best efforts of the English boy and his mud pies. The Tories won 22 seats in Scotland compared to Labour’s 44, but the SNP won only 2 and the Liberals just 1. The referendum on very limited Scottish devolution saw only 51% vote in favour. What really interests me now however, reflecting about this period, is that all these parties had clear cut ideological differences from each other. The Conservatives favoured free market economics and capitalism, the Liberals favoured social-democracy, while Labour favoured democratic socialism. The SNP’s main focus was to campaign for Scotland to become fully independent. They were generally sceptical about membership of the EU and completely sceptical about membership of the UK. Traditional SNP members were keen that their party should not argue with itself over issues of right and left, but should focus on winning the argument for independence. In this sense the party was apolitical, a broad church of nationalists, left, right and centre.   
From the 1980s onwards however, the SNP step by step changed. The reason for this change is straightforward. The main, indeed really the only, policy of the SNP had been rejected by the Scottish people. The Scots did not want the vision of independence, which the SNP was offering. This vision was, of course, retained by the leading nationalists, but they set about finding ways to sweeten the pill of independence. The first step was to introduce the slogan “Independence in Europe”, so as to reassure Scots that they would still belong, that they would not be separate. The second step was to adopt the policies of the left, reasoning that if Scotland consistently voted for Labour, there was more chance of them consistently voting for the SNP if nationalism was presented in a left of centre guise. When eventually the SNP, by means of these policies, gained some power in Holyrood, they began a process of gradually bribing the Scottish electorate. Scots were presented with the idea that they could have a Scandinavian level of public spending without  having to endure Scandinavian levels of taxation. The result of course is a childish, irresponsible model which is both incoherent ideologically and economically. Such a model inevitably leads to unsustainable debt, economic decline and lower standards of living for everyone.  
The clear vision of independence put forward by the SNP in 1979 amounted to Scotland becoming a country like Iceland or Switzerland. I disagreed with this vision, but I respected it. It made sense ideologically and was possible. As a unionist I knew what my opponent was proposing, I knew what I was fighting against. But look how this vision has become murky. In order to reassure the Scottish public, the SNP proposes now that an independent Scotland will not only remain in the EU, but in effect will remain part of the UK. The slogan “Independence in Europe” might as well be replaced by “Independence  in the UK” assuming the SNP does not forbid its supporters from using the word “independence.”
Faced with voters who either don’t want independence or who are scared of it, the SNP continually says “don’t worry, everything will be just like it is now. We’ll keep the Queen, we’ll keep the pound, we’ll still be British, as we’ll remain part of the British Isles, we’ll still have a United Kingdom just like we did from 1603-1707, we’ll have a partnership, a social union, with the countries we just waved goodbye to.” Sometime soon I would not be surprised if the SNP announced that we would retain our MPs at Westminster and our share of funding according to the Barnett formula.
This is all subterfuge. The vision for independence held by people like Alex Salmond is exactly the same as it was in 1979. SNP supporters know that if only they can get the people of Scotland to vote for independence, they can make Scotland as fully independent as they want anytime they please. Whatever they promise to keep now, they could equally decide to drop the day after independence. Moreover, all this talk of cooperation and social union is not something, which the SNP can decide on its own. It’s not within their gift. Cooperation requires the agreement of both parties. For example, Quebec separatists promised that there would be a “sovereignty association” with Canada if the people of Quebec voted for independence in 1995. However, this was an attempt by using subterfuge to con the Québécois into voting for independence as no politician outside Quebec had expressed any intention of agreeing to such an association. The SNP likewise can not dictate the relationship, which would exist between the rest of the UK and an independent Scotland. Each party would be free to choose how they wished to relate to the other.
Independence would make a real difference to our lives. That is why nationalists want it and why unionists oppose it. The issue is far too important to be influenced by spin and disputes about the usage of words like “independence” and “separation”. There must be only clarity from all sides without subterfuge. The SNP seem to think that it is wise to promise anything, give up any cherished policy, just so long as they get 1 vote more than the unionists. But if the referendum were to be won by cunning, if the Scots were to feel that they had been conned by clever politics and salesman’s tactics, it would hardly be a good result either for patriotic nationalists or for patriotic unionists. It’s not a game and we should give up childish things.