In response to Martin Kettle

Accusations that the SNP are failing to engage in serious debate betray double standards at the heart of Britain.

Robin McAlpine
20 February 2014
Alex Salmond, wikimedia

I haven't always agreed with Martin Kettle's Guardian columns over the years. They have mixed some good, pertinent analysis of what's wrong with Britain with some unfortunate Blair-apologising. But of late I've felt that his commentary on what's happening in Scotland just now has been quite good and more informed that many London-based commentators.

I write this because I really dislike overly-personalising political analysis; arguments should stand or fall on the basis of the content, not the person. So when I take his column today as a jumping-off point for a discussion of the skew-whiff nature of UK politics it is only as an example.

The basic argument in his column is that, in effect, the Scottish Government has abandoned reasoned, argument-based politics in favour of naked political posturing. He suggests that, faced with a barrage of detailed questions from George Osborne and some on-air comments from Barrosso, the Nats have retreated into name-calling mode and have given up any pretence of statesmanship.

I am more than a little surprised. George Osborne flew to Scotland in the face of overwhelming SNP reasonableness. The SNP has taken a very modest approach to what it would seek in negotiations. George Osborne flew in to tell us that no, the UK will take the most aggressive and punitive approach possible to Scotland, seeking to impose on us all the liabilities of the UK but allowing us precisely none of the assets or rights. He made his speech to which only three pre-arranged questions from sympathetic sources were allowed. He refused any broadcast interview of any sort. As he ran to his car the STV political editor chased him asking him to comment on how the international money markets would view the collapse in the balance of trade in Sterling when it lost the value of oil exports. He refused to offer a word in answer and flew straight back to London.

That, apparently, constitutes a serious debate and serious engagement with the issues.

I watched a reasonable amount of BBC coverage from London. I can't remember anyone explaining sufficiently well what happens if Scotland's exports are removed from the UK books. One has to assume that this is because the answer is uncomfortable for 'Great' Britain.

Barroso is an unelected president of the European Commission which has no say in the acceptance of new member states. He is a right-wing politician who was allied to the same block of European right-wing political parties of which Spanish PM Rajoy's Popular Party are and the UK Conservatives were a part. I didn't hear this mentioned – you'd barely know Barroso was a politician. He said it may well be impossible for Scotland to become a member of the EU. This view is shared by not a single serious commentator I have ever heard. The idea that Bulgaria and Romania are fit for EU entry but not a country that has already been a member for 40 years lacks credibility. And yet the UK media has barely contested the claim.

Serious debate?

Vince Cable recently made the front pages of Scotland's newspapers and appeared across the UK media claiming that if Scotland votes Yes RBS will have to move to London. This had previously been denied by the Chief Executive of RBS. He subsequently denied it again and made clear that Cable had made no contact with RBS to check veracity before making his claim. So he was monstered across the media for joke politics? Eh, no, it was barely mentioned. Alex Salmond has repeatedly had to answer on whether ceding some sovereignty to London in a Sterling union would mean Scotland was even a 'proper country'. Of course, every time David Cameron appears on the same programme he is asked whether Britain's much more substantial hand-over of sovereignty to the WTO, the IMF and the EU means that Britain isn't really a proper country. Except that never happens. Only Scotland has to answer for what every nation does.

Or Barroso again. Was he asked by anyone the impact on the Spanish economy when it is no longer allowed access to Scotland's rich fishing marine territories? Was he asked how happy the EU would be to lose a nation that is very much a net contributor to his salary? There are 40,000 Spaniards in Scotland and many more EU citizens living and working here. Barroso seems highly excited about a right-wing EU attack on a part of a member state which seeks only democratic self-determination. Was he asked about the refugee crisis as right to work is unilaterally removed by him and his friends? Not that I heard. Oh the rigours of the UK media.

No-one denies that Scotland has contributed more to the UK than it has received every year for the last 30 years. No-one denies that if Scotland took its proportion of debt it would be significantly less indebted than the rest of the UK. It hasn't been seriously challenged that Scotland would have less pension liability than the UK (mainly because we die younger) – and yet that is seldom mentioned. Or take a look at the Financial Times investigations on the UK pensions industry. It is the most corrupt and inefficient in Europe in which investors have routinely been ripped off in the most egregious ways. This was all presided over by Gordon Brown who also raided pension schemes and froze the state pension. And yet he is put forward uncritically as an expert on pensions.

