#indyref – A diet Scot’s perspective
This blog is loosely aimed at recording some of my impressions of the places that I visit. Although I live in Scotland and, in general, hope to write about far-off countries, intrepid wilderness and strenuous expeditions, the impending referendum on Scottish independence has encouraged me to post first about things closer to home.
There are lots of different ways that people can express their views, and I suppose I conform to the stereotypical ‘NO’ campaigner with my reluctance to take to the streets and show some passion. But my views do not lack passion: if Scotland became independent my family would probably move, and that would upset me immensely. Instead what prevents me from taking to the streets and flyering my town is an awareness that I would play right into the fins of Salmon(d), Sturgeon and Company. A posh, English-sounding, middle-class boy like me telling ‘real’ Scots how to run their country would, I imagine, do nothing but convince the undecided to vote YESNP, and sharpish. So instead I want to outline how I see things, three days before the referendum; to provide several different perspectives on the good bits and the bad bits of both campaigns.
First off let’s put the Scottish nation in some kind of historical context. Today the border with England roughly adheres to the line drawn by the Roman Emperor Hadrian when he decided to build a wall across the narrow neck of England, to protect his Roman lands to the south from the raids of Pictish tribes. But the border hasn’t always been so placed. The MP Rory Stewart filmed a documentary back in March all about what he called “the Middleland”, an Anglian Kingdom often referred to as ‘Northumbria’ that persisted for centuries after the collapse of Roman Britain. At its greatest extent, this province stretched from southern Yorkshire right up to Edinburgh, and often enjoyed considerable independence from the rulers to the south. Stewart’s style, research and politics have all been heavily criticised (often but not entirely by pro-Independence Scots) following the airing of the two-part series, but he does expose two important ideas: firstly that there is considerable commonality between (southern) Scotland and (northern) England, and secondly that the current Scottish border is a combination of historical legacy and geography – the Scots were actually trying to push their frontier further South when the Treaty of York established the modern border in 1237. To create an impression of two strongly disparate nationalities is to ignore a good deal of shared heritage.
In fact, it is within Scotland that a more obvious historical divide can be found – between the Highlands and the Lowlands. Although loosely defined geologically by the ‘Highland Boundary Fault’, the mountainous northwest of Scotland has been culturally distinct from the lowlands since the 15th century, as lowland Scots began to replace the Scottish Gaelic language with Scots English or Scotch. As the language barrier intensified the cultural dichotomy became more pronounced, the feudal clan system of Highland governance persisting until the clearances began in the 18th century. At this time more aspects of Highland Gaelic culture were persecuted as hundreds of thousands of highlanders were evicted from their homes and the lands they lived off. The wearing of clan tartan, the playing of the bagpipes, the carrying of weapons, all were banned in an attempt to stamp out the culture of the Gael. That culture was subsequently revived and romanticised by the Victorians, including the Queen herself, who very much promoted the wearing of tartan and even the Highland games as she took up residence in a picturesque highland castle at Balmoral. As Gaelic culture returned it was gladly reabsorbed not just by its traditional homelands, in the mountainous glens of the northwest, but by the whole of Scotland. It became forged with a Scottish identity that flamed throughout the whole country and is the reason the border signs with England are bilingual in Gaelic, when in reality that language hasn’t been spoken in lowland Scotland for centuries.
What’s my point in telling you all of this? To challenge the view put forward by the SNP of a united Scottish nation, fixed and definite, that is so very different from the rest of the United Kingdom. It is far too simplistic to view the Scottish as a single people, united in culture, and subjugated by the English for centuries. Attitudes change, borders move, priorities shift. To an 18th-century lowland Scot, the idea that his descendants would parade around in kilts playing the bagpipes and revelling in their shared Gaelic heritage would be absurd. He would probably have had far less affinity with the clansmen of the Highlands than those living in northern England – it is hard to imagine the Highland clearances happening otherwise.
But supporters of the YES campaign have decided that they are a united nation. One that is under-represented politically and with a socialist ideology in opposition to the conservative masses south of the border. It is these ideological arguments that seem to hold the most sway over many advocates of independence, that seem to persuade them they need to be rid of the UK: “How come the whole of Scotland can vote labour and we can still end up with a Tory government?” The answer to this question is that Scotland make up less than 10% of the UK population. The Yorkshire and Humber region have a comparable population to Scotland. They could all vote conservative and end up with a labour government, or vice versa, but for some reason they aren’t complaining about under-representation. Moreover, if people in Scotland care so much about who they are governed by, why did only 25% of the country choose to vote in the Scottish elections in 2011?
That statistic also demonstrates just how effective the SNP have been with their drive for independence. If Scotland had really cared about independence pre-2011, one would have expected more people to show up and vote for the SNP to deliver the referendum that is their sole purpose. Instead, the population’s apathy led to the SNP winning a shock outright majority in the Scottish parliament that arguably forced their hand; they never expected to be in the majority so soon and had no excuse not to pursue an independence referendum now that they had the power to. No wonder they gave themselves until 2014 to try and whip up national support for their endeavours.
But whip up national support they did – the YES campaign has been in many respects an excellent one. Salmond knows exactly who his target audience are, exactly how they like to be spoken to, and exactly what they want to hear. How tactically astute that the SNP managed to bag the Scottish colours (white and blue) for their YES banners, how positive that the answer they promote is just ‘yes’, how evocative that the question they pinned down for the referendum is “should Scotland be an independent country?”. Every step of the way they have laid the foundations of a campaign that seems bolstered by positivity, patriotism and future promise. Of course the citizens of Scotland will want to feel that their country is ‘independent’, it is a term that conjures up strong emotions in almost every human being with its strong links to freedom, autonomy and identity. If the question was instead “Should Scotland leave the United Kingdom?” then the inferences of the Scots might be very different. The SNP’s wording of the question encourages neutral voters towards the YES camp!
