Cameron and Salmond: like kids playing with matches
The row over a Scottish referendum looks less a struggle between Unionism and Nationalism than a dangerous game of all-party opportunism.
It is, we are told, a ‘titanic struggle’, a re-run of the Battle of Bannockburn that could spark a ‘Kosovo-style situation’. The stand-off between UK prime minister David Cameron and Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond, over the possible timing and content of a referendum on Scottish independence, has been presented as an historic conflict between the great principles of Unionism and Independence.
But that, as some might say in Scotland, is a load of keech. Neither side in this debate is fighting for a political principle. The leaders of all the parties are merely pursuing petty self-interest in search of some short-term advantage. The big ‘ism’ at stake here is less Nationalism vs Unionism than different strands of Opportunism.
It is a sign of how low political life in Britain has sunk that even such a major question as the future of the 300-year old Union can now be reduced to a PR skirmish about ‘positioning’ and scoring points in opinion polls. However, that does not mean the debate is unimportant. Far from it. The intervention of short-sighted, narrow-minded politicians in an issue of historic importance is a potential disaster.
Letting the likes of Cameron and Salmond decide the constitutional future of Britain looks like the political equivalent of setting small children loose with a large box of matches.
This is a phoney war between a leader of the English-based Conservatives (traditionally the Conservative and Unionist Party) who cannot muster any enthusiasm or convincing arguments for conserving the Union, and a leader of the Scottish National Party who is incapable of leading a political struggle for national independence. The clueless Labour and Liberal Democratic parties, meanwhile, are caught trying to look both ways over the border at the same time.
What do any of our inglorious leaders really stand for in this debate? If they stand on one patch of common British ground, it is in regards to their willingness to put immediate electoral considerations above any vision of our future.
For a start, Cameron’s Conservatives have effectively given up on Scotland already, and have no compelling case to offer for maintaining the Union. From being the largest parliamentary party north of the border as recently as the 1950s, the Tories have slumped to having one Westminster seat in Scotland today – which is one more than they had after the electoral wipe-out of 1997. As the SNP said this week in a rare display of wit, with the leasing of two giant exotic beasts from the Chinese authorities, there are now more pandas than Tory MPs in Scotland. So dire have things become that the Scottish wing of the Conservatives last year seriously discussed abolishing themselves and forming a new separate party (see The birth of the non-political party).
The prime minister’s recent tough talking on a referendum – insisting that Westminster can dictate when it happens and that it be a straight yes/no choice on independence – reflects the Tories’ priorities. Cameron is not trying to win an argument for the Union with the Scottish people. He is more concerned with striking a pose of strong-looking leadership for his party’s largely English electorate, even at the risk of stirring more ill-feeling among Scots. Indeed, the only case for the Union that Conservatives have come up with to date is a technical argument about constitutional rules, as if they were lawyers appealing to a tribunal rather than political leaders appealing to the people.
For their part, the SNP can no more lead a political movement for full independence than the Tories can defend the Union. Salmond’s party owes its sudden success of recent years not to any wave of nationalist fervour, but to the collapse of support for the old political elite. The SNP has had a chequered history since it broke through in the late 1960s, the ebb and flow of its support almost entirely dependent on the changing fortunes of the mainstream parties. Salmond has been the main beneficiary in Scotland of the UK-wide crisis of authority suffered by the establishment parties – in particular the losses suffered by the long-dominant Scottish Labour Party.
Everybody knows that a referendum on full independence now is likely to return a ‘No’ vote. But Salmond also understands that his political status relies upon anti-Westminster posturing for his Scottish audience. That is why he appears keener on demanding a referendum than actually holding one; there was some truth in Cameron’s jibe about the Scottish leader favouring a ‘never-endum’. The SNP’s party interests are best served by putting off any vote until at least 2014, and ensuring it includes a third option of ‘devolution max’ within the UK, which would give the Scottish authorities more power whilst enabling them to continue to play the anti-Westminster card.
The Lib Dems and the Labour Party, meanwhile, are looking even more lost and confused than the main players in this opportunist game. Both are formally committed to the Union, not least because they want their Scottish MPs to remain at Westminster. Yet both are strongly pro-devolution these days and worried about scaring away Scottish voters by being seen to side with the Tories.
Labour in particular is desperate to hang on to the 41 Scottish MPs which form a crucial part of its diminished bloc in the House of Commons – but without alienating the Scots who elect them. Meanwhile the Lib Dems want to remain in coalition with Cameron in London while posing as anti-Tories north of the border. The mess which these parties have got into by trying to square their electoral interests in England and Scotland has left Labour looking like a multiple personality disorder sufferer, as the national party leadership comes out lukewarmly for the Union while leading Scottish Labourites denounce Cameron’s ‘mad meddling’ in Scotland’s affairs.
