The ‘phoney war’ of the referendum debate seems like it is slowly coming to an end with Nicola Sturgeon’s appointment as SNP campaign head. In so doing, it has illustrated the paucity of much of what has passed for discussion so far.
There are significant omissions and avoidances on the nationalist side - the presentation of independence as continuity, a new state of affairs where everything can be different and the same, and where Scotland can still be British and in the UK.
This is true but another major problem in the debate is the shadow boxing and point scoring of a significant element of pro-union/anti-independence opinion. By this I don’t mean the floating of just plain daft ideas, such as the suggestion that parts of Scotland which vote ‘no’ could remain part of the UK in a Balkanised Scotland of the future. Thanks very much Jim Wallace for trying to give that some credibility!
Instead, I am thinking more about the concerns of pro-union commentators in our media and elsewhere. People such as, for example, Brian Wilson, Alf Young and former Labour spin doctor Simon Pia have all recently and at length articulated what they believe are the limitations of the independence case.
They have each written in the last couple of weeks on the inadequacies of SNP defence policy, the extent to which Scotland overstates its social democracy, and even the issue of how an independent Scotland could compete at the levels ‘Team GB’ set at the Olympics.
All of these are valid subjects for examination. The three commentators I mention all have qualities – even if Wilson and Pia can be a bit blinkered in their Labour Party partisanship. Yet something is missing in these accounts which we really need to hear from constructive pro-union voices. Note that I am not getting into the territory of labelling them as ‘unionist’ and thus pigeonholing and dismissing their views; that kind of approach is itself part of the problem!
It would be helpful for Wilson and others to address the uncomfortable realities of the United Kingdom as it currently is, how they would realistically change it, and why it is still worth defending its imperfections.
An example of the missing ingredients was provided by Simon Pia last week in ‘The Scotsman’. He critically asked: to what extent is Scotland as social democratic as it likes to think itself? And he found it, rightly, wanting.
This is good stuff, but then Pia having laid out his argument, used it to dish the SNP idea of a progressive Scotland, and somehow managed to then contort it -invoking an enlightened centre-left Britain as the answer to all our problems.
No facts got us from supposition A to supposition B. Instead the SNP were ‘bourgeois nationalists’ and fantasists with phoney, opportunist progressive values. The answer according to Pia was the British road to a more civilised world oblivious to the questionable nature of many of Labour’s own declared centre-left values measured against its actions, and more importantly, the nature of the ‘fantasy island Britain’ he was proposing.
Pro-union opinion has to address a fragmented, divided Britain, with some of the worst child poverty in Western Europe, and an economy where increasing numbers of young people are locked out of opportunities, jobs and housing, which the actions of the Westminster Government have aided.
They have to address the increasingly uneven economic development of the UK and concentration of power and politics in London and the South East. Westminster politics has become more and more focused on how to keep the London/South East ‘powerhouse’ connected to the global economy; the current government seeing future growth prospects as predicated on Heathrow’s ‘third runway’. How can defenders of the union justify this? And if not, how do they propose to challenge and change it?
The Westminster system was once the envy of the world, we were told. No more. Our press was trumpeted as challenging of authority and wrongdoing. Today pre-Leveson Britain is slipping down the tables of press freedom due to restrictive laws and excessive concentrations of ownership.
Then we come to the British establishment: the allure of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’, honour and decency. This illusion lies shattered in the failed 'self-regulation' of banking, media moguls and politicians. Instead, an unrestrained, ‘in it for yourself’, crony capitalism seems the flavour of the day.
We do not need to dwell too long on the foreign policy disasters of recent years. Suffice to say that Afghanistan and Iraq have to be understood in the context of the British state’s fanatical Atlanticism, the one-sided ‘special relationship’, and the UK’s reluctance to be an active European partner.
These point to a seldom stated fact: that Britain is not and never has been a modern country. Instead it has been shaped by its past; obsessions with tradition and privilege, and the legacy of Empire which gave us the original pre-eminence of the City and offshore tax havens.
The UK has never been a fully functioning democracy; witness the recent shocking revelations that the Queen and the Prince of Wales have a secret veto on parts of parliamentary bills which impact on them directly before they reach Royal Assent.
Britain is, if not broken, badly damaged, corroded and in deep, long-term crisis. And yet the pro-union forces show an unbreakable faith in its potential for good. What needs to be asked is 'why' and 'on what basis'?
In what ways can the Britain of today, whose limitations predate Thatcher and Blair, be turned around into the shiny new beacon of progressive values implicit in union thinking?
This isn’t to let off nationalist opinion from their responsibilities to tell us why independence would be worthwhile. But that vacuum is widely commented upon in political and public discussion.
Pro-union Scotland needs to start dealing with the nature of what Britain has become; to start recognising the element of fantasy, romanticism and yes, nationalism at work in the Great British project.
Please, pro-union opinion, tell us that you recognise Britain doesn’t work for most working people, and what feasible ways you have to change it different from all those which have failed before.
If you do this, your criticisms of independence will carry more weight for being seen as serious rather than partisan, and without this, they will just be seen as posturing.
It will aid the tenor and substance of the entire Scottish debate, for one of the driving forces north of the border is a slow, gathering, gradual disillusion with the idea and experience of Britain. Really we have to aspire to better, more relevant discussion from pro-union and pro-independence forces, along with the vast swathe of ‘middling Scotland’ sitting in-between. And that entails pro-union opinion beginning to take some responsibility and leadership and telling us about the uncomfortable truths of modern Britain and how they plan to change them.