Salmond’s rhetoric too is effective. Evocative and at times revolutionary in its message, his words frequently imply that the patriots, the ‘real’ Scots, are behind his cause. The amount of times he refers to “the people of Scotland”, as if they are his, as if they all agree with him is impressive. When discussing fears about big supermarkets relocating earlier today, Salmond claimed that only one or two had been “gulled into the Prime Minister’s scaremongering”, and then went on to somehow pay tribute to Adam Smith and bring social justice into the conversation. If you actually listen to what he is saying and deconstruct his points they are often bizarre. He rarely goes into the nitty-gritty, choosing to float above with grandiose statements of confidence, like his claim that the conservative government’s pledges last week were “a last minute desperate offer of nothing.” In fact they included substantial plans to increase Scottish control over the raising of income (and other) taxes in Scotland. One of the central arguments the SNP put forward for independence is the need for Scotland to set its own taxes, so that they can create the socialist nation they so badly desire. It seems surprising that when offers of greater tax autonomy come through they are dismissed as “nothing”. Originally they were everything in this discussion of the need for Scotland to go independent.
Salmond is also willing to say and do almost anything to reassure his voters that Scotland’s future will be better in an independent Scotland. But a lot of the biggest promises he has made so far have already come unstuck. He claimed (and still maintains) that Scotland could keep the sterling, but never consulted the UK. Of course the UK said no. He claimed (and still maintains) that Scotland could quickly slot back into the EU as an independent nation, “negotiating the terms from within”, without consulting Brussels. Brussels have said no. (Even if they hadn’t, Spanish fears of a Catalonian copycat would make their veto-ing of an independent Scotland very likely). Salmond also claimed that Scotland could rid itself of nuclear weapons, shrink its military capabilities and then saunter into Nato. Guess what…he hasn’t actually consulted Nato. Even (and this is tongue in cheek) Salmond’s continual claims of a “brighter” future for Scotland are false promises, unless he plans on halting climate change’s predicted increase in Scottish rainfall. How anyone has retained any confidence in anything this man says given this track record is remarkable.
Perhaps the reason people still allow themselves to believe Salmond’s ideas is because they desperately want him to be right. Who doesn’t want a better future, a life of greater prosperity and an end to social inequality? What is interesting are the disparate visions of this brighter future pictured by individual YES campaigners that I have spoken to. This is part of the beauty of the SNP promising change but not specifying what that change will be. It is exactly how Obama operated in his first presidential campaign; “change we can believe in” etc. But try and impose reality or economics on the argument and you are accused of being pessimistic, scared, or worse, a Tory. Yet still I wonder…how is Scotland going to create a socialist state with less money than it receives currently, when even the current levels of state welfare and support are unaffordable? The SNP’s answer is of course to tax the rich. I wonder how long the rich are going to hang around?
But people argue that Salmond has proved his worth in how the SNP manage their current Scotland budget. Hasn’t he made universities free? Hasn’t he done away with prescription charges? Hasn’t he taken the toll off the Forth road bridge? Yes, he has done all those things, but at what cost? Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Stirling, Dundee and many others besides are world-class universities; they attract the brightest and the best. But without fees these universities simply cannot maintain their standards and as time goes on they will deteriorate beyond all recognition. They will slowly decline until Scotland’s academic prowess, which has been internationally recognised almost consistently since the Scottish enlightenment, will be a distant memory. Prescription charges serve a purpose too. A close friend of mine, who happens to be a consultant dermatologist and specialist in the treatment of skin cancer, cannot prescribe the most effective drugs to her patients because the Scottish NHS, devoid of the funds it would raise from prescription charges, cannot afford them. And what of the Forth road bridge? In 2008 the SNP removed its tolls, the main source of funds for maintaining the structure. Now in 2014, less than half-way through the bridge’s projected lifespan, it has deteriorated to the extent that soon it will be unable to cope with its current traffic load. The Forth road bridge is essential to the economy of eastern Scotland north of the river. Without it traffic would have to detour more than 60 miles west to travel to/from Edinburgh which would cripple local businesses and industry. So a new bridge must be built, and fast. This new bridge will cost billions of pounds. Who pays for the new bridge? All of the taxpayers in Scotland of course, not just the segment of the population that actually use the bridge.
These examples show just how good the SNP are at quick-fix measures for generating support and popularity. When the toll on your bridge is removed, the fee on your prescription is abolished and your child’s higher education is provided for free you are naturally pleased, approving of the body that made that decision. But when you look at the consequences of these decisions, and consider what motivated them the picture becomes distinctly cynical. They seem like little more than politicians hell bent on retaining power in the next election. But independence requires an multi-generational vision for the future. It requires long-term planning and hard decisions that slowly realise helpful changes. Any country that wants to be independent needs leaders that care more about their country’s long-term prospects than their own personal and party agendas. I do not believe the SNP is such a party.
While it may seem strange given all I have just said, I want to close by adding that there is a part of me that wants Scotland to vote YES tomorrow. If, by some miracle, Salmond’s promises of a Scottish economy grown rampant on oil wealth and offshore wind energy allow the creation of this fairer, socialist Scottish state I will not only be impressed, I will be persuaded to change my whole political philosophy. It would be magnificent if Scotland began to join the Nordic states at the top of every development index, an inspiration for the rest of the United Kingdom and Europe. Sadly though, I will never trust anybody who promises nothing more than greener grass on the other side of the fence. Scotland needs to wake up and smell the coffee that is Salmond’s bullshit; his catchphrases and his phoney promises. Why not instead start watering the grass we’ve already got and aiming just as high for that “brighter” Scottish future?