Thus the ism of the day is Opportunism on all sides, with principles of either Unionism or Nationalism nowhere to be seen. Of course, there has always been a degree of cynicism and opportunism in political leaders’ attitudes to the Scottish question. Twenty-five years ago, when the arguments over devolution were raging in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s landslide victory in the 1987 UK elections, I went to Scotland and wrote a little book called Is There a Scottish Solution? with the help of Glasgow teacher Derek Owen. (Sadly it is long since out of print, though I notice there are a few copies available in the used-books section of Amazon, competitively priced from £9.99 to, err, £385…)
The opening chapter showed how devolution for Scotland had never been an issue of principle in British politics. The Labour, Liberal and even Conservative parties had often flip-flopped in their attitudes towards creating a Scottish assembly during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But this all-party ducking and diving over a devolved Scottish assembly had always acknowledged the overriding principle of support for the Union. Even the SNP made clear that it was seeking only a form of independence ‘under the [British] Crown’.
Now we are facing political opportunism of a different order. Party leaders on all sides appear willing to play games of poll-oriented PR posturing with the fundamental issue of sovereignty and the future of the United Kingdom itself. Their inability to see past the end of their electoral noses risks putting in motion a process that none of them is in a position to predict or control.
Whatever the final outcome, this mess has already demonstrated the crisis at the heart of the British body politic. The key factor at work here is not any powerful pull from the nationalist wings, but the collapsing authority of the centre.
The 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland consolidated the new British nation state at the start of the modern capitalist era. As my book argued back in 1987, the Union ‘did not ratify an English conquest of Scotland. It was a unique and voluntary coming together of two capitalist elites within the British state, for the mutual benefit of their developing market economies’. When the Jacobite Highland supporters of the ancient regime were subsequently crushed by the forces of the Crown at Culloden, it was with the full support and participation of the lowland Scottish bourgeoisie – including my paternal forebears, the Humes, being a sub-clan of the powerful pro-Union Campbells. Far from being an English colony, Scotland was a major backer and beneficiary of the expanding British Empire.
In recent times, however, we have witnessed the relative decline and loss of the UK’s economic strength, political power and cultural coherence. Symptoms of this are evident in everything from the anguished top-level debates about what, if anything, ‘the meaning of modern Britishness’ might be, to the mass substitution of England football flags for the Union Flag. Now the Scottish question has re-emerged, less because of any upsurge in Scottish national sentiment than a decline of British nationalism. The United Kingdom that was once the bedrock of British capitalist power is no longer seen as sacrosanct. The absence of any compelling case for either Scottish independence or the Union is reflected in polls which suggest that a slightly higher percentage of English than Scots now favour separation.
What is the best way forward out of this mess? The final result of any referendum will depend on when it is held and what questions are asked. However, if the majority of Scottish voters should ultimately express the wish for independence, it would be hard to put forward a democratic case for standing in their way. Voluntary unions can only work on the basis that either party is free to seek a divorce when they choose.
But before it comes to that, there is another of our past arguments which might be worth reviving and updating: that the Scottish people have always been at their best and most history-making when they strive to look beyond their borders, seeking allies in Britain and the world. On the other hand, history suggests that the retreat into celebrating ‘Scottishness’ has generally been a regressive step – and it can rarely have looked more so than today.
Those of a nationalist mindset, particularly on the left, have long argued that Scotland is a more radical and progressive society than England. There was always an element of myth-making in that assertion. But the politics of twenty-first century ‘Scottishness’ means something very different anyway. It has become another parochial strain of identity and lifestyle politics. The elites who celebrate their ‘Scottish identity’ most loudly today range from the powerful professional Scotsmen of Westminster, to the Edinburgh and Glasgow statespersons who have pioneered the petty authoritarian politics of lifestyle policing through the ban-happy Scottish Parliament (see SNP: world-beaters in authoritarianism). For them, ‘Scottish internationalism’ now appears largely to mean signing up to that truly undemocratic union, the EU.
It is understandable not to want to line up with Cameron’s mealy-mouthed, self-serving defence of the Union. Yet there are far bigger issues at stake here than merely cynical party advantage. It is not only the Scottish question that needs reposing today, but the ‘British question’ about what our society is for and where it is heading. That is far too important to be left to infantile opportunist poseurs on either side of the border, playing their little games with history and the future and daring one another to strike the first match.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.
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