Ian Martin in an article spread over two pages in the Sunday Telegraph (30th March p.18-19) concludes after what we may now fairly term the ‘Apertiv-gate’ currency fiasco, that if Better Together “make many more foolish mistakes like last week’s, [the Union] could be gone for ever (sic) in six months”. Martin’s problem is that Better Together’s campaign has been much worse than a foolish mistake; it has been one long blunder.
The significance of the catastrophic blow dealt to the Better Together campaign by the acknowledgement of a senior Government source that “of course there would be a currency union” cannot be understated. It is not simply that it contradicts Better Together, Westminster Government and Official Opposition policy, but in a swift coup de grâcethe leak comprehensively destroys the future credibility of Better Together pronouncements, if not the furtive coalition of inconsistent interests it uneasily represents, or of Westminster itself as a reliable source of information.
There are four crucial points about the statement of the unknown but candid Government ‘mole’ that it is important to remember: first, this is not the fevered imaginative leap of some second-string coalition political backwoodsman seeking instant fame, but a “government minister at the heart of the pro-union campaign … … who would play a significant role in negotiations after a Yes vote”. Second, as the Sunday Telegraph is obliged to admit, there “was no attempt made to deny the veracity of the report”. Third, the wording of the minister’s statement is extraordinary; “of course” there will be a currency union. “Of course”, means that it is obvious there will be a currency union. Currency Union, because there are mature, serious commitments required of both sides, represents for Scotland and rUK a workable compromise: independence without ‘separation’ on the Scottish side; an open, free, common market that actually works for rUK on the other side. Fourth, the conclusions drawn easily by the ‘mole’ fit well with the facts presented by other sources – corroborative facts: Professor Leslie Young’s comprehensive demolition of the Treasury case against currency union (download at scotlandseptember18.com) on 24th March was unusually polemical for an academic paper, not only trenchantly unpicking the Treasury’s weak argument and demonstrating the flaws, but in the vigour of Young’s forensic and polemical delivery, appearing to argue that the case was not just wrong-headed, but quite obviously wrong-headed. The flaws in the case against currency union are obvious to virtually all informed opinion, except Better Together.
It always was obvious; why wouldn’t there be a currency union, there is no better case for it anywhere on the globe than Scotland and rUK, on any economic or political grounds you care to choose; there is no good reason not to come to a mutual agreement, except “of course” if you wish to deploy a misleading argument to influence voters before the vote; and rescind it immediately afterwards if the ploy fails. “Of course” in these activities the UK has ‘form’, all the way back through the 307 years of the Union; or more precisely back 302 years to the Patronage Act, 1712 for those interested in ironic precedents for the UK first agreeing to do one thing, and then doing quite another.
The wording of Martin’s statement that there was no attempt to deny the “veracity of the report” is also interesting; clearly the report is well-founded but in that case if we are to believe the veracity of the report, why are the Better Together politicians continuing to claim there will be no currency union? The report must be both true and false, or perhaps we are supposed to believe that a minister deliberately ‘leaked’ a story that was not true? So it wasn’t really a leak, or it wasn’t really a story? So what are we supposed to believe is the story? Is the real story supposed to be that Westminster is so hapless that a Government cannot be sure its own ministers even understand its own most important policies? Is that it? It isn’t much, but what would that tell us about the way we are governed or the real qualities of the people in government?
Scrutinising the curiously aggressive, irascible performances of Alistair Carmichael, Danny Alexander, Alistair Darling and George Osborne in representing Better Together in Scotland (and what strange political bedfellows they are), the sense of profound inadequacy of argument and leadership from the top down (the posturing, the hectoring, the lecturing), makes it a great deal easier to believe that they are merely hapless than they may hope or wish; but in any case their campaign, their judgement, their activities scarcely musters between them a persuasive, still less a compelling argument for continuing the Union. Who would actually follow Alistair Carmichael or Alistair Darling back into the UK, for the reward of the status quo-ante; inspired by no more than their joint ‘Rev. I.M. Jolly pastiche’ of doom-laden rhetoric; carrying subversively within it a deliberate, unpleasant, implicit disparagement of Scotland, combined with a vague suggestion of further powers for Holyrood that carries not the least guarantee of delivery – the gold standard ‘certainty’ clause required by Better Together for absolutely everything else in the referendum?
