Certainty and Falsehood
Douglas Alexander, Danny Alexander, Darling, Lamont and Carmichael all preach the dogma that we must have “certainty” in the referendum before exercising a choice. Independence is beyond us because nothing worthwhile can be achieved without “certainty”. This is a strange doctrine to promote a Union that after six years has still not emerged from the effects of the worst financial crash in eighty years; that nobody in the British government, Bank of England, Treasury, Financial Regulator (FSA), City of London, or Banking sector foresaw or prevented, in spite of claiming to be the World’s Leading Financial Centre – which means the spiritual home of the Credit Crunch: so much for ‘Better Together’. But let us indulge Douglas Alexander and look instead for “certainty” in his proposal. It starts with Alexander stating that “we must talk about the nation Scotland could be” after a ‘No’ vote. This is what we need most of all: more talk. The offer of talk is however quickly followed by a vaguely worded request for more tax raising powers, and a reference to the expected publication of Johann Lamont’s Devolution Commission Report, with a final rhetorical flourish appealing to uplifting Labour themes that the party rarely honours; solidarity, cooperation and working together. Since the Lamont Devolution Commission is already sitting and soon to report, it is not quite clear why Alexander feels obliged to make a speech exhorting Labour to “embrace” further devolution, unless of course, he is less than “certain” about the outcome.
So much for the thin content of the speech. Where is the substance? What happened to “certainty”? Whatever Lamont produces it will stand as a mere Scottish Labour Party proposal. Is it “certain” to be agreed by anyone outside Johann Lamont’s office, or left intact even by the British Labour Party? Or by the Scottish Labour MPs? Is it “certain” to be agreed by all parties in Better Together? How can the electorate be “certain” that it will ever reach the statute book? Of course absolutely nothing in Alexander’s proposal is “certain”; indeed it is not even ‘probable’ that any proposals will ever see the light of day beyond the referendum, or reach the House of Commons, still less that it would ever appear in the form of a Bill. Is it even “certain” that the Scottish electorate would approve it? How would we know? Should we assume that everything rests on a 2015 General Election; which in turn relies not just on the contingent electoral arithmetic in Scotland (and how would SNP or Green votes be interpreted with regard to devolution?), but the results across the whole of Britain; both before and after the election, which may in turn require negotiation before even the formation of either a single-party Government or Coalition?
‘Improbability’ appears to be the new Alexander-Labour definition of “certainty”. Indeed the Alexander thesis looks more like an exercise in gerrymandering than a plan for the future of devolution, or a radical reform of the Union; a form of politics that would actually serve the Scottish people’s best interests. We may describe the Alexander proposal metaphorically as asymptotic; in the case of a ‘No’ vote, we can be “certain”, but only of this: Devo-Max will never reach the statute book in this Union. How desperately Labour wants a ‘No’ vote, and for each point above 50%, how much more eagerly the Unionists will join in interpreting ‘No’ as final and forever; no going back, and no further devolution.
Unionists like Alexander, Darling or Lamont could have guaranteed the Union by the simple device of offering a second question in the referendum, which they were offered and rejected out-of-hand, but which would have ensured a landslide victory for the Union; but that would have required genuine change to the status-quo and the end of London’s unchallenged hegemony in the UK. Unquestionably the referendum battle would have been over long before the vote. The media know it, the psephologists know it, and the electorate knows it; but this is not what the quite extraordinarily close all-party coalition representing the vested interests of Westminster Unionism want, and so nothing happens. The cynical purpose behind the Unionist parties and Better Together is found in the terms of the devious offer to the Scottish electorate of more devolution after a ‘No’ vote, currently being made by all the Unionist parties; but only after the Scottish electorate has first constitutionally and politically totally disarmed itself by voting ‘No’ in the referendum. Any proposals for further devolution would thus revert to Westminster, become the gift under the sole patronage of the Unionist parties, and have to survive the claim that ‘No’ means ‘no’. This referendum is “final” is a Unionist mantra created solely to exploit a ‘No’ vote, as leverage to reject out of hand further powers. Critically, the electorate becomes once again the powerless supplicant of Unionist politicians. The old politics reasserts itself; the apparatchiks are back, safely in sole charge of the unchanging, centralised Union.
