As referendum nears, scoundrel time in Scotland

With just a few weeks to go, Alex Salmond, head of the Scottish independence movement, and wanna-be, 'Braveheart', has shown himself to be the rabble-rousing, vacant-minded populist that he is. As for the BBC...

Decision time for Scotland (courtesy of Caledonian Mercury)
Tom Gallagher
On 26 August 2014 12:47

Monday's second debate between Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister and Alistair Darling, former Labour Chancellor and head of Better Together, was nasty and shaming at a national level. It laid bare the divisions which  are likely to make Scottish politics turbulent irrespective of the outcome of next month’s referendum on its future relations with the rest of the United Kingdom (known in Scotland as, rUK).

Salmond depicted a nation on the march: ‘This is our time. It’s our moment. Let us do it now’. If problems existed they were matters of detail.  From his lips Scotland appeared to be one big candy mountain (‘the 14th richest nation in the world’) not one  where, in reality,  the population of its biggest city has a lower life expectancy than residents of Gaza.

He and his adversary are both paternalists who envisage a directing role for the state in economic affairs. Darling believes that this formula can work best with Scotland in a managerial UK while Salmond envisages a populist alternative in which patriot politicians and people close ranks to build a model interventionist state.

A poorly refereed 90-minute debate, one organized by the BBC, was devoid of substance. It degenerated for much of the time into a slanging match in which Salmond clearly had the upper hand.

He accused Darling of helping to cause the financial crisis of 2008 and of being ‘in bed with the Tories’. Instead of responding that cooperation with rivals for a cause above party politics was healthy and normal, the senior Labour politician appeared disorientated in the face of such an onslaught.

He should have anticipated that having been almost like a woolly mammoth in the first debate held on 5 August, a more ferocious Salmond was likely to turn into a sabre-toothed tiger. Which is exactly what happened.

The audience played a significant role. Recruited supposedly on an impartial basis by a company hired by the BBC, they turned out to be heavily partisan. Constant loud applause greeted Salmond’s barbs. At times it would have been easy to assume that one was at a rowdy  SNP rally. Salmond looked at the audience with knowing familiarity as he made some of his most audacious claims.

He abandoned the lectern to move close to them; a populist gesture showing he was really at one with them. It would have grated with many Scottish viewers who know the reality of his increasingly authoritarian rule with an increasingly armed and centralised police force,  pylons for his green energy cult disfiguring pristine landscapes and state guardians appointed to supervise all Scotland’s children.

Many in the audience appeared to revel in the most fanciful claims that he made about a problem-free Scotland being able to power ahead with a currency unsupported by a central bank, and public finance being supplied from shrinking oil revenues and the taxes of an ageing population.

Without daring to spell out his intentions, he nevertheless confirmed the fears of two economists writing in the Financial Times on 25 August. Martin Jacomb and Andrew Large warned  that ‘an independent Scotland would honour its debts only if the rest of the UK agrees in future to make available its own taxpayers’ money as needed – whether for transfers to cover economic need, including from failure to balance the new Scottish government’s budget, or to bail out Scottish banks post-independence if in trouble.’

The BBC had managed to gather an unrepresentative collection of Scots in Glasgow to participate in the debate (and indeed the brawling). In press forums and social media, plenty of people from the rUK were horrified that somebody who embodies personal rule as perhaps nobody else in Britain has done since Oliver Cromwell, was so readily  indulged.

As a Glaswegian myself,I suspect that this dramatic encounter will boost the Yes cause by a couple of percentage points. But more important will be the impact of the realisation among English people that many Scots are in thrall to a demagogue who despises his larger neighbour but still wants its taxpayers to bankroll his statelet.  

This realisation is likely to endure after 18 September, the date of the referendum, as long as Salmond remains a powerful presence: it will make it much harder for elite figures in Whitehall to persuade politicians that they should give him generous  terms in the hope that he will, hopefully, go away.

The wide coverage for this television duel is likely to strengthen fears among a growing number of Britain’s allies that a highly unpredictable post-British Scotland would be a problem not just in economic matters, but in its adherence to basic democratic norms and in ensuring the continued stability of north-west Europe.

The separatist SNP may be in striking distance of pulling off a Yes vote for one under-estimated factor. It has harnessed the social energy of the volatile west of Scotland, previously dissipated in communal quarrels and left-wing radicalism, and turned it into a crucial political resource.

Many others, (including many in Glasgow saddened by the social decline seen there and across much of Clydeside) are just as horrified as many in England and the rest of the world by the rise of a demagogue in their midst. These steady and aspirational Scots still, I believe make up a majority. 

They realise that Salmond is incorrigible. His efforts to use the bedroom tax and food banks to brand Britain as fundamentally unjust is the mark of a firebrandl. He is a designing politician who has no plans to ensure that naive Scots swept up in his crusade avoid hunger and want if his un-costed plans for independence simply fall apart.

Many of these sensible Scots with a long-term perspective, thinking of the legacy handed down to future generations, were disappointed by Alistair Darling. On this occasion, the case he made for Britain too often sounded  drab and utilitarian. His strong currency union argument was weakened by repetition. The agility that could have made ugly misrepresentations from Alex Salmond backfire, wasn’t there.

He should have expressed his pride in being  British as well as Scottish; and he should have deployed the emotional as well as long term economic argument for staying in the UK.

Darling is an intelligent and principled man who has dedicated the past two years of his life to preventing the worst happening in Scotland. If he was talked out of a different strategy,  the apparatchiks responsible deserve to vanish into the deepest obscurity forever.

Salmond showed Scotland to the world in the most pitiful light. This manipulation of popular emotions in an evening full of baseless claims and promises, delivered in a hectoring style, could well become a symbol for the low condition representative democracy has fallen to across much of the world.

All demagogues have at least one Achilles heal. In Mr Salmond’s case it is arrogance. He assumes that his overbearing manner reinforces his appeal whereas it is likely to redouble the energies of Scots who wish their country to be known for its creativity, enterprise and civic vigour. These qualities built the splendid  Kelvin Hall, scene of the debate.

It was named after the Ulsterman, William Thompson, Lord Kelvin, scientist, engineer and inventor who made his career in Glasgow. The art gallery and museum has been dedicated to civic improvement. A Scotland shaped by Salmond is unlikely to have much that is civic and plenty that is tribal and even primitive. Last night could turn into his pyrrhic victory for him if the majority, who wish no part in his plans, rouse themselves in the last 3 weeks of  what has been a destructive campaign.

Professor Tom Gallagher is the author of Divided Scotland: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis (Argyll Publications, 2013). Manchester University Press will publish his next book, Europe’s Path to Crisis: Disintegration Through Monetary Union

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