Kissinger’s “First Virgin” and the Excluded Middle
Alan Trench, writing on his “Devolution Matters” blog, this week put a name to the UK Government’s newly robust referendum strategy: the “excluded middle”. In a nutshell, that strategy might be summed up as one of undermining, in a deliberate and co-ordinated fashion, any policy positions in the Independence White Paper that smack of continuity – since it is just those elements, he argues, that are likely to assuage the fears of the many undecided voters and in turn sway the referendum result.
While thus far we have been told that there will be no underwriting of Scots banks and no access to the BBC — even, indeed, that Scots will be stripped of their rights as European citizens — the blog now warns us to “expect arguments about such detailed matters as the organ transplant ‘pool’, which currently operates on a UK-wide basis.” If I understand Mr. Trench correctly, he appears to be suggesting that, rather than see an available organ go to a patient in Scotland, the rUK Government will allow that person to die, even where there is no suitable “match” on its own waiting list; no other interpretation can exclude the middle and worry voters.
So charming, in fact, that this all rather begs the question of why a political strategy should be laid bare in this fashion, both because such openness might lessen the credulity of those undecided voters and because the inherent cynicism is likely to provoke moral outrage. To understand it, one has to go back to the Nixon-era National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, who argued that his Administration’s goal in Vietnam was “to have a decent interval between withdrawal and the rape of the first virgin”. For obvious reasons, that is an endlessly unpleasant phrase, which for many people will have confirmed their worst suspicions about Kissinger and Nixon. It is also a deliberately macho statement whose entry into the public sphere was in all likelihood secretly applauded by White House Republicans — the reason being that it rhetorically made a position of weakness look like a position of strength.
So where lies the weakness of the strategy so memorably described by Alan Trench? Well, first one has to point out that the excluded middle has been the UK Government’s choice not once but twice, the first time being when devo-max was removed from the ballot paper. That decision, which makes the strategy described by Mr. Trent an absolute necessity if moderate voters are not to vote “yes”, was a high-risk move that may very well deliver not the status quo but independence. It was also entirely unnecessary, since the nationalist leader Alex Salmond had already said that independence referenda were “once in a generation” affairs, i.e. that enhanced devolution chosen over independence in a multi-option ballot could not lead to Scotland’s exit from the UK in the short term.
Essentially, therefore, the UK Government is gambling that Scots voters will reject independence — and doing so with the aim of retaining something substantially nearer to the status quo than devo-max. Studying what, if any, further powers were devolved in the case of a “no” vote would tell us why, but unfortunately we do not have the luxury of prescience on that count.
However, it is highly likely that any offer of enhanced devolution would both maintain UK Government control over oil revenues and guarantee the role and lifestyles of Labour’s contingent of home-flippers at Westminster. It would also stop short of allowing Scotland to compete: a) economically, through lower corporation tax or anything but the most superficial moderation of income tax; and b) politically, through meaningful control of social security. Welfare uniformity is in fact vital to the Labour party’s ability to fight elections based on the prejudices and preferences of those regions viewed as most important electorally without alienating its traditional support elsewhere, and the full devolution of welfare would make it painfully apparent that Labour is not the most left-wing party in the Scottish Parliament.
So, if Scotland votes “no”, it might not have to suffer the bedroom tax, but it is likely to see more people using food banks as welfare is cut further.
All worth bearing in mind in September.