The new theme for Better Together (BT) is that we have the “best of both worlds”. In what the BT Website describes somewhat adventurously as a “devolution animation” we are told that we do not even need to make a choice to have “the best of both worlds”; somehow – you have to go with me on this – it must simply, just sort of happen.
I confess I hadn’t noticed it happening to me.
Perhaps a preliminary state of catatonic inertia is to be advised, to enjoy these fruits of better togetherness; the kind of intellectual paralysis we have come almost endearingly to associate with the now hallmark inarticulate anger of Scottish Unionism; and that is presumably a necessary (and perhaps sufficient) condition in order to ‘think’ like a Scottish Unionist; ironically evoking a political tone towards opponents that is reminiscent of late 17th century enraged Jacobitism. Perhaps this is a result of the latent Toryism to be found even within the Labour Party.
I seem to recall a time early in this campaign, when the cosy, couthy pals of Labour and Conservative in Better Together (for some recondite reason described as ‘opponents’ in the esoteric private-language of Westminster politics) harmoniously offered another kind of complacency. Then, the Union represented not the best of both worlds, but the best of all possible worlds. Yes, Scotland and the Scottish Government were scorned for wanting a debate of any length at all. There was no need for a debate, there was nothing to discuss; the answer was obvious. Bring it on – now; when ‘now’ was last year.
The referendum was merely there to ensure that ‘independence’ was permanently removed from the political agenda; the Unionist boil represented by the SNP was finally to be lanced. ‘Independence’ would disappear from the agenda of mainstream politics on the day after the referendum; following the 1979 precedent, the referendum would produce a ‘no’ vote and buy a minimum of twenty years of silence, for Unionism to reassert its hegemony; or even bury independence forever. BT would win decisively and everything in this Panglossian world-order would quickly return to ‘business as usual’ in Westminster, where the Unionist political parties (albeit quite obviously destitute of both substantive real constituencies, or even voter credibility) decided for the electorate both the content of politics and the appropriate political aspirations for ordinary people to hold. Further devolution for Scotland in this version of the future was either unnecessary, or subject to the exclusive authority of Unionist political parties to select and offer whatever small morsels of subordinate power they deemed fit to deliver.
That was last year.
It all now seems like another age, or a foreign country: even the term ‘Better Together’ has taken on a lugubrious air of self-deprecation or even self-parody. We are Better Together although threatened on all sides, but principally from within Scotland by ‘uncertainty’, ‘insecurity’ and ‘risks’ (the favoured terms of the BT Website), disturbances to the body politic created predominantly by recalcitrant nationalists. Now there is never enough information and the unanswerable questions grow exponentially. They are now “guaranteeing” there will be further devolution. Is this guarantee in turn “certain”? Clearly not; the proposition has literally no content; which party’s devolution proposals are “guaranteed”? Who will be in a position at Westminster to promise Scotland anything in 2015? Who knows? Who could know? Surely the campaign of “Certainty” do not leave such questions hanging in the air?
While I have lived my whole life naively enough to believe that this uncertain state of affairs, in which we know and can know almost nothing about the future, described little more than the actual nature of the world, familiar to all of us; of reality as ‘risky’ (from which no politician can save us – and most Unionist politicians in the UK incidentally failed Britain very badly over the pre-Credit Crunch period and merely contributed to the creation of national financial catastrophe, on the whole making things worse); I now discover that risk and insecurity are all the fault of Yes, Scotland and the SNP – to be ‘vanished away’ by the simple device of voting ‘no’ in a referendum. Gosh!