Suddenly the Better Together case has collapsed and almost instantly the whole manipulative scheme for Better Together’s “ace”, the anti-currency union propaganda strategy, is now being set out in hindsight to be picked apart by the mainstream newspapers (Sunday Herald leader, 30th March). Once all the Westminster parties announced that there would be no currency union for Scotland the efforts of Better Together were then concentrated on attempting to force the Scottish Government to announce ‘Plan B’. This has been the central Better Together tactic for the last month. Once the Scottish Government fell into the trap and shifted their ground to Plan B, then Better Together would tear Plan B to shreds for “deviating from Plan A”.
How gleefully we may have expected Alistair Carmichael to claim that the SNP were now ‘all over the place’ with Plan B; how happily Alistair Darling would have delivered a mournful premonition of doom for Plan B. Only the Scottish Government did not crack; and in conformity with Better Together’s appropriately doom-laden tactics, to say nothing of an overwhelming sense of impending farce, Westminster cracked first.
It is worth noting that the Better Together/Westminster tactics were not to attack Yes, Scotland but the Scottish Government, and in reality the SNP. The attack had to be made against a political party and not against Scotland, in spite of the fact that Scotland was the inevitable target. The reasons for this careful distinction are not hard to find; the tactic had party political advantage for the Unionist parties attacking their prime party political opponent in Scotland. This also made it easier for the Unionist parties together to deploy a case that was not merely negative and anti-SNP but quite clearly carried the implication that rUK would implement currency policies that Westminster wanted Scots to believe would hurt Scotland; but somehow without Unionists appearing to have a direct hand in the policy. The deleterious outcome would be brought on not by Unionists or Better Together, who had made the case for rUK’s hard line, but by the SNP or the feckless Scots themselves who gullibly voted Yes.
This is what “negative campaigning” really means in this referendum once the sophistry is stripped out, and it highlights why Better Together has such difficulty being ‘positive’; it is an uncomfortable part of Unionism’s DNA that most Unionists (unused to having to think about the Union or about Scotland) have some difficulty even understanding. In spite of the Edinburgh Agreement clearly independence was not going to be portrayed by Unionists as an amicable divorce so much as a case of being cast out in the wilderness. The Better Together anti-currency union policy therefore inevitably carried with it the sorry whiff of the gratuitously vindictive.
Of course Carmichael, Cameron and Darling can do this only because they have wrapped this tasteless brutalism in partisan party politics; not Yes, Scotland versus Better Together; but a happy Westminster Union versus the partisan SNP. They do not really want to discuss Scotland at all; somehow the crude threats are not about Scotland at all, but the SNP. Sadly for Better Together their problem is twofold; they have no vision for the UK (never mind Scotland), which is the reason that the only problem for their own case that they seem capable of noticing or articulating, is the fear of “complacency”: but the question is, complacency about what? What on earth is there in Britain today to be complacent about? Furthermore, and with all due respect, the Better Together (indeed the Westminster) coalition manifestly lacks both talent and competence to govern either the UK or Scotland – as the Credit Crunch and its consequences, still being played out to our long-term detriment, proved demonstrably and beyond peradventure. Better Together finds it difficult to be positive about the UK because there is so little that is genuinely positive in the UK; unless perhaps you are an estate agent in London, enjoying the latest property bubble; that is deftly redefined by government as UK “growth”. But that is London: different rules apply.
It is rare indeed for politicians to prove to be competent managers, but we have reached a new low in the UK when all the Unionist parties acting together cannot even front a political campaign without falling flat on their collective face.