Monday, 15 September 2014

The Referendum - some thoughts and why I'm voting No

I've not really had a chance to write much on this blog for almost two years now, but there's a major referendum coming up this week and I thought it was time to share my views. Make of them what you will, this is not an effort to change anybody's mind and I make no particular claims for a coherent viewpoint. As of yet, I've yet to commit much to writing about my own personal views of the referendum. This may be in part because I've yet to see much in either campaign that I would want to associate myself with. As far as things written by other people go, I would share a lot of common ground with the views of Carol Craig expressed here. In my own rantings here I'll probably avoid going into too much details about things she has already said better than I can, but will merely add my own take on things.

Ideologically, I would claim to be neither particularly Unionist nor Nationalist. Whilst in general terms I would say I support devolution of powers closer to the people, the right to self-determination and so forth, in practice maybe I'm discovering that there are limits to that, or maybe I'm just not buying that that is really what's on offer here. I guess my approach to the independence question has been a more pragmatic one - do I think that an Independent Scotland is more or less likely to be the kind of Scotland I would like to see? The answer to that at the moment is maybe at some point in the future, but at the moment I feel it would be heading in the opposite direction (but more of that later).

In the interests of full disclosure, I will be quite clear that I do not consider myself to be a Scot, neither do I consider myself to be English (Welsh, maybe sometimes) but in general I see myself as British. This will inevitably colour my outlook, although may not be a deciding factor. I'm also writing as a precariously employed public sector employee and I've got to say that from my perspective, my chances of still having a job in two years look rather less in an independent Scotland. However, that particular change in my circumstances has not affected how I have viewed this issue.

To start on a positive note, there are two undoubtedly great things that have come out of this campaign. One is the granting of votes to 16 & 17 year olds, who from what I have seen both personally and in the media, have responded with due thought and sense of responsibility on the whole. Whatever the outcome on Thursday, I hope that this provides evidence for lowering the voting age to 16 more generally. The other is the widespread engagement with the issues by people as a whole. I don't think I can remember a time when political issues have been so widely and so variedly discussed and debated. An expected turnout of over 80% would be absolutely brilliant. The challenge is how we can then keep that level of engagement in Scottish politics moving forward, whatever the outcome.

That said, that level of engagement has largely come despite rather than because of the formal campaigns, which have been an absolute disgrace, marked by lies, misinformation, exaggerations, bullying and intimidation tactics on both sides, by a blind optimism and astounding naivety on the one side and astounding complacency and patronising superiority on the other. Scotland has deserved better. If I was to place my vote solely on the merits of the campaigns, I would be spoiling my ballot for the first time ever. As a rule of thumb, I'd say that if the likes of Murdoch, Trump, Soutar and McColl are lining up on your side, not only are you on the wrong side, you're asking the wrong question. But then the combined ranks of banks and supermarkets lining up on the other side scarcely present a more appealling choice of allies. Better Together would have more accurately called themselves "Ye Cannae Do That!" and Yes Scotland have bordered on the emotionally manipulative right from the justly derided talking foetus advert whilst simultaneously seeming to promise that both everything and nothing will change, but the Team Scotland idea that Salmond came out with last week has a very nasty undercurrent. For me, there is a serious point here in terms of trust - that these are the people (on both sides) who will become responsible for forging an independant Scotland if the vote is Yes. I look around and wonder how many real potential nation builders there are and regrettably the answer is precious few.

Well, that's the first rant over with. Now I'm going to shed a few thoughts on some of the issues that have been talked about during the campaign:

Shop Prices - apparently our weekly shopping is about to change price if we vote Yes. Actually this shouldn't really come as any surprise - large companies price differently for different markets. If Scotland becomes a separate market then the pricing will reflect this. It doesn't mean that everything's going to go up. Local scottish products should actually be cheaper in Scottish supermarkets as Scottish customers stop subsidising the price of transporting to England. Unfortunately the reverse is true for produce from England and Wales. Overall I would have thought that a weekly shop will probably work out more expensive, but maybe not by that much. Is this really a deciding issue. I suspect not. If anything, it might act as incentive for people to both get away from the supermarket and buy local which would be no bad thing in my eyes.