Now I discover that Better Together has reduced itself to the best of ‘both’ worlds, a special 2-for-1 offer; a world much smaller than the best of all worlds (the Unionist dogma that, no matter the content, Unionism is simply the best of the best); a parochial, cheap, but still determinedly complacent world. All that persists from last year’s Better Together however, is the dubious plausibility of the words ‘better together’. Better Together offers us this ‘best of both’ futures, and if you want to know what it looks like – it looks just like the UK, the Union and Westminster; it is just yesterday, today and tomorrow. In any case on closer inspection this banal new miracle of Better Together Unionism is described as having the “best of a strong Scottish voice” and “the best of being part of something bigger”. Behind the elephantine tropes (who writes that stuff?), and avoiding the anxiously selfish worry whether there may also be the ‘worst of bigger’ yet to be revealed; it is reasonable for the curious (or merely still awake) to speculate on whose strong voice Better Together has in mind? What part of this ‘something bigger’ makes us believe, for example that we are partners in a Union, rather than the inconvenient debtors we are so often characterised (the persistent corollary of deliberate Unionist negativism)? What part of something bigger is actually, well – ‘better’?
Suddenly we find that Better Together and the Prime Minister are making an appeal to the Union as a ‘family of nations’; an extraordinary appeal to the quasi-federalism of a Union that is quite obviously and comprehensively honoured, day and daily, in the breach of the principle. Perhaps the PM ought to tell Nigel Farage that the Conservatives are Federalists? The ‘family’ metaphor has obviously been selected by the superficial, seductive appeal of the term offered by Unionist spin-doctors, to provide the public with the facile, glib illusion of the Union as family-friendly-federalism; but unfortunately this is a Union run by Incorporating Unionist ideologues who (albeit perversely – coherence is quite foreign to Unionism) believe in a unitary, highly centralised, low-regulation State. in which the public purse subsidises the failure of the banks and provides base interest rates artificially held so low that it cannot be said to represent any form of “market” at all. Modern Unionism clearly abhors federalism (represented by that other obsessive-compulsive focus of Unionist paranoia – the EU).
The difficulty for Unionism that this matter reveals is something characteristic of Unionists but that is only just below the surface, and rather too close to home: the delusion that being Unionists, somehow they understand the nature of the Union. They don’t. In Unionism belief and knowledge are typically opposite polarities. The strength of Unionist conviction is no guarantee of knowledge or understanding; indeed among the current crop of Unionist politicians, there appears to be an inverse square law at work: the louder the Unionist conviction, the smaller the area of understanding.
The Union has not been ‘fixed’ for three hundred years and has fluidly represented a composite range of interconnected interests; but since the 20th century it has moved relentlessly in a single, profoundly unattractive and even dangerous direction; for reasons largely of short-term expediency, and run moreover now by those who have thrived on its later, narrowing and peculiarly circular, self-serving characteristics. The historian Linda Colley, ‘Acts of Union and Disunion’ (London: Profile, 2014; p.153-4) neatly parses the end-game:
“It is worth considering how much of the current disquiet and disaffection in different parts of the United Kingdom is caused by the over-mighty reach of London, which needed to centralise power in order to fight two world wars, and has not been all that willing to surrender power back”.
Colley actually conflates two signifiers of London; her London is the London of Central Government, but it is the City of London that has equally over-reached itself and is equally unwilling to cede power or influence. This force of acute ‘London-centricity’ combined with the recent, crass, self-inflicted, peace-time, destruction of banks and financial system, and the explosion in the national debt; have carried the resilience of what had always been a subtle, complex, byzantine Union of counter-poised interests and partnerships into a toxic, unstable, tightly controlled world of central State interest alone; and thus carried the Union to the edge of dissolution.
Did Better Together really believe that in the referendum there was nothing to discuss? Did they really believe everything would continue as before, even if they won? Did they really believe post-Credit Crunch, post-bank failures, post-Iraq, post-phone-hacking, post-Lawrence, post-Saville, post-Hillsborough, post-misselling, post-mutual-fund elimination, post-tax-avoidance, post-£1.4 Trillion debt, post-UKIP, post-pay-day-loans of 4,000% APR, post-austerity cuts, post-property-bubble, post-spare-room tax, post-zero-hour contracts, post-Plebgate, post-MPs expenses: that the UK, the Union is the best of all possible worlds, the best of both worlds, or least probable of all –the best that life could offer, or the fairest our society could aspire to be?