They have ‘form’; in 1979 Alec Douglas-Home promised that a ‘No’ vote would still produce genuine change to government in Scotland. Scotland’s reward turned out to be Margaret Thatcher’s government and twenty years of blight. The Lib-Dems have produced an outline proposal for further devolution, but we have already seen the worth of a Lib-Dem “pledge” to students. The Labour Party, through Alistair Darling, is only too clearly the author of Better Together’s crippling ‘Can’t Do’ Unionism, too which Alexander subscribes; almost belligerently displaying a well rehearsed, entrenched, bleak, relentless and dispiriting lack of ambition for, or basic confidence in, the Scottish people. That leaves the Conservatives, but who do the Conservatives represent in Scotland, save perhaps an elderly, minority political interest that below the surface, would on balance prefer to see the Scottish Parliament dissolved rather than expanded?
Until now Scottish public opinion has had to shift for itself: seeking someone to champion the majority’s long-established and clear preferred option of Devo+ or Devo-Max, within a vestigial Union. Better Together could have seized the moment when offered the second question (ironically by the SNP), and given Devo-Max precise shape and substance: but individually and collectively they failed to do so, almost certainly for ill-advised reasons of electoral self-interest, combined with a deep and almost reactionary commitment less to the idea of Union, than to the centralised constitutional ‘status quo’, ante. The Unionist parties in their hearts do not want material change to the Union; and if faced with the necessity of reform, intend that the content of any further devolution is firmly in their hands, rather than the in the hands of the electorate, and not radical or likely to raise spirits, so that they may fillet it of any substance at their leisure; “kippered” in the modish Churchillian expression.
Quite unexpectedly it was the SNP’s modest but pragmatic White Paper that met the challenge, devising an advance on Devo-Max, discreetly presented to the Scottish electorate as a negotiated conciliation between Devolution and Independence. This is less surprising than it may first appear; when the Edinburgh Agreement was signed it was Alex Salmond, not David Cameron who said: “We’re in the business of developing a new relationship between the peoples of these islands”, which Salmond went on to describe as a “Home Rule journey”. These remarks could have been uttered by almost any non-ideological Unionist over the last hundred years; but nobody noticed.
Refused the second referendum question the SNP had wanted, the Scottish Government White Paper has simply turned the constitutional proposal on its head; into a single answer to two questions: devolution and independence have been conflated by the Scottish Government to meet the clearly discernible, if politically ill-represented aspirations of the majority of the Scottish people. In effect the White Paper offers Devo-Super-Max (including currency union), in an equitable, compromise economic settlement with rUK, within a nominal independence. The most important feature of the White Paper however, is the implicit recognition by the SNP that the Scottish public is not interested in the constitution as a form of speculative metaphysics concerning the real nature of “independence”. Unionists continually assert that the SNP is not offering “independence” at all; but the decisive answer to the question whether the White Paper’s Devo-Super-Max is really “independence” is simple: who cares?
The reason that Douglas Alexander is fundamentally wrong is that he believes this whole issue is about Scotland: it is not. It is about the political failure of the UK, and the total surrender of British politics to the greed, folly and rapacious self-interest of London and the City of London; to the point that this has brought the Union to the edge of a financial abyss; an economic recovery that even Osborne does not believe in; that the Governor of the Bank of England believes is “unsustainable”: a financial regulatory system that remains deeply flawed; and a political system incapable of serving the interests of anyone outside the Home Counties, whether they live in Scotland, or Somerset, or the North East of England. Scotland demonstrably does not have the power or influence to change the whole UK: a fact as unshakable as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but a fact that the Labour Party, relentlessly obtuse to the bitter end, simply cannot understand and refuses to believe, whatever the forlorn nature of the underlying politics. But Scotland can look after itself, and must do so. Meanwhile the proposition that all this will be cured miraculously by an election in 2015 that will bring in Labour or Lab-LibDem to save the day needs only to be stated to be seen to be absurd.
Scotland’s answer to Cameron’s mawkish Unionism, Osborne’s posturing, or Alexander’s spineless waffle is – “too late”; for this was never about ‘identity’, but politics. The White Paper offers Scotland a looser British confederation; a new form of ‘Union’ that embraces nominal independence (whatever that means in a Globalised world), but a Union much more on Scotland’s terms. This is the price that must be extracted for the failure of London to rise above its own greed, vanity, public relations and lavish incompetence; its preference to seduce and serve a rich mix of oligarchs, celebrities and buccaneers over the interests or aspirations of the whole British people.