Say what you will about Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond, there’s no denying his political instincts. Salmond’s most recent blast at David Cameron, which appeared yesterday in The Independent, suddenly takes Cameron’s recent battles with the European Union and attempts to turn them into a reason to vote Yes on the Scottish Independence motion on 18 September of this year. Salmond’s argument is really quite clever. Cameron, of course, has been using the potential threat of a possible British exit (“Brexit”) on the back of a proposed referendum within the UK on continued EU membership—in an attempt to get the EU to adopt some pro-British reforms. Salmond has taken Cameron’s implied threat and is now going to use it against him. As it turns out, this might be an argument that works. Scotland is considerably more supportive of EU membership than is the whole of the UK, as it turns out. So Salmond’s new argument for a Yes vote—there already are lots of them, of course, some good, some not so good—is that if you want to remain in the European Union, that may be more likely in an independent Scotland than by remaining within the United Kingdom.
Not that Salmond’s instincts can always be trusted—remember his flirtation with Donald Trump? How’d that work out? Nor does he always give the impression of being on top of things—in fact, occasionally he seems to be a bit confused, if not downright cavalier, about some of the economic and financial aspects of potential independence. Not that it may matter. Polls in this case tell lots of often conflicting stories, but at present it still appears as if the potential No votes (which means remaining in a Union with the rest of the UK) will outnumber the Yes votes—but it appears to be tightening. But still, there’s something kind of canny in this. One of the reasons why the No vote still appears to exceed that of the Yes vote is because of some of the uncertainties over the economic and financial impacts of Scotland leaving the Union.
Me? I remain technically agnostic on the issue, as an American living in the midst of this for the past 16 years. If I were Scottish and living here in London, I couldn’t vote on the issue anyway—the SNP has legislated that only Scots living in Scotland can vote in the referendum. (Along with helpfully reducing the voting age in Scotland to 16.) But I do remain curious about the lack of clarity on the economics of how this is supposed to work, as I indicated in a previous post. There are other issues as well, some of which I believe are best captured by Ken Macleod in some comments prepared for a recent debate. Macleod is one of my favorite writers, an ardent nationalist, and an ardent progressive and former, I think, socialist—and an admitted prospective No voter. How does he see things? Here’s a little something from his recent comments:
There is a core of about a quarter to a third of the Scottish electorate that will support independence no matter what. The task for independence supporters is to push that up to 50% of the vote plus one on September 18th.
To do that the Yes campaign has to do two things. With its right hand it has to persuade better-paid workers, professionals and business people that not much will change: hence into the EU and NATO, keep the pound and the Bank of England as lender of last resort, keep the monarchy, and keep a high level of social provision without having to pay high taxes. At the same time, with its left hand as it were, it has to persuade lower-paid workers and poor people – those most likely to support independence, and least likely to vote – that much will change for the better. It has to persuade localists to vote for Brussels, pacifists to vote for NATO, greens to vote for oil dependency, socialists to vote for the City of London and republicans to vote for the Queen. Needless to say, the official Yes campaign can’t do both at once, and doesn’t even try. It keeps its left hand behind its back.
That’s where the pro-independence left, both green and red, comes to the rescue. They canvass the housing estates telling people that Britain is for the rich and Scotland can be ours, and that setting up a new capitalist state in NATO and the EU and under Her Majesty and the City of London is a step towards a green socialist antiwar republic. Funnily enough they’re finding forty percent saying they’re undecided, double the numbers in the polls. I can think of a few reasons for that!
Let’s look at the claim that the SNP government is more progressive than Labour. In some respects, notably opposition to the war in Iraq and to nuclear weapons, it is. But even these are partial – it has no objection to the war in Afghanistan, and no objection to nuclear weapons as long as they’re not in Scottish waters. The claimed universal benefits are paid for out of taxes that Holyrood doesn’t have to raise, and by cuts to services. Free university tuition is paid for by cuts to Further Education colleges. The council tax freeze is paid for by cutting local services. Free prescriptions are paid for by pressure on other parts of the health service. Free personal care is paid for by running the carers off their feet. Does the pro-indy left expose these as middle class tax breaks at the expense of the less well off? Do they heck. Instead they seize on and amplify every shameless SNP distortion of what Johann Lamont says. Everything is subordinated to getting out a Yes vote, and that means subordinated to the SNP.
Macleod’s main concern here, clearly, is that an independent Scotland will be forced by events to become a less progressive place—and the SNP is refusing to admit this. (Macleod is not the only person to be suggesting this. Nor is that his only concern—he’s also concerned about the regular and predictable distortions that seem to keep arising—stuff like this from the No camp, and like this from the Yes camp.) But Macleod also is a writer—what about writers and artists should the Yes vote lead to an independent Scotland? He’s even less sanguine on this point:
How are artists likely to fare under such a government? Well, if you look forward to being dependent on the goodwill of a nationalist cultural apparatus in a small country where everybody knows everybody and memories are long, an SNP hegemony might be just the thing. If you relish the relentless polarization of every last issue of culture and society and nature and beauty along the axis of the national question, go for it. And if the pro-independence artists and creatives protest, as my friends here surely will, that this is not what they want at all, I would respectfully suggest that calling themselves National Collective and Bella Caledonia is not the way to reassure us. If you thrill to the vision of the future that these names evoke, knock yourself out.
I don’t expect that the verbiage on both sides to the independence question will provide any more clarity between now and 18 September. In fact, as is the nature of these things, it wouldn’t be surprising to see even less. It will probably be a long summer for both proponents and opponents. But Cameron, at some point, may well need to address Salmond’s issue discussed at the beginning of this post—on continued EU membership. Why on earth would you remain in a political union dominated by people who seem to want to pull out of the EU if the country you live in actually wants to remain in it? That’s not a bad question, actually, even if there still appears to be an abundance of magical thinking elsewhere.
The above stamp is one of the regional issues series issued by the Royal Mail, one each for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and, most recently, England. The image is called the Scottish Lion Rampant, and was the symbol adopted by William, King of Scots (1165-1214.)