Monday, 8 September 2014

Salmond and Cameron - the love that dare not speak its name

Were I still to be living in Scotland, the binary choice in the independence referendum would be maddening.  Yet, as the campaign continues the intellectual arguments would be countered by the contempt and scare-mongering that the "Better Together" campaign is peddling, effectively making out that Scotland's success comes as a consequence of being shackled to a wise parent dispensing discipline and rationed largesse.  The counter-narrative that Scotland is a unit which can support a civic life, national values and a viable economy, while making its own mistakes, becomes increasing compelling.

A game-changing moment came with the first opinion poll suggesting that the proportion of the electorate prepared to vote "Yes" outnumbered those wishing to remain in the UK.  Against a background of the English xenophobia demonstrated by the anti-European ferment and the adulatory approach to the Kippers, including the recently-revealed love-in between Farage and Murdoch (two odious toads who should disappear into their own morass of hypocritical evil), and the totally unbalanced economy, where growth and governmental largesse is targeted at the Tory shires and the comfortably-off, late-middle-aged whose propensity to vote and possibly even vote for Dave is a cynical calculation before the balloon goes up next year, it is hardly surprising that a country with a pre-existing sense of suspicion and resentment reverts to type.

Despite Scotland being capable of operating not one but two systems of proportional representation (one for Holyrood and one for local government) without the sky falling in, the deal done between Salmond and Cameron was for a one-question referendum.  A binary choice - calculated on both sides.  Cameron assumed, with London arrogance, that the little people could be frightened out of any short-term tantrum, and that as the scare factor increased, that the "No" vote when it came would be so resounding that any further devolution could be kicked into touch for a further two decades.

While the London-based narrative maintained Scotland to be a curiosity on the sidelines, Salmond's calculation is that this will play into his hands - probably correctly.   Whereas the dismissive dominance of the South-East of England plays well with an audience sufficient to maintain the illusion of comfort and security, the inequality and condescension does not play out well.  Without any alternative option on the table, Salmond is able to play on both resentment and pride, and without having a totally-coherent proposition around fundamental issues including currency and the relationship between Scotland and the European Union.

Salmond knows that Cameron is walking a tightrope.  While being the Tory who lost the Union carries political stigma, it also undermines the ability of the majority of the English electorate to be represented or to turf out the Tories.  Gerrymandering and a broken electoral system would certainly provide a boost to Tory fortunes in England, while Scotland could pursue a mainstream European polity based around a centre-left or centre-right consensus.  Therefore Cameron is torn.

In most respects, now that the "No" campaign is having to resort to becoming the cheer-leaders for the option that was not put to the test, that of "devo max", the debate can become much more interesting.  Further devolution would create both necessity and space for discussion over the governance and constitutional arrangements for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as reducing the legitimacy of maintaining current authoritarianism in the face of the need to modernise the entire British state.  A radical campaign would not be frightened of this - and should even put forward a GB-wide referendum when a new settlement was worked through.

Cameron does not want this; the feeble remnants of the Coalition's agreed constitutional reforms do not go that far.  Scared into withdrawing even modest change by the need to propitiate the headbangers and old guard rightists, the Tories cannot countenance the prospect that the precious cronyism that has maintained their prosperity in the light of manifest incompetence could be called into question.  The "No" campaign could become the harbinger of much wider change and much more fundamental upheaval than anything that could be unleashed as a result of a positive result for Salmond.

It is now too late to extend the debate to the level that might engage the whole of the UK, which is what both Cameron and Salmond wanted.  The chance now is to ensure that the strange conservatism does not become a stalking horse for further denial of democracy for the whole of the country - and that if there is a "Yes" outcome, arrangements for a modern, European independence for both states are progressed.  The Tories will deserve much more scrutiny whatever the outcome of the vote, and an opportunity should be seized by all of us who consider that constitutional reform and democracy are the first, vital building block on the way to create a modern politics and economy.

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