The Currency - the topic that No went on about until they alienated all and sundry. That said, it was a great weakness for Salmond and the idea of having the pound without a formal currency union (which by the way is what Ireland did in the 20s and it took them a long time to recover, although admittedly Ireland in the 20s probably had less economic strengths than Scotland today) is just folly and will cost us. It gives Scotland a lack of control in its economy and creates pressures that will need to be responded to in other ways. I do have a lot of sympathy for the view that this debate should be about democracy and not the economy, but if we get things like this wrong it places severe limits on what we can do democratically speaking, which is why I firmly believe that if Scotland does go independent it desperately needs its own currency.

Oil Revenues - Yes have one set of figures, No have others. Both have their experts who say that their side is right. Independent experts offer even more different figures. What is most depressing for me in the whole thing is that nobody at all seems to be questioning whether exploiting every last pound's worth of North Sea Oil is actually desirable any more. And this is where I start to have major problems with independence at this time - I can't see how an independent Scotland breaks its dependence on oil (especially given there are likely to be so many other pressures on the economy). Limited though it is, I see greater potential for a devolved rather than independant Scottish government to develop its energy policies in other ways.

The Scandinavian Model - this is, of course, something that has been held up as the ideal route for an independent Scotland to follow - the Scandinavian Social Democratic model, this would apparrently fit well with Scotland which is apparrently far more "progressive" than the rest of the UK (I'll come back to that later). I mean we don't really have UKIP up here, for example. I don't really want to get into this here, but just to pass a few tangential comments for thought - the Scandinavian countries themselves have been steadily moving away from this model for the past 10-15 years. Sweden had a general election at the weekend where the UKIP-like Swedish Democrats did very well indeed. Oh, and when Norway had a referendum for independence they got 99.95% in favour and just 184 votes against.

There were of course many other issues, but I think that's enough for now. Now we're moving on to the big issues.

A Question of Democracy
By far and away the strongest argument for independence is that of the democratic deficit. That Scotland is poorly represented by Westminster, that it is more democratic to have government closer to the people, which is superficially an argument that I'm very attracted to. I start to get a bit uncomfortable when people start talking about Scotland being unable to influence the outcome of general elections or always being outvoted by England or Scotland not getting the governments they voted for. For a start, neither Scotland nor England are that homogenous in their opinions (it's a long time, if ever, since Scotland gave majority support to one party, so to that extent Scotland has never voted for the government it got, but then neither has England) and many English regions could make the same argument about being able to influence outcomes by themselves. Neither can the Scots be seen as an oppressed minority. If anything, Scotland is still over-represented in the union - having more MPs than its population would merit on a strict allocation in addition to a devolved parliament. So if anything Scotland has more chance to influence the outcome of a General Election than a similar sized (in terms of population) region of England. On top of that, we have a devolved parliament. Ah, but Scotland has a stronger identity than regions of England. True, but we are dealing with a spectrum there and should a stronger identity entitle individuals or groups to a greater say in government?

Then we must question whether a Scottish government would be that much more representative an independent Scottish government would be. The executives and governments at Holyrood have still received the votes of less than half of those who voted. In real terms Edinburgh is a very long way from parts of Scotland and the difference with Westminster is not all that telling. As an individual is the chance of influencing policy as one of three million voters meaningfully different to the chance as one of thirty million. I would suggest not. All of which is actually not all that relevant. It's arguing for the sake of arguing. A more significant question for me is where the devolution of powers stops. For me, trying to make up for a democratic deficit is trying to get decision making as close to the people as possible, but Holyrood, especially recently, has actually been a centralising force within Scotland taking powers like the ability to change council tax levels away from local government, creating a central police force for the whole of Scotland, etc... Is there any reason to believe that an independent Scotland would be any better, especially given that it will largely be the same personalities involved. And if we are not changing things for the better, then why bother?

