A week, it’s commonly said, is a long time in politics. This has felt especially true with recent events in the build-up to the referendum on Scottish independence, which is being held this September. Last week, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech in London and did his best to impersonate Hugh Grant, who played the cuddly fictional prime minister in the Richard Curtis movie Love, Actually. Cameron assured Scots that everybody in England, and Wales, and Northern Ireland loved them and begged them not to vote for independence and break up the big happy family that is the UK. Please don’t go, he practically sang, we love you so. He even told people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to text or email relatives and friends in Scotland, to urge them not to betray the great British love-in by voting ‘yes’. (By the way, everyone I know who lives in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – I’m still waiting to hear from you.)
But this week – ironically one day before St Valentine’s Day – Cameron’s chancellor George Osborne gave a speech in Edinburgh and suddenly love was no longer in the air. Instead, stark, blunt threats were the order of the day. Osborne warned that if Scots voted for independence, there’d be no prospect of the remainder of the UK agreeing to a currency union with Scotland. Having a currency union, whereby an independent Scotland would continue to use the British pound even if it meant the new country ceded a degree of fiscal control to London, was the Scottish National Party’s preferred policy. It was also the policy recommended for an independent Scotland by Alistair Darling, who was chancellor in the last Labour government and is coincidentally the head of the anti-independence Better Together campaign. Although having separate currencies on the island of Britain would damage the remaining UK as much as it would an independent Scotland – the cost to the UK balance of payments could be billions of pounds – Osborne made it plain that he was willing to cut off his nose to spite his face (or cut off his Union Jack-painted face to spite his wayward tartan nose) in order to stall an independent Scotland’s economy.
So within a couple of days the attitude of the Conservative government at Westminster towards its Scottish subjects has veered from being lovey-dovey to being shrill, wide-eyed and threatening. Such extreme mood-swings are not characteristic of Hugh Grant in Love, Actually at all. They’re more like the behaviour of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. No wonder some people in Scotland want to vote for independence. Who’d want to stay in a union with a government of bunny-boilers?
(c) The Spectator
The currency issue has dominated the mainstream Scottish media this week. That was predictable since none of the owners of the daily Scottish newspapers are actually based in Scotland and any sympathy for the SNP or for the cause of independence that appears in their pages is fleeting, to say the least. So Osborne’s refusal to entertain the idea of a currency union became A GREAT BIG SCARY STORY INDEED. None of the newspapers forecast that people in an independent Scotland would be reduced to using pebbles, seashells and coloured beads as currency, though I’m sure a couple of them (the Scottish Daily Mail, the Scottish Daily Express) came close.
I’ve worked and travelled in many countries and, from my experiences, the currency issue is not the be-all-and-end-all as Osborne and his admirers in the Scottish press would have us believe. Currency is a tool that enables people to keep the wheels of commerce turning and get on with their lives and it’s amazing how adaptable they can be. I spent two years, for example, living in a country a very long way from Europe where the euro was everyday currency. Also, folk in the Republic of Ireland used their Irish version of the pound, the punt, for decades – and during my childhood in 1970s Northern Ireland, I remember southern Irish money being used north of the border alongside our official ‘British’ pounds and pence. Frankly, an independent Scotland could use whatever currency it wanted and plenty of studies, conducted by bodies on both the right and the left of the political spectrum, have concluded that there’s no reason why the place shouldn’t thrive anyway. But with Osborne expressing his willingness to stick up currency barriers between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK, he’s made administrative hassle in the movement of business, wealth, goods and people around these islands a real possibility.
What annoys me most about Osborne’s speech, though, is how Ed Balls, Labour’s shadow chancellor, immediately gave it his full backing. If Labour were in power in Westminster, he said, they’d refuse a currency union with an independent Scotland too. George Osborne, who is a millionaire thanks to his inherited wealth, is a prominent member of a regime that has necessitated the return of food-banks to Britain as a measure to save families from going hungry, and allowed utility companies to turn their customers into virtual serfs, and threatened half the public libraries in Newcastle-upon-Tyne with closure, and introduced the Bedroom Tax – a tax that even the ultra-cautious wee middle-class Edinburgh rag The Scotsman has described as ‘Dickensian’. And so on, and so forth. Yet Ed Balls is more than happy to hold Osborne’s posh Tory coat for him while he bludgeons the Scots with threats about what might happen if they dare to exercise their democratic rights and vote for more autonomy.
