I am pretty sad to miss the Thursday 18 Sept 2014 referendum on Scottish independence– regardless of the result, it is going to be a momentous event. If only to see how Whitehall and the UK political system has managed to turn a silk purse into a sow’s ear.*
I was pretty agnostic about Scottish independence a year and a half ago, when asked to give evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee inquiry on the implications of Scottish independence. The trade-off, of gaining self-determination versus losing collective collaboration and scale in response to globalisation, can only be calculated by Scottish citizens alone. But it did kind of feel that disaggregating power into smaller, formal political nation-state units was going against the thrust of being able to fluidly respond to ever-bigger 21st century challenges. But the subsequent 18 or so months has somewhat changed my view. A few observations:
- Pro-independence support is facing some pretty tough headwinds. You couldn’t really make the external conditions for the referendum much worse than they are: European-wide dismal economic performance, dropping again recently, especially in the face of strong UK economic data; poorly performing EU former “tigers”; belligerent Russia in Ukraine; declining North Sea potential; etc.
- The ability of Whitehall to ignore—and fail to mobilise to respond to—an existential future threat that was both within the term of the incumbent government and easily understood was a real wake-up call for me. It shocked me in underlining just how strong the status-quo bias and inertia are in the Whitehall system that means it is unable to prepare for any but the internally-projected, desired results. It created the stand-off in the first place through limiting the referendum to an in-or-out question (ie my way or the high way). Given it created a much lower probability but much higher impact scenario of full independence by taking devo-max off the table as a third option, the refusal to actually seriously explore the “out” possibility is pretty shocking. The past 18 month have seen a very predictable scenario develop (you can argue about the probabilities… but given they were non-negligible, preparations ought to have been made…) A good example of this toxic combination of risk aversion/status quo bias/groupthink/incrementalism is the failure to mobilise senior political leaders earlier (Cameron, Osborne, Milliband) in order to flush out the inevitable (particularly anti-Tory) backlash early on and get to the political discussion. Instead they were activated at exactly the precise point where the credibility of any last-minute “let’s stay together” messages are drowned out by the look of slow-dawning self-interested panic on the faces of political leaders who see themselves as forever being written in UK history as the political equivalent of the captain of the Titanic.
- It was a deliberate choice by this government to turn what could have been a world-leading debate about the meaning and value of sovereignty in a complex 21st century world into a zero-sum, willy-waving game of brinkmanship where it feared being seen as a “loser” and then used self-defeating, bully-boy tactics to protect its position. (A small aside, see my written evidence and subsequent post on this particular point – one which makes me most depressed.) This could have been a rich and valuable debate about how citizens under current democratic systems can best pool their sovereignty into collective groups that listen and respond to their concerns. It could have enriched both UK citizens north and south of Hadrian’s wall as well as conversations going on elsewhere. Instead, the UK loses soft power regardless of the outcome of this election.
- In doing so, the current London-based political class has shown a fundamental lack of regard to the interests, values and rationality of the UK citizen (Scottish and otherwise). Not unassociated, incidentally, with the growing success of UKIP south of the border as a counter-part rejection of political status quo. The entire “No” campaign has been built on a paternalistic combination of coercion and historical romanticism, not on reality, rationality or respect. I find it interesting that many pro-unionists claim Scottish nationalism to be based on emotional drivers of identity and gut-feeling. This may be the case… but there is a very rational and logical basis for deciding to vote for Scottish Independence, given the behaviour of Westminster-based politicians for the past 18 months in failing to engage, failing to communicate, and failing to show how they can take legitimate Scottish specific interests into account despite the strong incentive to do so. Scotland (like other parts of the UK) has some fundamental different drivers, interests and conditions to the English South East. Whether economic factors (like fisheries and energy, carbon and renewable), attitudes (like to the EU), demography (declining numbers and a low workforce results in a need to import labour and keep attracting its young people, as well as addressing differences in life expectancy), public service needs – these need different policies to confront these realities. Whitehall had the opportunity to show it was prepared to take these into account when developing policies nationally and when going into bat in Brussels. And failed. It is therefore an entirely rational calculation to vote instead for an alternative political system that has shown itself able to listen and engage with citizens, take community concerns seriously, and signal its democratic, procedural credentials to citizens.
The No campaign does not deserve to win. And current Whitehall political leaders have shown they cannot be relied on to make decisions in the interests of Scottish citizens. They have failed to create a positive narrative about the benefits of the Union or explain why Scottish citizens should continue to pool their sovereignty into the UK pot. If Scottish voters do decide to remain within the Union, it will be despite rather than because of any indication from Whitehall that it is fit for the purpose of governing the Scottish people. Unfortunately, it is equally unfit for purpose for governing the rest of the UK. My strong sense is that our current model of political party democracy is now so demonstrably and irrevocably broken in linking citizen to national political decisions, that I cannot help thinking it would be in Scottish citizens’ interest to be independent – and perhaps in non-Scottish UK citizens’ interest as well if we are forced into deep political debate and reform as a result.
* I am using “Whitehall” to describe the UK political executive, legislative and bureaucracy, but really the failures in this particular case are really fundamentally down to the leadership of the political parties whether in or out of the coalition.
Crossposted with thanks to FROMOVERHERE