This weekend saw Better Together out in whatever force they could muster. A show of strength, perhaps, to remind an increasingly active and confident Yes campaign who’s boss. ‘Campaigns in a box’ were sent out to volunteers, along with thousands of leaflets to be distributed laying out a basic case against independence. Those leaflets, which will now be sitting crumpled in coat pockets and lining rubbish bins across the nation, have already been subjected to the inevitable howls of outrage and detailed deconstruction from the pro-independence community. For reference:
Liberal Democrat Nic Prigg has already posted a simple but effective critique of the individual bullet-pointed arguments, which doesn’t need to be repeated here. The particularly interesting thing about the leaflet is what it tells us about the underlying political logic of Better Together, and how that contrasts with many of the pro-independence arguments out there.
Better Together’s leaflet talks about a No vote offering ‘the best of both worlds… keeping our distinctive parliament without losing the strength and security of the UK.’ There are obvious conclusions to be drawn from this – that the No campaign are portraying themselves as the ‘safe’ option and independence as the scary, radical tectonic shift that leaves Scotland floating alone in the North Sea. It’s nonsense, of course, but it’s politically powerful nonsense nonetheless.
That kind of realpolitik is to be expected, but there’s another side to it – an implication that ultimately, this debate is between two very different ideologies of power.
Better Together are making it clear that we should vote ‘No’ to retain the raw international and economic strength of the UK and the ‘security’ that brings, without any thought for the long-term social, environmental and economic costs. The Yes campaign, in its more open and pluralistic current incarnation, paints a picture of an independent Scotland that trades in the UK’s international muscle-flexing for a focus on social cohesion, sustainability and more effective democracy.
When Better Together talk about the ‘best of both worlds’, they mean a combination of the UK’s power to coerce, bribe and intimidate with the tokenistic devolution of ‘lesser’ powers to the Scottish people. The powers of the Scottish parliament – health, justice, education and the rest – are precisely those deemed secondary in Westminster’s heirarchy of power, less important than the powers of war, tax, financial regulation, and anything else that we use to compete on the international stage.
The Yes campaign has its own ‘best of both worlds’ argument. We can keep our sentimental and trading connections to ‘Britain’, while expanding our political power into issues where we don’t feel properly represented by Westminster. The issues prioritised by pro-independence activists focus on exactly the same issues ignored by Better Together; social issues like income inequality, welfare cuts, austerity and employment, or democratic and environmental issues like the House of Lords and energy policy. When the SNP or other pro-independence campaigners talk about our international influence, it’s often cushioned in ‘not-in-our-name’ language, with Trident and Iraq as two prominent examples. We’d rather have those powers so we can use them less, not more. The quasi-imperialist boasting of Better Together suggests that they envision and value something quite different.
It’s all about power. It’s about what it means, where it comes from, who holds it, why they hold it and what it’s for. On every one of those questions, the Yes and No campaigns appear to disagree on a fundamental level. The polarised nature of the debate isn’t just down to partisan bickering as some suggest – it’s time to recognise that this is a deeply ideological debate that spans a wide spectrum of issues, and should be treated as such.
The message of Better Together is that we’ve been doing it right all along – that their vision of international and economic ‘power’ must be accumulated and retained at all costs. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that supporters of independence are simply more capable of understanding the destructive impact of that attitude on not just our society, our environment and our economy, but the lives and livelihoods or people across the world. Better Together think their strongest argument is the promise to keep things just the way they are. They want a Britain whose power is maintained through reckless economic growth and a seat at the top table on the UN – a veritable rogue’s gallery of international bullies. It’s this mentality that sees the selling of military supplies to brutal dictators as sound economic and foreign policy. To sum up the strongest case there is for independence, here’s a quote from a British export we can be proud of: “And now for something completely different.”