By Mike Small
The SNP has begun its attempt to break up Great Britain by bringing forward a bill for a referendum on independence. First Minister Alex Salmond is due to make a statement to MSPs on Thursday, outlining plans for the next parliamentary session, in which the bill will be formally announced. A spokesman for the First Minister said that a vote on the bill would “place the issue of Scotland’s future – and the powers we need to succeed as a nation – at the heart of political and public debate”.
Various wishful scenarios declare that the proposed referendum “will never happen”, that the ‘celestial peace of the British Union’ will go unperturbed, that the SNP hasn’t the majority, or, perhaps less credibly, that the Scottish Government are acting beyond their legal remit. But there are many good reasons why we may be on the eve of momentous change comparable with what we have just witnessed on the other side of the world in Japan. There is good political reason to think that the referendum will happen and its result is by no means certain.
First, there’s that annoying problem of democracy. Labour may have shuffled about their response to a referendum in a bewildering flurry since Wendy’s rhetorical “Bring it on!”. But Iain Gray, a man who you could never accuse of rhetoric, and who’s position appears less certain each day will need to face-up on Thursday and present a coherent response. All of the opposition parties in Scotland share the difficult prospect of opposing the peoples right to have their say. Let’s be clear, there are many more people who want a poll on independence than want independence itself or who would vote for the SNP. Support for a referendum on independence is vast, ranging from between 60 and 80% of the Scottish public in recent opinion polls. Can you be a Liberal Democrat, or even a ‘Fiscal Autonomy Tory’ and oppose this level of consensus? You can, but you’ll need to stand for office within the year on that record.
The SNP know this and are quite happy to see their offer of a referendum voted down.. They may even sweeten the ballot with an option for Devolution Max to split the opposition benches, or we may still yet see the Liberals break cover and back their Steel Commission or the Tories attempt to appease English nationalist disquiet and ‘lance the boil’ with fiscal autonomy.
At its heart the referendum offers the prospect of power to change beyond constitutional paternalism. As one wag put it when firearms legislation was being proposed at Holyrood, “with devolution you get to ban air-rifles, with independence you can cancel Trident”.
Democracy for Scotland through referenda is about both means and ends. Michael Gardiner has written: “Any nation state which emerges from Britain can scarcely fail to be more democratic than one with no proper constitution, an outmoded first past-the-post voting system, a reluctance reconsider its Anglophone-imperial ‘special’ position, chronically lazy ‘consensus politics’, an established church, an upper chamber half-heritary and half-quango, and a token head of state.”
Then there’s the Cameron-effect. The Tories may be riding high in the opinion polls in England but in Scotland they are flat-lining worse than Kevin Bacon and Keifer Sutherland ever did. In the immediate future, Scottish politics will at least be more interesting than Westminster. Brown may have consigned himself to political oblivion, but in Stirling and Dundee it’s not Brown v Cameron, it’s Cameron v Salmond, and the Cameronians are not half as clever as they think they are. Polls have shown if a Cameron Tory Cabinet forms support for independence jumps 25%. Even at their poorest ratings for a year (a YouGov poll showing support for independence at only 28%) the Cameron Effect could easily be a stepping stone to another ‘Yes’ vote. The problem for Unionist politicians rubbing their hands in glee at this post-Megrahi nadir, is that the survey also showed in Holyrood voting intentions a seven-point SNP lead over Labour in the first-past-the-post constituency vote and a four-point lead in the poll for list MSPs. People may think MacAskill wrong but they don’t doubt his integrity.
Cameron’s background as a member of the ruling elite may be culturally palatable in the home counties but North of the border he’s the unacceptable face of class-ridden Britain. In a cruel paradox for Labour a referendum offers a way out from Tory public spending cuts, and it’s as campaign allies that Labour will be playing up the threat of the Tories plans across piped ‘UK’ media for the coming year. The botched iniquity of UK ‘national’ news broadcasting will be an unlikely ally for democracy campaigners.
The third and ultimately most compelling reason that may yet swing the issue is the collapse in credibility of Westminster and the political classes in general. Groups like Vote for a Change are mushrooming and likely to reinforce the idea of a failed political class mired in corruption, back-handers and moat-expenses. As the recession bites the memory will be warmed of politicians living in an alternate world. Holyrood has its own problems, is not immune from petty dishonesty, but for practical reasons it isn’t swamped with the same association of base venality that now dogs Westminster. For many its not a gigantic leap to suggest that it’s not just the political classes that need disbanded but the British State itself. From Tomlinson to Peace Camp, from the surveillance culture to ID Cards the prospect of an authoritarian state is an anathema to most Scots.
The unionist coalition may well respond with the fear card that was the tried and tested political tactic to oppose first devolution itself, and then a nationalist administration. Great efforts will be made to stack up the Megrahi decision as botched foreign policy best left to the big boys (who brought you Basra and Helmand), the financial meltdown as a sort of 21st C Darien, and the incoming Tories will no doubt try and portray David Cameron as a sort of Bambi in Tails.
All this may stick, people may be duped, confidence may falter, but historical slide suggests otherwise. Vera Lynn may be in the charts again but Oasis have split. The very institutions that could hold Britain together as an idea have been picked apart, privatised, sold off or dismantled by two decades of neo-liberal politicians who can hardly now appeal to the NHS, the Post Office or a common media voice as indicators of a common future, never mind a shared past. If you place so little value in these institutions then dont rely on them to tell your political story.
The Megrahi case has sent many English commentators into a sort of spasm of resentment, anger and confusion, Fraser Nelson perhaps taking the prize for wilful stupidity. As Gerry Hassan has written: “A whole host of English based commentators: Alexander Chancellor, the Daily Mail, The Sun and more, seem to barely know Scotland exists as a nation with a separate judicial and legal system, which long predates devolution and stretches back hundreds of years.”
This sort of coverage is hardly a revelation but come the referendum the combination of the sort of harsh surveillance state established under Blair-Brown with a return to reckless unashamed Tory sado-monetarism may be too much for a nation with a ready-alternative.
Conventional wisdom is that the Megrahi case has sent independence off-track, shattering confidence in ‘self determination’ just as the banking collapse was supposed to. This didn’t happen. But the case has unveiled a catastrophic misunderstanding about what devolution is and the nature of the British State. James Macintyre, the New Statesman’s political correspondent writes reflecting on the Megrahi case, in a statement of such beautiful incongruity: “devolution has led to a grave failure of accountability”. It’s wonderful irony-free comments like this that suggest that we may have already drifted far apart and next years referendum may just confirm the inevitable..
An edited version of this article was published in the Guardian under the title ‘Towards Independence’.