Thursday, 25 September 2014

Scotland and the Union

Now that the dust is beginning to settle on the extraordinary Scottish Referendum, I am taking stock of what exactly went on over the last few weeks.

There seems a supreme irony that this all occurred in the year when we have been commemorating the centennial anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Oh, how we marvelled at the folly of our ancestors as they sleep-walked their way over the course of a balmy summer into absolute disaster.

While we were all reading such articles, Britain nearly sleep-walked into oblivion. When on Friday of last week I got up at 2.30am to watch the referendum results come in, I seriously wondered whether the country would still be around in four hours time. What the Germans didn't manage in 1914, the British Government made a much better attempt at in 2014.

Rarely can a government have made a bigger shambles of a referendum than the UK's coalition managed over Scotland. Just about every aspect of the referendum had been weighted in favour of the Scottish National Party (SNP) by David Cameron's deplorable lack of negotiation skills over the Edinburgh Memorandum which defined the terms of the referendum. Assuming that there should have ever been an all-defining referendum over independence in the first place (the SNP had never achieved a majority of votes in Scotland), all the terms of the referendum turned out to be to the SNP's advantage.

Most savvy children know that a question is best phrased to elicit a 'yes' response and that the phrasing of a question radically alters the likely response. If there was going to be a referendum, then the question should have been, 'Should Scotland stay in the UK?' Agreeing to a referendum question of 'Should Scotland be an independent country?' was a bit like asking a disgruntled partner 'Do you wish to be free?' rather than 'Do you wish to keep hold of what we have?' It was a fundamental tactical failure of the British government to ever agree to this.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the British government then agreed to having 16 and 17 year-olds vote in the referendum, who were intrinsically less likely to feel long-standing ties of affection for the Union. They agreed to the 800,000 Scots living in other parts of the UK - and thus most likely to keenly feel both Scottish and British - to having no say in the referendum. If this was a battle, it was like handing your opponent all the high ground and sending home your best divisions before a single shot had been fired.

Behind these disastrous decisions was of course a vaunting over-confidence that the outcome would a be clear backing for the Union no matter what the terms of the debate. The British government were not so much sleep-walking as they had been in 1914, but were sound asleep and snoring heavily.

Then the campaigns began. It was painful to watch. The SNP, once a fringe party who had turned off voters with virulently anti-English rhetoric, had long since worked out that the way forward was not to attack 'the English' but 'Westminster politics'. Their greatest coup was arguing, preposterously, that in nationalist hands Scotland would be a land of 'social justice' (yeh, right).

Such an opponent should have been routed comprehensively with a broad, inspirational vision of what it means to be British, but instead the 'No' campaign could only muster an utterly vision-less Alistair Darling, whose sole thrust of argument was to warn of economic turmoil and the difficulties of settling on a currency after separation. Cameron, having set in place the disastrous terms of the referendum, was then terrified to hardly set foot in Scotland lest his Old Etonian ways turned off the natives. The leader of the 'Yes' campaign, Alex Salmond (pictured right in Scottish Govt. image) rang rings round both of them, proving himself in strategy and bearing by far the most able political operator in Britain.

The UK's head of state was unable to make any comment as the imminent disappearance of UK apparently had nothing to do with her (could someone remind me what her purpose is again?) , though we later learned that she 'purred' with happiness at the result.

Many people in the media now tell us that the referendum was a wonderful exercise in democracy in action because of mass participation, with voting in some areas at nearly 90%, though there has been the rather unfortunate consequence of a constitutional crisis precipitated by the desperate promise of maximum devolution powers to Scotland in a last ditch effort by the No campaign to sway the vote.

Cameron was overheard saying to Michael Bloomberg that the referendum should have never been so close. Indeed it shouldn't. If it hadn't been for the government's sheer incompetence, the result is likely to have come in at least 70-30 in the favour of the Union and without the constitutional mess Cameron has now engendered.

I too found the referendum inspirational though for different reasons to those widely reported. Firstly, it revealed the ways in which many issues when put to the vote can move in directions radically different to those which pollsters initially suggest (Think Britain can never become a republic? Let's put it to a referendum, I say). Secondly, it showed the government and the opposition to be so staggeringly inept, visionless and bungling that it underlined the importance of each individual becoming politically active. If a government can take a country to within a few hours of not even existing, you really can't afford to close your eyes and let them lead you as they sleep-walk their way into disaster.

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