The battle for Scotland’s future begins
Purveyors of neurotic Scottishness ranged against advocates of an outward-looking equivalent; the outcome is likely to have reverberations stretching beyond these islands
The date that will decide whether Scotland spurns a decentralised partnership with the rest of Britain, in favour of a supposedly absolute independence, will be announced later today by Scottish Nationalists in Edinburgh.
Between now and late 2014, campaigning to nudge sceptical voters towards a post-British future will dominate the SNP to the exclusion of everything else. No crystal ball is required to imagine the tactics that the SNP will employ. Pro-Unionists will be denounced as plastic Jocks ready to sell the country short. The relationship with England will be described by adventurous nationalists like Joan McAlpine, a parliamentarian close to Alex Salmond, as akin to that of an abused wife and a domineering husband. Scots will be exhorted to grow a spine and recognise that destiny has prepared them to be masters in their own house.
Unfortunately, the design for living in the free Scotland House remains a total enigma. Nothing remotely akin to the Philadelphia debates at the dawn of the formation of the United States has been seen that could enable the architecture of the new Scotland to take shape. Instead, a prototype constitution has been unfurled, groaning with social entitlements in which everyone will walk away with a bingo prize.
Ambiguity about the nature of the post-British world is quite understandable. The SNP plans to keep the pound, ministers in Edinburgh accepting that the Bank of England in London will still have a controlling veto over public spending after independence. If the SNP has its way, Scotland will agree to whatever conditions Brussels makes so that it can be ushered into the EU as the 29th member without panicking those members with their own restive territories.
Such a Scotland is bound to baffle observers: is it a north British economic province or a semi-sovereign unit of the increasingly centralised EU?
What motivates SNP leaders is their desire to consolidate a state that they are the proprietor of. They will lovingly devise a panoply of rituals and symbols that to bemused observers elsewhere will resemble a Ruritanian kind of statehood. And of course, they will farm out patronage to favoured interest groups who reward the party with campaign donations and rush to its defence even when it commits the most ridiculous errors at home and abroad.
Alex Salmond hopes to dazzle his fellow countrymen with a non-stop performance of shock and awe, driving home the point that resistance to independence is futile. Last month, plans were announced for a midnight ceremony at Edinburgh Castle in March 2016 to mark Scotland’s coming of age. What to play? Who to invite? This the kind of propaganda work hundreds of civil servants have been dragooned into, performing under Sir Peter Housden, the chief Edinburgh mandarin. This Englishman is like too many rogue English figures from the past ready to enlist in any cause that will cut his own despised country down to size.
It would hardly be a surprise if Sir Peter was to set up a working party to prepare for the embalming of Alex Salmond when the sad day comes when he is no longer at the national helm. Due to the unbelievable ineptitude of the Venezuelan comrades in failing to ensure that the posthumous cult of ‘El Commandante’ got properly underway, clearly such patriotic work cannot begin soon enough.
But there are still too many blind and spineless Scots around, unconvinced about the need for experimentation and upheaval so that eventually Scotland can be a ‘somebody’ on the world stage. They are attached to the monarchy and the armed forces and have worked out that Britain, with all its shortcomings, is a surer bet than a country run by ideologues and adventurers making it up as they go along.
A real thorn in the SNP’s side is the many tens of thousands of families who have cross-border personal ties and who are likely to fret if an international frontier is slapped across the British landmass.
The SNP mood darkened earlier this month when a document from the finance ministry was leaked revealing that the government was already preparing for the likelihood of cuts to jobs welfare benefits and pensions in the bracing post-independence climate.
Like Labour from Blair to Miliband, the SNP is seeking to perform a gigantic confidence trick on its lower-income supporters who, in truth, it largely despises. Flanked by an army of spin doctors, many of whom are on the state payroll, Salmond promotes himself as the infallible interpreter of the national will, a semi-monarchical figure in charge of a largely pro-republican party. He has benefited from the collapse in support of the Conservatives and Lib Dems due to political errors and a refusal to set up a Scottish centre-right party. Until the emergence last year of a new combative Labour leader, Johnann Lamont, Salmond was convinced that he could prevent Labour’s re-emergence as a dominant force on the Scottish Left.
The SNP has established its authority at the heart of the state by centralising the police force, local government, slapping down the universities, and imposing draconian laws on football fans who remain stubbornly attached to British or Irish songs and slogans. He has warned the media that insubordination could see newspapers and blogs experiencing far more arbitrary state checks than the ones Lord Leveson and Hugh Grant have dreamt up.
Young people of drive and intelligence, who seek a place in government in the absence of thriving industry and commerce, are ready to obey a tough and capricious master as he seeks to consolidate a new order. He also relies on defectors from Labour ranks who are themselves authoritarian in temper and see a place for themselves in the new SNP set-up.
Salmond relies on the hope that two generations of cultural dumbing down have softened up most Scots so that they will ultimately file behind his simplistic and emotion-laden message. But many Scots have been up and about in the world – business people, educators, soldiers, and many others keen to escape the wretched climate and often limited opportunities. They see the bogus and threadbare nature of the SNP offer in the way that a lot of stay-at-home Scots, chloroformed by a pulp media and a life of relentless materialism, too often don’t.
But the SNP is leaving nothing to chance. Instead of giving Scottish-born people the world over the chance to vote on what is billed as the most important election ever, only Scots residing in the country on the day of the vote or registered there, can take part.
By contrast, the voting age has been lowered to 16 and foreign residents in the country , such as tens of thousands of Poles, will face few impediments if they wish to vote.
The next 18 months will sorely test the maturity and common sense of the Scots. All across Europe, ordinary people are reeling from the effects of placing their faith in politicians who presented a post-national Europe run by supposedly enlightened technocrats as the unavoidable solution for our times. The SNP are as much unauthentic nationalists as the Eurocrats are bogus champions of a peaceful and free Europe.
So the contest now begins involving purveyors of a neurotic Scottishness, hung-up about dominating a territory, consolidating a new ruling class, and founding a secular religion revolving around historic grievances and championing exclusivity.
Ranged against them are advocates of an outward-looking Scottishness, able to see that a collective identity can thrive through cooperation with neighbours and other countries with similar democratic aspirations.
The outcome is likely to have important reverberations stretching beyond these islands, perhaps even determining whether the West can avoid being overwhelmed by a variety of old and new forms of tribalism.
Tom Gallagher’s book The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland Under Nationalism was published in 2009. His next book, Scotland Divided: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis will be brought out this August by Argyll publishing
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