Brilliant debate you're all having. Brilliant. Really incisive.

Now let's consider for a second how Britain would have responded if an EU Minister had arrive in Britain to say that you're getting thrown out of the EU unless you sign up to the Euro entirely on the EU's terms and that all your negotiated perks and benefits were being taken away unilaterally. Suppose this was done with a EU-prepared policy document. The suggestion is that Britain would calmly and sensibly engage point by point with the content of the policy document and refrain from any kind of nationalistic mouth-foaming. In reality, Britain's politicians would be lining up to bleed from the eyes in rage and the media would be unhappy that 'total hate' was insufficient.

The same thing happens to us and Salmond says it is disrespectful. Even after months of being (in my view) far too reasonable in his negotiating stance. And he's the provocateur in the face of George Osborne's hand of friendship to the Scots?

Then again, the United Kingdom gets by pretty well by never asking itself difficult questions. This is a nation where economic wellbeing is measured in terms of retail sales and house prices and productivity, trade, innovation and industrial production are barely a part of national debate. Anything that Britain is bad at (it's a long list) is off the agenda. There was a period in which the City State of London saw its economy grow by 35 per cent. Over the same period the economy of South Wales grew by three per cent. I find the use of the word 'United' interesting in this context. Of course, this is the subject of major debate in London as its metropolitan elite became conscious of just how much it has asset-stripped the rest of the peoples of this island.

Oh no, that's right, it didn't do that at all. We got Boris Johnstone in place of a debate about the reality of London's management of Britain.

Salmond's answers were all perfectly reasonable. The UK is almost certainly bluffing over Sterling and even if it went crazy and tried to force us out there are lots of good options for Scotland. Indeed, I've never disguised my belief that we shouldn't even try to negotiate a currency union with for a currency that is managed on behalf of speculators and against the interests of manufacturing. The EU wants Scotland as a member very much – it is not even clear that Scotland CAN be thrown out. And any pensions industry in Scotland is almost certain to be less corrupt than the UK version.

I'm growing weary of 'Scottish exceptionalism'. Why should Scotland have to answer to a different set of criteria to the rest of Britain? Once again, as in colonial India, what you do is normal, what we do is a 'mutiny'. But above all, Britain is completely unwilling even to begin a conversation about what it has become – one of the worst developed countries in which to be a citizen. In case you didn't know it, the following is the truth about Britain:

Britain is the country with the second lowest pay among advanced economies. Since 2010

British wages have fallen faster than all but three other EU countries - even though we work the
third longest hours. Britain has the third highest housing costs in Europe, the highest rail prices in Europe and is second worst for fuel poverty. Britain has the least happy children in the developed world, the worst infant mortality rates in Europe and some of the worst child poverty in the industrialised world. Britain’s elderly are the fourth poorest in the EU. Britain has the eighth biggest gap between men and women’s pay in Europe with childcare costs much higher than most European countries. Britain is the fourth most unequal developed society with a wealth gap twice as wide as any other EU country. Britain has the greatest regional inequality in Europe. Britain has the lowest level of trust in its politicians in Europe. Britain’s productivity is 16 per cent behind the average of advanced economies and has the worst record on industrial production.

This is only a sample. So when can we have a debate about this? When will London politicians be made to answer for the Britain they have created? It is Scotland that is trying – against the aligned powers of the London Elite and its client government – to draw a picture of a society that is different and better than what we have. Must we really have the agenda set by the empire we seek to escape? Must standards really be quite that double?

We know people think London is 'grown up' and other places are 'childlike'. We know London thinks that anything it cares about is important and anything other places care about is unimportant. We know that London grants enormous status to other members of the international elite who agree with them and more-or-less ignores everyone else from here or abroad who doesn't.

All I can say is that we're trying to work out how to reform our economy to make it productive and to create high-wage jobs in a strong, secure welfare state. London is giving money to wealthy people to inflate the housing market and make it look like the economy isn't a basket-case. What on earth makes you think you're the grown-ups?

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