When I was eight, my family moved from Yorkshire to north-west Kent. I must have had a strong accent at the time, because one of my abiding memories of the first day in the playground was the cockney kids asking me: ‘Oi, mate, where are you from? Are you Scottish?’ I corrected them, but it didn’t bother me. Peter Lorimer and Billy Bremner are Scottish, I reflected, so it was cool. In the 1970s, I used to support Scotland at the Home Internationals.
Fast forward to a Mexican resort in 2009. A waiter asked Rose and me: “Are you English or Scottish? Last week I asked someone if he was English. It turned out he was Scottish and he was really offended and became angry with me.”
It set me thinking. Why are many Scots folk offended if called ‘English’, when people from Yorkshire or Northumberland are not offended (as far as I’m aware) if an American or a Cockney asks them if they are Scottish (which happens quite a lot, by the way)?
This leads on to the topical question, of momentous import, given the existential choice facing Scottish voters next week: to what extent is the push for Scottish independence a drive for more accountability, a distrust or disillusionment with the governance of Westminster, or an atavistic dislike of the English, to such an extent that it is considered a humiliation to be confused for one?
I think we can observe all these phenomena. We’re entering very dangerous water as nationalism, identity politics and envy come to the surface in the politics of Britain – but that doesn’t mean that all the SNP’s perspectives (or UKIP’s) are without basis.
It’s also the case that, given the opportunity I have had through my travels and research for various books, that I have a perspective that helps understand the dynamics. It certainly gives me a better grasp than the trio Cameron-Clegg-Miliband.
What concerns me is not so much the outcome of the vote – the difference between ‘Devo Max’ and ‘Independence Lite’ is almost non-existent – but the conduct of the politicians and the fairness of the eventual settlement. Above all, this blog is to warn of the dangers of stereotyping and identity politics; and to encourage politicians of every stripe to pay attention to matters that are ultimately more important than borders, flags and constitutions – matters such as governance, education, economic development and management of public services, which we could improve under existing structures, and which do far more to improve quality of life than securing new ‘powers’ from Brussels/London (delete as appropriate).
As I write, we seem to be heading for the worst possible outcome – a close margin, with negative campaigning on both sides. London-based newspapers and Westminster party leaders warn of the economic risks of a split of Britain, often in dire tones, without a compensatory positive vision for Union, or an acknowledgement of the democratic deficits in an unwritten constitution and an unreformed Westminster.
Meanwhile Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon refuse to spell out their monetary strategy, and play the anti-English card when subjected to reasonable questioning on the details. For those who haven’t been following, the dialogue goes like this:
Q: If you want independence, surely that means a Scottish central bank and Scottish currency?
A: We want to share sterling; it’s a shared asset.
Q: Should you at least make contingency plans for a Scottish central bank and currency, as a back-up plan, if you are serious about political independence?
A: How dare the English bully us in that way! They are the ones causing the instability by refusing to have discussions about sharing sterling!
Such passive-aggressive behaviour is indefensible. Look at what they are doing here: responding to perfectly reasonable questions – which would be put to any political leaders planning a new nation – with an emotional accusation, with a dash of sectarian hatred thrown in. It is not ‘bullying’ to point out that the current SNP position has some contradictions, or to dare suggest that Edinburgh might not get all of its demands met all of the time, because it might not be fair on taxpayers in the rest of the sterling area.
And would shared sterling after a Yes vote enhance Scotland’s autonomy? Think about it: loss of representation in Westminster, a new fiscal agreement almost certainly less generous than the Barnett Formula, but monetary policy still set in the hated London!
In my work over the years, I’ve become acquainted with an approach to politics that is common in Latin America and southern Europe, and that is on the rise in Britain, although it is never openly acknowledged here. It is called nationalist-populism. What a nationalist-populist like the Peronists in Argentina, or the Greek socialists/New Democrats require, is access to Other People’s Money and a permanent scapegoat. They ramp up spending, especially just before an election. The money often comes from borrowing, or plundering state pension funds, or by levying huge taxes on the main export earners. The supply of funds doesn’t have to be sustainable, it just has to last as long as the individual political careers of the architects of the splurges, who tend to style themselves as ‘people’s champions’. Every bad thing that happens is blamed on the Yanquis, or the Germans, or ‘The West’ or Brussels, or whichever foreign power is the most distrusted in the popular narratives, even when it is transparently the fault of said ‘champion of the people’. Defaults on government debt are frequent; economic crises are almost permanent – the poorest suffering the most.