Underlying some of the talk of a lack of Scottish influence at Westminster is the myth of progressive Scotland. That Scotland is somehow more left wing than the rest of the UK and that Scotland needs to be independent in order to move in the progressive direction it wants. On one level, this can seem convincing - the Conservative vote in Scotland seems to be largely in terminal decline. UKIP struggle to gain much traction here (although they did get an MEP). However, if you dig a bit deeper into attitudes, the percentage of Scots who would support benefit cuts or limiting immigration is not significantly different to the rest of the UK. It's just that those people don't vote Conservative (because the brand is still toxic) or UKIP (because we already have a populist, anti-big 3 Westminster parties party who are heavily entrenched). All of which is a bit of a digression (athough it will link a bit to a point coming up), but a point worth making.

From a democratic point of view, however, I do have some concerns about the process we are in:
The Timing: Why are we having a referendum now? It wasn't due to any significant increase in support for independence before the referendum was called. Support for independence had remained roughly around 33% ever since polling on the issue started. It was at that level before the 2011 Scottish Elections and it was at that level after them. What happened in 2011 is that the SNP fluked an overall majority, taking advantage of the LDs taking of the electoral cyanide (from a Scottish perspective) of coalition and the most self-destructive Labour campaign since Michael Foot's in 1983. Labour lazily assumed that the Liberal Democrat voters would come to them whilst making their flagship policy (mandatory prison sentences for carrying a knife) one that would repel anybody with liberal instincts. And thus we ended up with a referendum.

The Growth in Support for Yes: And as the campaign has gone on, the support for independence has grown. The work of the No campaign in facilitating this shouldn't be underestimated - nobody likes to be patronised and told what they can't do. Many people have genuine reasons for switching to Yes around issues of democracy. Some buy the vision of the white paper. But some are atttracted by the anti-Tory/anti-coalition rhetoric. Every leaflet I've had from Yes mentions in one form or another keeping the Tories out as a reason to vote Yes. Several Yes supporters I know have used this as the main argument why I should vote Yes. And it's a terrible reason for voting Yes - making a permanent change as a reaction against a temporary situation. It may not be the deciding factor in many people's votes, but for some it definitely will be and if the result is as close as the polls suggest, those people may make the difference. Fundamentally, I believe this is based on a lie - see my thoughts on the myth of progressive Scotland above. The thought that the anti-Tory argument may be enough to win it for Yes, is enough to make me vote No.
(Actually I think an independent Scotland would move pretty quickly to the right economically for some of the reasons outlined in Carol Craig's article and also for all the things the current Scottish Government have put off doing because there's a referendum coming. I'd also take a bet that within 20-25 years Scotland would have had at least one overtly right wing government. That government may not be led by a party called Conservative and some of its members may currently be in the SNP government, but it would happen. (I should add, that although this wouldn't be my choice, that's democracy and I hold no truck with messing around with systems to try and keep one strain of opinion out). The possible/likely shift rightwards raises another question for me in terms of democracy, because this is the complete opposite of the story that we are being promised, so we could well start off by undermining the faith of people in the new institutions right from the off and creating nothing but a mini-version of Westminster with another disillusioned electorate. That is not the solution to an democratic deficit.)

The Level of Support. Support for Yes has grown, but even the most optimistic polls for them have put it at just over 50% (54% is the highest). Even given an 85% plus turnout, that would still be under half the electorate actually voting Yes. Democratically speaking, is that really enough of a mandate for independence. Remember that figure I gave for Norway, Southern Sudan had a similar figure, Slovenia over 80%, Latvia well into the 70s. I can't think of a single successful example where there was not a clear and overwhelming majority in favour. I hope No wins for a variety of reasons, but if it is YEs then I hope the polls are well out and its Yes by over 60%. 50.1% to Yes is just a mess that is going to take one heck of a lot of work to sort out.

I started on a positive note - I'd like to finish on one. I do think devolution has been a success for Scotland, but I also think there are strengths in Britain and we are stronger and safer together. I think Britain has produced some successes that we need to hang on to, like the NHS, but that they are stronger for being shared across our nations and I hope we will stay together and fight to make both Scotland and Britain the countries that they would wish them to be.

I've tried to pack a lot in here and I'm aware I've not done most of my thoughts the justice they deserve in my head, but I hope you find them interesting.