Saturday 19 September 2015

One year on we must still fight for Britain

It’s a year ago exactly to when we woke up to find that our country was still intact. There are two Scotlands. One went to bed on September 18th and woke up at the normal time. The other stayed up all night. The photos, of those who waited with expectation for the result, are of the bedraggled losers. The rest of us were going to work.

What has changed in the past year? The first thing that has changed is that political prediction has become about as useful as divination by means of chicken entrails. There were people a year ago predicting that the SNP would squabble among themselves and implode. How many words were written about the General election that depended on the certainty that there would be a hung parliament? How many people a year ago predicted that Labour would win one seat in Scotland? How many predicted that Jeremy Corbyn would lead that party? Even mid-summer I remember reading commentators who said he might be leading, but he wouldn’t actually win. On what basis did they predict this? What method did they use to predict the future?

If I were being paid to write about politics, I would feel my salary was earned on false pretences.  Why do we pay this legion of prophets who know nothing? Some of us pay because it gives us a warm glow inside about independence being inevitable. Some of us pay in order to feel doom and gloom about the UK.  

I’ll always remember how we turned the mood around last year. It briefly felt like we were losing. Whether we were is another matter. But I remember how for the last two weeks of the campaign I went positive. I was optimistic about the result and I talked about what I liked about Britain. Morale is crucial to any campaign, whether it is long or short. The last thing we need is people, who supposedly support the UK, being negative about our long term chances. If you think independence is inevitable, join the Nats and make it happen. I will fight you.

I told people who came to me a year ago with their doom and gloom and their fear to cease talking down our chances. Feel those things in private if you will, but you help the Nats if you show them. My predictions are as worthless as anyone else’s. I have no crystal ball. But I know this much. The long term battle over Scotland’s future depends on us countering the SNP’s narrative.

Public opinion in Scotland at the moment is overwhelmingly left of centre. A large number of people in Scotland feel exclusively Scottish. They accept that Scotland is a country in the same sense that France is a country and from that it is a short step to winning the argument that Scotland ought to be independent. Far too few people in Scotland have much sentiment for Britain. Many, probably the majority of people in Scotland are persuaded by the economic argument, that remaining in the UK is good for Scotland and our standard of living. But this is our problem. We ought not to have to make the economic argument. No-one in Burgundy thinks it merely pragmatic that it should be a part of France. Rather they find it unimaginable that it should not be a part of France.

Our task is long term to change public opinion in Scotland. It isn’t enough to win the economic argument, for that argument is merely contingent. It is true that Scotland would be much worse off if we were independent. But what if it were not true? Should we all become nationalists? No. The argument we should make is that Scotland should be part of the UK in the same way that Bavaria ought to be part of Germany. Bavaria ought to be part of Germany because Germans live there. Well likewise, Scotland ought to be part of the UK because British people live there. Some of them may have forgotten this fact. But nevertheless it is true. We are all mixed. We are all related to people from the other parts of the UK. Hardly any of us could even understand a pre-1707 Scot. He would seem to all of us to be someone quite foreign with an identity quite different to ours.

We must oppose the SNP not only on independence. We must attempt to change Scottish opinion so that people no longer see their politics as being opposed to the direction in which the UK is heading. Too many people here are persuaded by the argument that Scotland votes one way while the UK votes another. They see breaking up our centuries old country as a small price to pay in order that the party that they vote for wins an election.  They forget that in any democracy, there will always be parts that don’t get what they want. This isn’t a fault. It’s a feature.

The difficulty we have is that in Scottish politics there is no alternative to a relentless diet of left or further left. At the last election the only substantive difference between Labour and the SNP was their policies with regard to independence. It is for this reason fundamentally that the SNP could attract so many Labour voters. Whether or not we believe that the SNP are really left-wing is beside the point. Those people who want Scotland to be left wing are right to vote for the SNP. There is precious little chance of the UK as a whole voting for a left wing government. The next election already looks like an easy victory for the Conservatives, for it will play out like the last one. Corbyn or his successor will depend on SNP votes to be in power, but people in England will vote for anyone to avoid this.

In order to oppose the SNP we need to gradually change public opinion in Scotland so that we remember that we are the descendants of Adam Smith. All of the great thinkers of the 18th and 19th century were unionists. Most of them were people who believed in thrift, hard work and free markets. The key to defeating independence long term is that Scots don’t feel dependent on government at all. It’s the SNP’s model of reliance on government spending that makes them depend on the UK block grant. Paradoxically without that dependence they could argue for the economic benefits of independence tomorrow. But if we could convert Scots to the free market, there would no longer be a division in the politics of the UK. Why separate, what is the same?

This strategy is long term. Changing public opinion is not going to happen soon. But that is the story I am going to tell. I’m going to talk about how the British model of free markets benefits all of us. I’m going to talk about how there is no real difference between anyone who lives in the UK. I don’t want any barriers to be erected between people who I consider to be my distant relations. I hope the UK government will help by promoting the UK as an inclusive society where everyone has equality of opportunity and no-one is left behind. I hope they promote the idea that we have a common identity and that we are fundamentally united. I can’t predict that my strategy will win in the end. When you start a campaign, it is impossible to predict how it will end. But this I do know. We have a better chance by being positive about the UK and optimistic about our long term future, than by writing relentlessly negative articles that only help the SNP. If you don’t want to fight for the UK, then leave the fight to those of us who do.