April 24, 2014

Aside from queen, submarines and pound, all else is a patchwork of concepts

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

‘Scotland’s Future’ still far from clear

Scotland''s First Minister Alex Salmond and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon hold copies of its blueprint for independence after it was launched at the Science Centre in Glasgow Tuesday Nov. 26, 2013.
By Archie Whitworth
For The Herald

LONDON - Last weekend should have been a glorious St. Andrew’s day celebration. The people of Scotland, particularly those in favour of independence from the UK, should have been basking in the ambitious plans laid out by Alex Salmond’s white paper, in which the First Minister and leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party laid out his plans for “Scotland’s Future.”

However, the tragic events of the evening of November 29, when a police helicopter fell from the sky into a pub for reasons as yet unknown, put the focus sharply onto Scotland’s present rather than its future.

Yet the debate on Scottish independence is in the ascendancy. With 10 months to go before the referendum that will see Scottish voters choose whether or not they believe the country should stay in the United Kingdom, there are rumblings across England on the idea that Scottish independence would not necessarily be a bad thing. Some sectors of the population on both sides of the border think that Scotland should start paying for itself and not participate in voting on laws that do not affect it.

Other commentators have suggested that Scottish independence could drastically change the British political map – and that, for the Conservatives at least, may be no bad thing. Others seem less than convinced that “Scotland’s Future” is as achievable or as exciting as Salmond seems to think.

To take the last point first: the November 26 launch of “Scotland’s Future” was originally billed as an opportunity for the SNP leader to present convincing arguments for separation couched in a strong nationalistic fervour. In the event, neither the arguments nor the fervour materialised. The ideas presented in the 667-page document are essentially a patchwork of concepts, including some borrowed from the EU, held together under the assurance that many things would actually remain the same — including the Queen, nuclear submarines and the pound as national currency, even after independence.

Former Chancellor and leader of the “No” campaign (against leaving the Union) Alistair Darling was quick to describe the report as “a work of fiction, full of meaningless assertions.” Not only that, but Salmond himself was by all accounts uninspiring, sounding more like a management guru rather than William Wallace. A Financial Times article by Robert Shrimsley on November 28 described the text as one from an SNP whose “Braveheart is one whose Mum still does his laundry.”

For some, this is an identity issue as much as anything: after years of portraying Scottish independence as the key aim of the SNP, now that the chance for change is in sight, it is a challenge to translate Scottish nationalism into serious political and economic policies. As The Economist stated on November 30, “Contemporary Scotland is neither so successful that it can clearly afford to go it alone, nor so impoverished that it has much to rail against.”

In terms of generating a clear message to sway undecided voters, this is a problem. A weekly poll produced by independent think tank What Scotland Thinks on November 29 confirms a trend noted in recent months, with those in favour of separation slipping to 27 per cent, and those against rising to 56 per cent. This is still a fairly narrow margin, but the gap would suggest that Salmond has his work cut out for him.

However, support for separation is apparently growing in an unexpected quarter: England. According to polls conducted by Professor John Curtice, director of What Scotland Thinks, voters south of the border are increasingly attracted to a division between the power and influence wielded by Scotland in the UK.

For example, 29 per cent of those polled strongly agreed with the statement that Scottish MPs should no longer be allowed to vote in Westminster on laws that only affect England, while two fifths of respondents believed that Scotland’s share of government spending was much more than its fair share.

The more extreme exponents of this view are more in the mold of Simon Heffer, whose article in the Daily Mail on September 18 described “Yes” campaigners as living in “cloud-cuckoo land” and hailed separation as “the equivalent of a very, very cold shower that would wake the Scots up to reality.”

This view may ignore the benefits of North Sea oil reserves and the wealth generated by one of the most prosperous areas in the UK, but there is definitely a stream of thought in England that does not see separation as a necessarily negative outcome.

However, while there are arguments that suggest that an independent Scotland may not be such a bad thing for England, there is an undeniable factor that is apparently pushing Scotland towards independence: David Cameron. The Prime Minister has energetically backed Alistair Darling’s “No” campaign and has vociferously claimed to support the continuation of the Union.

Nonetheless, Cameron’s particular brand of “posh-boy politics” is apparently causing as many problems for the “No” campaign in Scotland as it is for the Conservative party south of the border. In an article published by the Daily Telegraph on November 19, Scotland’s former First Minister Henry McLeish described Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne as exacerbating the distance between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ to the point where “Cameron is a much scarier figure than Margaret Thatcher ever was."

Beyond Cameron’s personal appeal, or lack thereof, and its impact on the campaign, there is an argument that would suggest that the Conservatives are in a win-win position in terms of Scottish independence. This is based on the idea that the 41 Scottish seats currently held by Labour in the House of Commons would represent a significant loss for the main opposition party.

Although this demonstrates an element of desperation, or putting a brave face on a loss, the idea that the electoral map could be redrawn in the wake of independence is apparently attractive to some Conservatives. In the words of Matthew D’Ancona, writing for the Evening Standard, this is “the hope that dare not speak its name: multiple victories at the cost of a single (referendum) defeat.”

The burning question surrounding arguments in both campaigns and on either side of the border is whether independence in itself still actually matters. Financially, both England and Scotland could suffer from the split, although North Sea energy reserves are not infinite and Scotland could end up joining the EU, despite Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s attempts to pour cold water on the idea.

The lasting sensation is that this is an issue that matters if national identities matter. Choosing to hold the referendum in the 700th anniversary year of the Battle of Bannockburn, a famous Scottish victory over the English, was a great nationalistic ploy by Salmond, but last week’s white paper has as yet failed to ignite the same bold sentiments.

Arguably, the most important aspect of the debate about Scottish independence is that it exists at all. Under a Conservative-led coalition government, the UK is now debating its role in the world, in Europe and even its own future. This debate is valuable and should be applauded – regardless of the outcome.


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