One of the strangest aspects of the referendum “debate” so far has been watching people who claim to support a particular outcome rubbish the very thing they claim to prefer.
Thursday’s Newsnight, after Osborne came to Edinburgh to “veto” the currency union, provided two striking illustrations. The first was a no voting businesswoman who professed herself delighted by Osborne’s speech. When pressed whether if independence happened she would therefore argue against a currency zone, she almost sounded taken aback: no, if it was a yes vote, she would definitely support a currency union – keeping some elements of Britain was, after all, what she wanted. The second was Kirsty Wark’s insistent and often aggressive emphasis on one element of the currency union “as proposed”: that was the length of it and how bound into it Scotland would be.
So the two main currency argument from the no camp appear to be these: firstly, you’ll cede a little sovereignty in monetary policy with a currency union, therefore you should just vote no and cede all monetary, fiscal and political sovereignty as you do now. And secondly, a currency union is a terrible idea for both sides and will never happen for that reason, and because the White Paper doesn’t suggest locking both sides into it indefinitely, you’re not on. It doesn’t take a political genus to notice the glaring logical inconsistencies.
These arguments however, are not the first examples of unionists arguing against what they claim to want. It builds on their earlier “devo-max” mistakes. All parties and media claim to see more devolution as the way forward. Yet Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie – the Liberals who have had a policy of home rule since the 1880s – laid into Martin Sime, the SCVO chief executive as being some kind of “SNP stooge” for even discussing it back in 2012. Similarly there is glee among those who claim to support the EU for any statement from Barosso that suggests the EU might kick us out, and in turn kick Spanish fishermen out our fishing waters.
There is a sense that any kind of discussion about Scotland’s future beyond, “do what we tell you” is a gift or concession to Alex Salmond, rather than the most obvious democratic way forward from where we are now. “Alex Salmond must name his plan B”. Why? Plan A, the currency union was not, as Alistair Darling claimed, “dreamed up by Alex Salmond” but by the Scottish Government’s Fiscal Commission Working Group, including Sir Jim Mirrlees and Joseph Stiglitz. They were tasked with looking at the best way forward for Scotland and the UK. It will need to be negotiated after a yes vote, and that has always been accepted. If, and only if, those negotiations fail to produce something workable will a plan B be required, and this will almost certainly be using the pound Sterling anyway until it suits us to do something else. Ireland used it for 30 years following a far more bloody independence from Westminster. Beyond that, the decision is one for a post-independence sovereign and democratic Scotland, not “Alex Salmond right now”. Lines like “lose the pound” or “not able to keep the pound” are of course, straight out lies.
The current SNP government cannot and should not tie the hands of any government we elect in 2016. They don’t have a mandate to do that, having been elected only on devolved issues and holding an independence referendum. They don’t have mandate to pre-negotiate a currency union that will lock Scotland in for 50 years – the term being pushed by Wark on Newsnight. It may well be that in 2016 a party is elected which agrees with Dennis Canavan, Patrick Harvey, Pat Kane, Jim Sillars and the many others who want to do something different. This isn’t a weakness in the Yes campaign – it’s a fledgling new Scottish democracy. Their ideas will win out if and when people are convinced by the arguments.
Seen in this light, the no campaigns tactic is near suicidal brinksmanship. It is pre-negotiating but in an entirely public manner, using the front pages and news programmes to undermine the whole idea of any kind of currency union in both England and Scotland.
The main problem for the NO campaign there is that if there is a yes vote in September, the people who will be most keen for a currency union will be no voters. Those who didn’t want independence in the first place will want, as the business woman on Newsnight said, to retain as many links as possible. Similarly the argument that, “the only way to guarantee the British pound is to vote no” is one that will play best by far with already hardened supporters of the union. And from the UK government’s point of view, after a yes vote, London will want to retain some control over Scotland. It is not “the SNP” or independence removing that option from them, but the leaders on their own side. Because if the vote is won in September, and won despite a currency union being “vetoed” in most people’s minds, and entirely undermined publicly, that makes the UK government’s negotiating hand far weaker, especially in terms of forcing Scotland into one long-term against its will. Their own words will be used against them time and again.
Salmond is a clever politician, largely because it’s rarely clear what he actually “wants” beyond independence. In achieving that, he realises he has to take people with him and that can involve going at a slower pace than those at the front might prefer. He argued for devolution, despite many on the pro-independence side arguing against because it didn’t go far enough. He left doors open for supporters of devo-max to put it on the ballot paper. He is now offering a currency union despite many on his own side – and those on the no side – arguing it’s not independent enough. Sure, this is political expediency to an extent, but it’s also good leadership, especially in having world-renowned economists devise the plan. Whatever the result, he – and most in the independence movement – would happily live with it as the next phase on a journey, until the electorate at large are ready to move on.
By contrast, it represents a huge gamble to oppose what is your own best scenario if you lose. This mistake was made with devo-max in 2012. It is now being made again with the currency union, which could be the best route to some kind of federal UK – again often stated by unionists as the best way forward. It’s also been termed independence-lite by some in the independence camp – a kind of independence that leaves some of the UK remaining.
So where does that leave our unionist business woman so delighted by Osborne, but who in reality, wants to retain a Sterling union after a yes vote? Where does it leave all those who claimed to support a more federal UK, but who spent the entire campaign rubbishing anyone attempting to argue for it?
Surely those voters need to wake up and see the bigger picture – that this is not all about Salmond and taking a pop at anything he appears to be advocating. Politics and negotiations may be a game of poker with bluffs and counter bluffs, but these are dangerous games even when played behind closed doors with experienced players. Played out across front pages in a febrile atmosphere, arguing against and undermining an option that you actually want or need makes no sense at all.
When the history of independence is written, people may find themselves looking at the White Paper with it’s multiple offers of co-operation and independence-lite and shake their heads at how inept Westminster must have been in order to mis-read and mis-represent it to the point they made co-operation entirely impossible with their newly independent neighbour. “You can’t make us co-operate and it’s just an assertion by Alex Salmond that we will, so you’d better just do as we tell you” is a pretty poor message, especially when it appears to be the only one you have.