It’s worth considering whether Alex Salmond is a statesmanlike social democrat like Willy Brandt, or an unprincipled nationalist-populist. To be fair, you can witness both aspects. He does set out a case for a balanced economy, and has some business support. He has criticized lax fiscal control by Gordon Brown. And the impressive book Blunders of Our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe praises the Scottish Parliament for sensible law-making, in contrast to many mistakes by the Westminster Parliament and Whitehall.
But I see more evidence of tendencies towards unprincipled populism. His scapegoating of ‘English Tories’ is out of all proportion to their impact – Edinburgh gets a pretty good deal out of the union in terms of both autonomy and financial support, as this article by John Kay in the FT shows. Scotland’s living standards are higher than most of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, under existing arrangements.
The emphasis on sterling and oil are red warning signs. Salmond’s refusal to accept the principle of Scottish taxpayers being responsible for Scottish public spending, even as a Plan C or a Plan D, indicates a worrying fondness for Other People’s Money. Sterling, as a reminder, is not his Plan A, but his Plan B. For years, he wanted to join the euro, but the eurozone crisis intervened, and he witnessed what occurred when Ireland had to comply with the strictures of EU monetary union (Dublin has imposed actual austerity, unlike Coalition Britain). If my hunch about him being a nationalist-populist is correct, then his Plan A was Germany to provide the subsidies, and the English to be the scapegoats. Now we English appear to be in his sights for both roles.
Also, he talks far too much about North Sea oil revenues for my liking, and far too little about universities, skills, technological start-ups and building businesses. An economy heavily reliant on income from commodities is inherently unbalanced and unstable.
I hope I am wrong on this hunch. Which of the two Alex Salmonds becomes dominant – the principled social democrat or the opportunistic nationalist-populist – will have momentous consequences for all of us who earn our living and pay our mortgage repayments in sterling.
Of course, many of these considerations seem to be beyond the ken of Cameron-Clegg-Miliband (though David Cameron made a much better, heartfelt speech yesterday. More of this earlier would have been better). I really don’t understand the recent trend of appointing inexperienced photogenic men, with no experience of the working world outside Westminster, at the head of our main political parties. They are at least supposed to be intelligent and to understand politics – making some of their recent blunders difficult to comprehend. To hand Salmond the ‘Yes’ option was an horrendous own goal. The voting card should have asked you to tick ‘Union’ or ‘Independence’.
But Ed Miliband is the most culpable. By endlessly repeating the ‘evil English Tories’ mantra, he simply echoes the lazy propaganda of the Yes campaign. He might as well be wearing an SNP rosette. He promises to keep the Tories out for five years; Salmond promises to keep them out forever. What Miliband should have done was draw attention to the similarities of the secessionists Alex Salmond and Nigel Farage, with their scapegoating respectively of London and Brussels, and make a positive case for constitutional reform within a democratic union. The Telegraph columnist Dan Hodges illustrates the counter-productive effect of Miliband’s rhetoric here.
It’s still possible to be an optimist. The UK needs a written constitution, a fair balance of subsidies, and elected bodies for each region/country, and the referendum could spur all these reforms. But with these four alpha males in charge – one sectarian opportunist (for the most part) and the three overgrown schoolboys – it’s hard to see where the leadership is going to come from.
There will be extremely difficult negotiations after the vote, whichever way it goes. I hope that the four political leaders can rapidly develop their leadership abilities, and negotiate a fair and democratic settlement, perhaps by drawing in the counsel of wiser souls like Shirley Williams, David Steel and Malcolm Rifkind. The conduct of Britain’s political leaders, and the tone of the debate, now matter more than the outcome of the vote.
• I’ve written about the dangers of economic and business short-termism, and nationalist-populism, in the book New Normal Radical Shift, published by Gower last year. It costs £45. Quite expensive – but a hell of a lot cheaper than having your life savings wiped out by an aggressive nationalist-populist. I really hope I’m wrong about Alex Salmond. Someone give me some evidence, please.