(The Liberal Democrats have also given Osborne’s speech their backing, though what they think is irrelevant. They cut their own throats by entering a coalition government with the Tories back in 2010 and will probably be extinct after the next general election.)
For the record, I doubt that the Scots will vote for independence later this year. (That’s despite recent opinion polls showing an increase in support for the ‘yes’ option – something that no doubt prompted Osborne to issue his threat this week.) To make a rash generalisation, the Scots are a careful, slightly pessimistic and not terribly confident lot and the anti-independence campaign, via the newspapers, has exploited these insecurities by banging on relentlessly about all the terrible things that might happen if they were stupid enough to vote for political autonomy – companies would relocate to England, prices would soar, pension plans would collapse, they’d be kicked out the European Union, they’d be threatened by terrorists, television in an independent Scotland would be rubbish because Scottish creativity is rubbish. (That last argument was articulated both by the former Labour MP Brian Wilson and by the former Liberal Party leader David Steel, who nowadays calls himself Lord Steel of Aikwood.) The currency scare has been the latest in a long line of scare stories designed to convince people that, unless they want their children to grow up in a Caledonian equivalent of Albania, circa 1970, they should vote ‘no’. Sadly, it’s an approach that I think will work this time.
I say ‘this time’ because my opinion is that in the long run Scotland will become independent, perhaps one or two generations from now. I think it will parallel what happened with the creation of a devolved Scottish parliament in the 20th century – a referendum on Scottish devolution in 1979 was a failure (although a narrow majority of Scots did vote for devolution, they didn’t get it thanks to the insertion of a sneaky last-minute qualification in the voting rules), but the Scots voted for it emphatically and overwhelmingly in 1997. Scottish independence will eventually come, I suspect, because a couple of decades from now the United Kingdom will be an even less attractive place to be than it is now. It wouldn’t surprise me if 2030 or 2040 sees the UK outside the European Union and outside the EU’s rules about minimum pay, working conditions and human rights, operating as a sort of giant, deregulated, offshore sweatshop-cum-McDonald’s branch that Rupert Murdoch, Nigel Farrage and the Daily Mail would have wet dreams about. Also, thanks to the rise of the Internet and the decline of traditional newspapers, the flow of information will be less controlled than it is at the moment. There will certainly be fewer old-style newspapers in Scotland to put a Unionist spin on things. (The Scotsman, for instance, is on its last legs at the moment.)
What worries me, though, is that following the 2014 referendum Scotland will be a demoralised and dissatisfied place for a long time. People who voted ‘yes’ will be angry at how the debate was distorted by the political, business and media establishments – indeed, I suspect that this week’s events, with the Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats aligning themselves to deny any prospect of a currency union happening, will become as notorious as the backroom politicking that cheated the Scots out of getting devolution in 1979 even though they’d voted for it. Meanwhile, those people who voted ‘no’, and who consider themselves to be both ‘British’ and ‘Scottish’ simultaneously, are unlikely to feel brilliant, either. By then the ‘Scottish’ part of their identity will have been subjected to two years of drip-drip-drip claims by unionist politicians and newspapers about how rubbish they are. Even if you don’t particularly want to be independent, it can’t do much for your self-esteem to be continually told you’re incapable of being independent.
Furthermore, if – as I expect – a majority of Scots vote ‘no’ and the threat of Scottish independence recedes, Scotland will disappear off Westminster’s radar again, with unhappy consequences. After all, following the devolution fiasco of 1979, Margaret Thatcher assumed that the Scots didn’t have the bottle to stand up to London and her incoming Tory government could do whatever they wanted with the place. And we all know what happened to Scotland then.