Ed Miliband’s late entry to the independence debate is welcome. It’s impact was so big partly because he says so little. Two years into his leadership and it’s difficult to think of a single new policy he’s put forward or remember a single memorable thing he’s said. His musings on Englishness were typically cautious but an inability to construct or describe an English left-nationalism leave his dalliance dangerous in evoking an English right-nationalism. Remembering Gordon Brown’s horrific ‘British jobs for British workers’ this would be a sort of muted continuity, GB’s words morphed into St George.
Ed said that if Scots voted Yes they would no longer be allowed to call themselves British. As a scare-story this was plainly bonkers. People can call themselves – and think of themselves – what and how they like. Isn’t that the mantra of the Unionist camp in a nutshell: you can be both Scottish and British and that’s just fine?
There’s a lot of confusion out there and the media’s constant ‘exclusive’ about what England and Wales think about Scottish independence (a total total irrelevance now or at any time) doesn’t help. I was interviewed by BBC Radio Oxford about Miliband’s comments on Thursday. The interviewer asked: “Do you think the UK should have the vote on Scots independence?” “By the UK do you mean England?” I replied. “Yes of course” he answered. I explained the concept of self-determination and how generally, globally, democracy worked, in words of less than three syllables. “Thanks Mike”.
Miliband’s reference to the ‘English NHS’ was odd also. Not because it’s technically correct post-devolution but just that it will inevitably draw attention to the fact that his party has eviscerated the very institution opening the door to the Andrew Lansley’s reforms. If I were Ed, or any of the No campaign I’d say the least possible about the NHS. As Iain Macwhirter put it: “The last time I looked the National Health Service was being dismantled under the privatisation policies of the Westminster Coalition.”
But Ed is neither the problem nor the solution for the Unionist’s No campaign. The No’s slogan – ‘Better Together’ – is suitably vague but is troubled by it’s odd logo, a sort of squashed saltire with an element of red, surely indicative not of Labour but of the Union Jack itself, creeping into the St Andrew’s Cross. Is this a policy proposal? The No campaign has other problems, principally it’s leadership make-up. Alistair Darling, David McLetchie and Charles Kennedy are Three Monkeys: Speak No Evil, See Evil, Hear No Evil respectively. Less of a dream team than a constituent band of oratorical mediocrity. A combined clump of political inertia. But this may be the intention.
The No campaign is perhaps deliberately stolid, hoping to lull us – like boiled-frogs in the pan – into a safe and cosy constitutional stupor. But the Bore Them Into Submission approach may fail. Jeremy Clarkson’s suggestion that “If Scots vote for independence it would be like losing a somewhat violent but much loved family pet” is unlikely to be the last gift to the Yes campaign from an Angry Anglo rent-a-gob over-fed on a diet of Daily Mail editorials and hankering for Buster Mottram when faced with Andy Murray. Off the Leash Cyber Brits (step forward Tom Harris, Ian Davidson and many more) will be joined by off the cuff English nationalists like Clarkson and his ilk ruining the carefully contrived image of dull safety etc constructed to appeal to insecure floaters.
The dull-but-safe No campaign may not try to create a different vision, or put together the fabled ‘positive case for the union’ it will instead call to mind stability, continuity and security playing relentlessly on economic and military themes as we can already see played out (almost daily) in the pages of the Scotsman. But two years of this relentless negativity may become wearing, even for those for whom self-doubt and self-hatred are the comfort blankets of choice.
The problem for the No campaign is the utter incompatibility of the unholy alliance of Labour, Tory and Liberal parties. It’s not that they don’t have almost complete policy convergence – they clearly do – but they cannot possibly accept this publically. As the dangerous lunacy of the discredited Liberal coalition economics comes fully to bare, the strain on Alistair Darling and Johann Lamont’s fixed No grimace will become comic.
The No camp will be damned by unity and doubly damned by disunity. If they stick together and hold a party-line they’ll be (rightly) dubbed Tartan Tories conniving with brutal austerity measures. If they suffer indiscipline and Labour speaks out about the coalition cuts the whole thing will begin to unravel.
As Duncan McLean said of the red white and blue parades that we’ve just endured: “The Jubilee shindigs seemed like a desperate attempt to send a jolt of electricity through a death-bound institution, giving it one last brief burst of life. Whatever the outcome, the independence debate is quite different: it’s entirely about the future.”
Well, yes and no. It does need to be about the future and it needs to be clearly articulated about a future where sovereignty lies with us and not with London, that’s the challenge for the Yes campaign.
As Willie Storrar put it whilst trundling around Scotland on a bus with William MacIllvanney, Joyce McMillan and Neal Ascherson campaigning for Yes Yes in 1997: “Vote for your aspirations not for your fears.”
It’s time take the bunting down now.