We subscribe to only two newspapers here at the monastery, and only to the Economist for other current affairs. The Week is an effective way to catch up on what the media have been saying about the affairs of the day. In the process they include a number of letters from the various papers. This week was this remarkable letter to The Independent.
The Scots will vote yes. And the rest of us will owe them a debt of gratitude. Their vote will send symbolically, in the only effective way our current democratic system permits, these messages to all our politicians:
We want not a change of government, but a change of politics. You lack the competence to run the country, and the vision to lead it. You lied to us and deceived us into an illegal war. You cheated and stole from us. A privileged, privately educated 7 per cent permanently holds up to 73 per cent of positions of power. Our representative democracy entrenches a profoundly unrepresentative power structure. The privileged power elite are not held accountable or punished for their venality, incompetence or mistakes.
We are justly proud of our NHS and the inspirational ideals that underpin it. We want those principles preserved, not undermined by subversive privatisation.
Good luck, Scotland. We respect your courage and admire your confidence.
It is remarkable for at least two things. First, it shows how clueless many people are about the referendum and the campaign for Scottish independence. To claim that a vote for independence will send a message to politicians about the nature of politics or the privitization of the NHS is wishful thinking at best. It is primarily about nationalism and the desire of some Scots to be free of the rest of Britain. It could be portrayed as romantic, though the incidents of intimidation of those speaking for the “No” campaign rather gives the lie to that image. Nationalism, unlike patriotism, is rarely if ever attractive. The twentieth century is nothing if not a memorial to the destructive power of nationalism.
Secondly, even if a “Yes” vote could be read as a cri de coeur about the state of British democratic politics, it is breathtakingly excessive. To the mind come images of sledgehammers cracking, no – crushing, peanuts or babies being thrown out with the bathwater. Because our leaders apparently “lack the competence to run the country”, the solution for this man is to dismantle the nation itself. We can only thank the good Lord that this correspondent is not one of the seven percent which holds 73 percent of power.
If the polls are accurate, Thursday may see the demise of the United Kingdom as it has existed for the last 300 years (well, with Scotland that is. Ireland was not included until 1801). The dismantling of one of the greatest nation-states in history (for better or for worse, or for both) will have been determined by a poll open to only 7% percent of its population. In this, at least, we could agree with the epistolator cited above, that “(o)ur representative democracy entrenches a profoundly unrepresentative power structure”. The decision will be based on a simple majority of those Scots who actually vote. The fate of an immensely important nation is in the hands of a tiny minority. In Australia for any constitutional change to be made a double majority is needed: a majority of voters in a majority of the six states. If the change affects one state in particular then a triple majority is needed: a majority of votes in the relevant state itself is also necessary. It is inherently, but not impossibly, conservative of course: of 44 constitutional referendums in Australia since Federation, only 8 have been passed. It makes for impressive stability and security.
The pro- independence campaign seeks a more prosperous Scotland, blaming Westminster for its woes. But The Economist (September 13-19 2014) puts its claims into question.
Scotland’s relative economic decline is the result not of southern neglect but of the shift of manufacturing and shipping to Asia. If Westminster has not reversed all the deleterious effects of globalisation and technology, that is because to do so is impossible. The nationalists know this, which is why, sotto voce, they would continue many of Westminster’s policies.
We might translate “sotto voce” here as “on the sly”. Westminster’s politicians, our epistolator opined, are not fit to govern, yet the government of a newly-independent Scotland would copy many of their policies. Who then, we might ask, is actually incompetent?
The nationalists make much of Britain getting all her North Sea oil revenue, yet they want to keep the British Pound. The nationalists seek effectively sovereign power over the British Pound and British oil, and sod the rest of us. If even if they had such a right, their economic arguments are equally unconvincing. Again from The Economist:
The nationalists’ economics are also flawed. Scotland would not, in fact, be richer alone. The taxes that would flow from the North Sea would roughly compensate for the extra cost of its lavish state, which would no longer be funded by Westminster (last year spending was some £1,300 per person higher in Scotland than elsewhere in Britain). But oil revenues are erratic. They would have earned Scotland £11.5 billion in 2008-09 but only £5.5 billion in 2012-13. If an independent state were to smooth these fluctuations by setting up an oil fund, it would have less cash to spend now. In any case, the oil is gradually running out. In order to maintain state spending after it is gone, taxes would have to rise. And the crunch might come much sooner. Foreign investors and big businesses that mostly serve English customers could well move south.
The nationalists have either failed to think long-term; or they have done so, not liked what they saw, and pretended they did not see it. Oil revenue is wholly dependent on the market price. And there is not that much oil left. The BBC quotes figures that suggest there is only 30-40 years of production remaining, and the Office of Budget Responsibility estimates a fall in oil revenue by 2017-18 of 38%. Moreover, since 1999 production has consistently declined. So who will pick up the tab for an independent Scotland? Not England and Wales and Northern Ireland. No, the Scottish taxpayer and moneylenders.
It is highly unlikely that Scotland will get to keep the Pound. To get the Euro it will have to apply, and indeed it will have to apply to join the EU itself. Both are very much in question. And to enter the EU a unanimous vote of member countries is required. Even if the remainder of the UK were not to vote against it, Spain probably would. Scottish independence would give heart to Catalan separatists, to the horror of the Spanish government. So Scotland could end being very, very much alone, sinking under debt, and with only themselves to blame; or rather, the slender majority who would have voted for such a state of affairs.
Some heady idealists on Facebook dream aloud (and perhaps mainly tongue in cheek) of the opportunity for an independent Scotland to restore a Catholic monarchy. Not likely! Scotland is a majority Protestant country and sectarianism there lives on. Moreover, Mr Salmond will want all the power and glory for himself.
And here is the rub. The only guaranteed winners of a “Yes” vote would be politicians and civil servants. A new civil service will have to be created to replicate what has hitherto been done by the UK civil service, and it will have to paid for by taxes and volatile oil revenues. And of course Scottish politicians would become leaders with international stature. How proud they will be. Their salaries will go up to reflect this new status, naturally. Then embassies and high commissions (one presumes Scotland will remain in the Commonwealth) will have to be built, and diplomats appointed. More money. From somewhere. Now wonder Scot pollies are so keen!
Truly, it is hard to see how the ordinary Scot will win, other than to have that wonderful frisson that comes from putting two fingers up to England. That frisson will not last long. The English will probably return the gesture, with a more devastating long-term effect on Scotland. While Scottish nationalists, in their triumph at having destroyed the UK, will be singing Scotland the Brave for a few nights, the remaining UK will sing Scotland the Knave for a lot longer.
It is Scotland’s choice, and hers alone. Laddies and lassies, you had better get it right.