Who Can Speak for the Union?

Many of those advocating Scotland staying in the UK are more inclined to inadvertently boost support for secession.

As the state of the campaign against Scottish independence changes from complacency to desperation to all-out panic, the number of voices capable of making a compelling case for the status quo is small.

On Wednesday David Cameron appeared in Edinburgh with Ed Miliband, the opposition leader, to plead with the Scots to stay in the union. “I would be heartbroken if this family of nations that we’ve put together and that we’ve done such amazing things together, if this family of nations was torn apart,” he said.  It is unlikely that his appearance in or absence from Scotland would have helped his case.

This is because the Conservatives are all but extinct north of the border. If the Democrats in America lost the south for a generation when they forced the end of segregation, the Tories lost Scotland for a generation when the heavy industry upon which so many Scottish workers depended became the collateral damage of Thatcher’s brutal reforms. It is by no accident that Alistair Darling, a Labour MP, was chosen to be the front man for the No campaign. Tories would be well advised to keep their heads down and let Labour do the talking.

The business community, having been briefed by pro-union politicians in Downing Street, has stepped in with warnings about dire consequences of secession, but these also seem to be falling on cynical ears.  For every warning about higher prices and declining business activity there is an equal and opposite dismissal of such stories as “scare mongering.”  The more apocalyptic the warnings, the louder the laughter gets in the Yes camp.

Should the warnings from business leaders be heeded?  Businesspeople like the future to be as predictable as possible so that they can plan ahead, and change makes this planning difficult. They have always had a tendency to resist change, but when it has arrived those who adapted got along just fine and those who didn’t were eliminated, as is right and proper. Some voters will understand this, but more will simply dismiss the opinions of business interests, particularly those in the financial industry, who are seen as being responsible for the catastrophe of 2008.

The Orange Order has decided to add their voice to the discussion with a parade and rally in Edinburgh.  Reporters felt the need to point out that they all “passed off peacefully”, but the sight of an instrument of Northern Ireland’s sectarian divisions on the streets of Edinburgh, complete with a banner attacking “Popery”,  is unlikely to endear the No campaign to any floating voters if it is seen to be aligned with such elements.

Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, has also put in an appearance and promptly found demonstrators arriving in plenty of time to oppose what is seen as a far right party that appeals to extremist xenophobes and racists.

As it falls to Labour to be the only pro-union voice in Scotland that still carries some clout, a point that does not seem to have gotten much traction in the debates concerns the relationship with Europe.  Those on the right who most vigorously defend the union argue that national identity should be put aside and that sovereignty should be compromised for the greater good. They use the word “nationalism” as a pejorative. Yet this is the exact same  argument that the exact same people reject where Europe is concerned.  If national identity were secondary to economic and financial matters, and if independence is so overrated that it should be sacrificed for the greater good, then the logical conclusion would be a federal Europe with a single currency and central bank.  The Euro would be the currency of all member states. National parliaments would have greatly reduced powers and the shots would be called in Brussels, Strasbourg, and Frankfurt. The parties that are most outspoken in the defense of a greater union in Britain are equally outspoken in their opposition to a greater union in Europe. It is difficult to interpret this as anything other than advocating English domination.

As the vote has drawn nearer, the debate has become more focused, and voters who may have paid little heed to the matter before are now becoming better informed about the issues involved. Changing views among women are said to be one of the driving factors behind the sudden swing to the Yes side.  It would seem like there is a correlation between how much people know about the consequences of secession and support for it.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) under Alex Salmond has for years stayed on message. To counter the age-old argument that England subsidizes Scotland, the SNP has been adamant that the reverse is true. There is a growing perception that much of “Britain’s” wealth is underwritten by North Sea oil reserves in Scottish waters, and that precious little of that wealth has found its way back up north from London. It would seem that this message is sinking in with more voters.

North Sea oil production peaked in 1999 and approximately 60 percent of reserves has been extracted, although natural gas production is yet to peak.  How much is left and how long it will last is impossible to say because of a variety of factors such as the uncertainty of how much is yet to be found, future developments in extraction technology, and so on.  However estimates range from $195 million to $2.4 trillion. Regardless, the clock is ticking and if the nationalists are to use this as their key to independence, they may never get another chance, and the current timing could not be better with an unpopular Conservative-led government in office.

It should be remembered that there was a third option on the table, “Devo-Max”, which would have been fiscal independence whereby all tax revenue raised in Scotland would remain there rather than the country being funded by a block grant distributed by Westminster.  The nationalists wanted this to be on the ballot but the British government refused to allow it, knowing that it would probably pass.  The voters were instead given the straight choice between the status quo and absolute independence, the latter thought to be out of the question at the time and did not stand a chance of passing.  Mr Cameron must be regretting that decision now, as well he might.  If the Yes campaign clinches a victory at the finishing post, Cameron’s claim to fame in the history books will be as the British Prime Minister who lost Scotland. In that event, he may finally earn some popularity north of the world’s newest international border.