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November 26, 2014
Monday, February 10, 2014

Selling the Union brand

British Prime Minister David Cameron answers questions from the media after his speech on the importance of Scotland to the UK, at the velodrome in Olympic Park, London, on Friday.
By Ivan Briscoe
For the Herald

Support for European separatisms growing

THE HAGUE - A little spat between big egos can carry a lot of weight in the idea-famished politics of Europe. So it was that an errant missile such as Kevin Pietersen could briefly enter the political radar of the British government. In case you did not know, followers of world cricket regard Pietersen as an icon of technique and explosive power. He has played as a batsman for England at the highest level for close to a decade, at a time when the national side reached a peak. And yet, wounded and dying like Achilles, beaten down by the inner sanctum of faceless cricketing power, the player also becomes someone the British prime minister might like to place inside his bigger picture.

Speaking on radio last week, Prime Minister David Cameron expressed boy-like adoration of muscular biffer known as KP. He was “amazed” at news that the player had been summarily fired from the England side for undisclosed offences against team camaraderie. Still he cherished the “proud moment” when he handed the player a celebratory beer. And sighing over the big thought that all great teams have to work through their internal tensions so as to achieve positive results, Cameron then returned to drafting his plea for the preservation of Great Britain.

On the face of it, and taking a leaf out of Vladimir Putin’s book, Cameron seems to have processed rather a lot of modern sport in his London oration on behalf of the 1707 Treaty of Union between Scotland and England. The backdrop was a hall in the Olympic Park. The spirit of Team GB circa 2012 was his benchmark of national virility. And though not everything he said was sporting, the feel-good factor and other dopamine highs appeared to stand out as his single most compelling reason against tearing the nation asunder. “The summer that patriotism came out of the shadows,” he invoked, “everyone cheering as one for Team GB”; “We come as a brand, a powerful brand.”

Banal it may be, but Cameron’s message suited the general tenor of debate on issues of national resizing. Despite the mix of phoney figures, guesswork and wild claims that makes up the meat of the arguments between national and European leaders and the separatist wolfpack, it is the more primitive emotions that tend to matter at election time. The fact that Scotland votes in seven months on whether to preserve the Union, that Catalonia plans to hold a similar plebiscite in November, writs from Madrid notwithstanding, or that rising political parties in Britain and the Netherlands both wish to quit the EU owes rather more to popular hunches and their political harnessing than the finer details of central banking.

For now, these secessionist longings are likely to have distinct outcomes. Polls in Scotland show support for independence in the low 30s, but allegiances might well shift as campaigning kicks in. It might be worth adding that Cameron’s arrival on this stage owes much to his own political arithmetic. Win the Scottish vote, and he could claim handsome credit. Lose the north, where there is currently one sole Conservative among 59 Members of Parliament, and a separate England could remain as Thatcher might have dreamed: impregnably Tory, plastered in shires of blue. It is not a dilemma that would cause the prime minister much lost sleep.

Matters are a bit more delicate in the case of Catalonia, where polls register a slight majority in support of an independence cause that Castilian Spain finds abhorrent. Even harder to foresee in its effects are the campaigns by Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands and UKIP in Britain to force severance from the EU. Wilders in particular is running high in the polls ahead of May’s European elections, and this week launched a report, supposedly independent, on the consequences for the country of leaving the Union. Consequences, it should be added, that are marvellously benign insofar the euro is abandoned, and benevolent to everyone but benefit-sucking immigrants.

A research institute called Capital Economics, based in central London, was responsible for this oeuvre. A brief overview would suggest the scouring of the scientific database has been, to say the least, selective. “There is now a weighty and compelling literature to demonstrate a negative relationship between regulatory costs and economic growth,” the report asserts, in accounting for the benefits of scrapping EU red tape.“Countries where there are lower regulatory burdens on business experience materially higher rates of economic growth – and vice versa.” With the minor exception of the massive crash caused by financial deregulation, all very watertight.

Dodgy statistics may be good for the odd headline. But the various European separatisms on offer gain their strength from much firmer undercurrents. One of these is the gradual dissolution of national markets in news and comment, epitomized by the sad decline of the written press. In its place, digital media and social networks emphasize a global gathering, without providing any real possibility of a common destiny. Localism and trusting in those close by is a sort of compensation for the over-reach of other notions of citizenship.

A second cause, and one that is felt keenly in Europe, is the absence of any serious political ideas or alternatives to those that flow out of the euro’s preservation, or from the need to be economically competitive in a global market. This ideologically starved terrain is ideal for populists, who can take the daily struggles of little guy and the hard-up family, and promise to relieve them by bringing government closer to their living rooms.

These tides of change are unmistakeable, and will persist. Sooner or later, one or more of the secessionist causes will claim victory, and maybe, in the case of Scotland, England and the EU, two will happen at around the same time. But however it finishes, it will be drenched in tales of egos and spurious facts.

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