“You lot mustn’t leave us, we love you,”
This was the message from David Cameron in a speech in London (I paraphrase, but that was the jist of it). This is the leader of a party that together with his chums, the Liberal Democrats, has wrought untold damage upon the country (and especially the bits that he has more control over – i.e. mostly not Scotland): privatisation of the NHS (he said he wouldn’t do that), tripling of student fees (his chums said they wouldn’t let him do that), and much, much more. The delightful William Duguid imagined a different version of the speech, which ended with what many thought was the real message behind Cameron’s words: “Alternatively, let us have all the oil, then you can bugger off.”
“You lot are getting none of our money,” said Gideon Osborne on a flying visit to Edinburgh a few days later (again, I paraphrase). This from a multi-millionaire who has plunged the UK into higher levels of indebtedness than any Chancellor of the Exchequer has managed to do in decades, who together with his vindictive colleague Iain Duncan Smith, has engaged in a concerted effort to destroy the social security system so carefully built up after World War Two, and who blocked spending on flood defences in areas of England that are currently rather damp (interestingly, it seems the floods are mostly in areas that returned Tory and LibDem MPs in the 2010 general election: voters who chose an MP who argued for ‘cuts’ and ‘austerity’ – perhaps they never thought such policies might affect them as well as the victims of social security ‘reform’).
“You may not get independence even if you lot vote for it,” said Baroness Jay, in an intervention this weekend (yes, it’s a paraphrase…). This from a daughter of a decent Labour Prime Minister who now sits in that bastion of democratic entitlement, the House of Lords, who, as Peter Curran pointed out, has never been elected to a significant position in her life, being appointed to every post she’s occupied. A great commentator on the meaning of democracy, it seems.
These individuals and the parties of which they are members are represented in Better Together, the opponents to Scottish self-determination who called themselves ‘Project Fear’ last year, in a gaffe that they have surely regretted ever since. The ‘Project Fear’ name identifies the style of campaigning that Better Together carry out – what they aim to do is create fear of independence amongst the voters in September’s referendum so that the vote results in a No and Scottish independence is thwarted, at least for the time being. The official unionist position is somewhat more nuanced than this, it is true, but mostly insofar as it resorts to a hollow British nationalism, as I argued here.
So far, it seems they are failing in their aim of frightening more and more voters into voting No. The polls are suggesting a shift to a Yes vote, though of course, the only poll that matters is on 18. September and only then will we know for sure whether they have succeeded or not. If, as I hope, a Yes vote prevails, it may be because two other fears had the upper hand, rather than the one that Better Together want Scots to worry about (in fact, Project Fear seems to be driving support for Yes, as the SNP tweeted).
The first of these is the fear that Better Together and their sponsors suddenly appear to have: that they may not win the referendum as they had once assumed. Reams have been written in recent weeks about the unionists’ fear that the polls may be reflecting a growing sense that Scotland can go it alone and would probably even do rather well, as many of us have thought for some time. This is not what Better Together and the British nationalist parties want people to think – we are meant to uphold the status quo and resign ourselves to rule from London, and the bullying is meant to ensure that. One of the most stimulating comments in this regard came from Jonathon Shafi over at Bella Caledonia, who understood that this was about the traditional British establishment losing control of something that they had previously taken for granted. This fear is something that we, the people, should in turn fear: every power edifice that sees its position threatened by popular agency will react strongly and often in destructive ways. However, though we might fear it, we should not be intimidated by it: few countries that have moved to independence from Britain have done so without threats of disaster and even retribution, but I can think of none that have plumped for independence from Britain that have been yearning for London rule to be restored.
