The 2014 Scottish independence referendum debate is about power, not politics
- Stuart Kelly
- 22 January 2014
We have relinquished power to the political classes, but how many of us actively seek to be involved in how we make decisions?
If you’re frustrated by the claims and counterclaims on the economy, culture and national identity bandied about by politicians in the Yes and No camps, you’re not alone. But as journalist and author Stuart Kelly explains, the independence debate is about far greater issues than mere politics
As someone whose work is words, I find myself increasingly uneasy about the manner in which the campaigns both against and for independence are being conducted. Both sides have made many different kinds of appeals for our votes: political ones, emotive ones, cultural ones, economic ones, patriotic ones, pragmatic ones, historical ones, legal ones. I expect, before we reach September, we may even have geological ones, with the Yes campaign correctly pointing out that as recently as the Silurian Period, the rocks of Scotland and England were doing pretty well as distinct entities. Meanwhile, the Better Together campaign will argue truthfully that the Iapetus Suture [a faultline joining Scotland and England’s land masses where the Iapetus Ocean used to lie] has proven to be a remarkably successful collision, lacking the seismic activity of the San Andreas Fault.
A great deal of the campaign has been rhetorical in the pejorative sense of that word. Example is met with counter-example, hypothesis with antithesis, each pie chart of spending placed next to a histogram showing the opposite. This is not unique to the independence referendum: it is merely the manner in which contemporary politics is usually conducted. Had I one wish, it would be that politics, and its dismal unscientific handmaiden, economics, might be taken out of the debate altogether, because the referendum is much more important than that. It is, to use an ugly but useful word, a cratological proposition: it is about power, not politics.
Politics bedevils the debate in many ways. It leads to a cult of personality, where the kind of people the media selects for vox pops say things like ‘I’m voting no because I don’t want Alex Salmond to be Emperor of Scotland’ or ‘I’m voting yes to keep that Etonian oaf Cameron from coming to Scotland and drowning all our kittens’. Whichever way the vote goes, neither Salmond nor Cameron will be a feature of the political landscape in 50 years’ time, but the consequence of the vote will be. Nor is it reasonable to say ‘I’m voting yes to scrap Trident’ or ‘I’m voting no to stop the offshore windfarm development’.
Should Scotland vote yes, there is no guarantee that the SNP would form the largest party thereafter (indeed, an honourable strain of the party once advocated its dissolution, were their objectives to be achieved). A Labour-led Scotland might not wish to scrap Trident. Likewise, in the event of a no vote, it is not certain that Westminster would continue to be led by a Tory / Liberal Democrat coalition – indeed, it might be thought unlikely. Who knows that a Labour / Green administration might not push for even more renewable initiatives?
This, in a way, is the dirty secret of politics. It doesn’t know the future. Politicians make predictions about as reliably as the average apocalyptic sect. Look at the recent flooding, the Fukushima catastrophe, the sudden rise in the value of bitcoins, the escalation of far-right parties across Europe: no political party can foresee these things, but any political party or constitutional arrangement might be called upon to respond to them. Events, dear boy, events.
It gets worse with economics. Here are five ‘facts’. According to the SNP, Scots would be £600 a year better off under independence. George Osborne says they would be £2000 a year better off in the union, and £1000 a year worse off under independence, while Newsnet Scotland claims figures from the Office of National Statistics show it costs Scots £2413 to stay in the union. The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey says that 65% would vote yes if they were £500 a year better off and 79% would vote no if they were £500 worse off.
I’m going to set aside how distasteful I find the idea of the future hanging by the price of an iPad. What makes me gnash my teeth is the sight of semi-precise figures bandied about by politicians who collectively did not see the biggest financial disaster in generations on the horizon. People might vote with their heads or hearts, but if they vote with their wallets they are heartless and empty-headed.
All this leaves us with questions about the nature of power: who wields it, at what level, and to what end? What could an independent Scotland do that only independence can allow? What levels of trans-national power and self-determination can be achieved within the union? I had hoped not to mention it, but the West Lothian Question does seem to me to be relevant: the status quo is patently inequitable (I would dearly like to see Scottish Liberal Democrat MPs justifying voting for education and health policies that do not affect their constituents). A federal Britain? An English parliament? The Better Together campaign, in this area, needs to provide concrete proposals.
Whichever way the vote goes, we need to think more about power. We have relinquished power to the political classes. We vote intermittently and complain regularly. But how many of us actively seek to be involved in how we make decisions, over and above the occasional X in a box?