The second fear is of a different kind: it is the fear that we, the voters, should have of the alternatives to independence. Whilst the British nationalist parties seemed to find it very easy to unite and say Scotland cannot have a share in the asset that is the pound, something that Scots have contributed to building up throughout the union, they seem to find it very difficult to say what Scotland can have if they vote No. Those people arguing that a form of Devo Max will be on offer are strangely naive – all three of the main unionist parties agreed that this option should be removed from the referendum in order to make it a choice between independence or dependency, even though polling evidence at the time suggested it was Scots’ preferred option. If individual parties now start suggesting a form of Devo Max, the first questions to them should be: why did you remove it from the referendum, and therefore how seriously can we take offers of it now? Personally, I think there are serious problems with devolution, the primary one being that London can at any time take powers back, as they did over Renewables Obligations at the end of 2013 (and when I asked him about this at a speech he gave at Stirling University on 13. January, Alistair Carmichael, Westminster’s Secretary of State for Scotland, said it was because the Scottish Government was not using their powers – the image that came to mind was of a parent taking away a child’s toy until they were old enough to play with it properly; see my tweets from the event: 1, 2, 3). However, Devo Max or any other kind of Devo is not really what’s on offer.
No, what is on offer is something quite different. Aside from retaining WMD (for me that is enough to vote Yes, even if Labour’s Johann Lamont sees it as just a ‘wee thing‘), Labour have made clear that they see Scotland’s better (less privatised) health provision as problematic in relation to provision south of the border – and they want to bring it down to that level (rather than, say, restoring health care south of the border to Scottish levels!). Proposals to ‘devolve’ significant elements of income tax to Holyrood are likely to transfer funds from Scotland to London, quite literally, as London sucks in resources from the rest of the UK whilst giving nothing back, as Aditya Chakrabortty has shown – so much for solidarity with poorer parts of England, say. As Ed Balls, the Labour shadow chancellor in London has pledged to keep to Osborne’s spending patterns, what Scotland faces as part of the UK as a whole is ever more austerity, ever deeper cuts – and whilst it is presently the leafy shires and their water problem that is making the headlines at the moment, let’s not forget that those who suffer the most from Tory/LibDem cuts are without homes because of the Bedroom Tax, without money because their disability benefits have been cut, soon, perhaps, without housing benefit if they’re under 25. And so on. This Tory/LibDem vision of austerity, where the bankers and their friends become ever richer whilst everyone else struggles to make ends meet is perfectly encapsulated by the London police arguing the need for buying water cannons to cope with possible austerity protests. Some might say all I’m doing here is scaremongering, but I have yet to encounter anyone who can plausibly show me that this is not the future we face in the event of a No vote – so this is not scaremongering, it’s reality.
We should ignore the nonsense emanating from Project Fear. Instead, both of the fears I have outlined above are far more real: the fear of further threats and intimidation from the No campaign, and the fear of what will happen if we vote No. The first of these is fear we should be aware of, but not heed – despite the Westminster parties saying they would not ‘pre-negotiate’, these are positions that will form the basis of negotiations in the event of a Yes vote. It’s not pretty, but then the Establishment is clearly running scared: it’s lashing out and we need to understand these threats in that context – and rather than worry too much about them, we should revel in the great opportunities that we have to remake our future. In contrast to this, the second fear is fear we really should heed: if we vote No, then we are voting for further cuts to the weakest in our society (and an ever-growing number of people come into that category, as the floods in England have shown) and there will not be much we can do to stop that. At least a Yes vote gives Scotland the possibility to decide for itself whether it wants to follow the Westminster route to a pseudo-prosperity that guarantees wealth for the few at the cost of impoverishment of the many, or a more Scandinavian route to real prosperity that shares wealth more equitably across all segments of society. And if we choose the latter, there is a real chance that this could invigorate the struggling movements that support that kind of change in rUK – perhaps the neoliberal wing of the Labour party led by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls would even be replaced by people who actually have the interests of the many in rUK at heart.
In the meantime: be afraid. But be afraid of the right things: the things that will happen if we vote No. Then celebrate the fantastic potential that we are being offered for radical change and the positive effect that can have on our future and the future of our neighbours – and vote Yes!
University of Stirling