In response to Shona Craven’s column in The National today – A Project Fear might have won it for Yes if anyone knew things would get this bad – I am republishing this article first posted on 31 December 2013. I have chosen to reproduce it in full in order that readers may see what I got wrong as well as the things I predicted all too accurately. – PAB
I don’t think it is any exaggeration to say that 2013 has been the year of fear. We have been subjected to a relentless campaign of grinding negativity from the British parties in Scotland, from the UK Government and, of course, from the aptly named Project Fear itself. The almost exclusively union-supporting media have regaled us daily with terrible tales of the various disasters that must inevitably befall Scotland should we decide to assert our rightful constitutional status.
I don’t intend to review these scare stories here. They are familiar enough to anyone who has been paying even passing attention to the referendum debate. Less familiar will be the rebuttals which have comprehensively debunked the scare stories. These tend to get considerably less coverage. From the laughable nonsense about mobile phone roaming charges to the endlessly repeated fallacies about Scotland being simultaneously expelled from the EU and forced to adopt the euro, every bit of anti-independence fear-mongering propaganda has been forensically dismantled by a growing army of online commentators.
There is another element of fear in the referendum campaign, however. In contrast to elaborately contrived stories about how Scotland will be the only developed country in the world without a functioning currency if we vote Yes, we hear of genuine, reasonable concerns about what will happen in the aftermath of a No vote. I was recently asked to list those concerns. I will now attempt to do so – in no particular order.
Few people now doubt that one of the first consequences of a No vote will be a slashing of Scotland’s block grant. As is their normal practice, the British parties refuse to be honest and forthright about their intentions. But all the talk is of ending the Barnett Formula in favour of a “needs based system”. The fly in the ointment here, of course, is that those “needs” will not be determined by the people of Scotland, as would be the case with independence, but by British politicians in London.
The priorities of these politicians, we can be sure, will be very different from the priorities of the Scottish people. The principal aim will be to reduce the differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK (rUK). This is quite explicit in British Labour’s idea of “One Nation”. We can be sure that this does not involve rUK moving towards the principles of social justice and universalism that have distinguished the policies of the Scottish Government over the past several years. What it means is the Scottish Government being forced to abandon those principles due to being starved of the funds needed to translate them into policy and action.
Most notable among the many implications of these budget cuts will be the enforced privatisation of NHS Scotland and the abolition of universal benefits such as free prescriptions, concessionary travel and free university tuition.
A secondary purpose of the budget cuts that will hit Scotland in the event of a No vote is the diversion of funds to marginal constituencies in England – the constituencies where UK elections are decided regardless of how the people of Scotland vote.
Loss of powers
A No result in the referendum will be represented as an affirmation of the union and a vote for Westminster rule.
Alongside the erosion of Scotland’s budget we can expect to see an erosion of the powers of the Scottish Parliament. This is likely to be gradual at first, but the momentum will grow. Various arguments will be deployed to rationalise this clawing back of powers by Westminster. Not least of these will be the smaller budget controlled by the Scottish Parliament and the fact that more and more public spending in Scotland will be controlled from London, either directly by the UK government or indirectly through private companies answerable to the UK Government.
The “Calman changes” implemented by the new Scotland Act will be abandoned as being unaffordable due to the stringencies of Scotland’s reduced budget. Every effort will be made to roll back devolution to the point where we no longer have a government but instead revert to having only a “pretendy wee Executive”.
All the talk of “more powers” that we are currently hearing from the British parties will quickly fade away to nothing. They clearly have no real appetite for further empowering the Scottish Parliament. And it will be maintained that, by voting No, the people of Scotland will have shown that they too lack the appetite for more powers.
As well as policies that are forced on Scotland by London’s stranglehold on spending, there will be increasing direct imposition of policies in the name of “harmonisation” and “efficiency”.
One of the reasons that devolution is an ongoing process is something I call the justification problem. Basically, as more and more powers are devolved it becomes increasingly difficult to justify continuing to reserve the dwindling few that remain. As an example, once the devolved administration has secured full control of transport policy, it becomes problematic for central government to justify retaining power of transport-related taxes such as Air Passenger Duty. It’s a case of “if this, why not that”.
But this process can work in reverse. As powers, and particularly budgetary powers, are stripped away, it becomes ever easier to justify the repatriation of ever more powers. Once the Scottish Parliament is weakened, there will be nothing to prevent a massive rolling back of devolution. And if there is nothing to prevent it, then it will surely happen.
Tampering with the electoral system
The electoral system for the Scottish Parliament was designed to ensure that no party could ever win a majority. More precisely, it was designed to ensure that the British parties – principally British Labour – would always control the parliament and ensure that it did not make waves. That all fell apart in 2011 when the SNP stunned everybody by gaining an overall majority at Holyrood.
In the event of a No vote we can be sure that the British parties will collude in an effort to restore the status quo ante. Changes will be made to the electoral system with the intention of preventing the SNP ever forming another administration, even at the cost of thwarting the democratic will of Scotland’s people.
Preventing another referendum
The main purpose of tinkering with the electoral system will be to circumvent calls for another referendum on independence. Most of us will recall how vehement the British parties were in their opposition to the people of Scotland being allowed a say in their own future.
Scotland’s referendum has been a massive embarrassment and inconvenience to the British establishment. It is the most significant outbreak of popular power that the British state has had to face in a long time – possibly ever. It is a challenge to the established order that the British state will not tolerate again. A further referendum will be prevented at any cost.
The dispute arises from the affirmation of parliamentary sovereignty implicit in a No vote. Or, to put it another way, the denial of popular sovereignty that a No vote would represent. When distilled down to its basics, this is what the referendum is about. The principle that ultimate authority is vested in the people versus the idea that it is vested in the monarchy acting through parliament. In Scotland, the historically accepted principle is that the people elect a parliament which acts in their name and is ultimately answerable only to them. The authority of the parliament and the government is derived directly from the people.
The British system is different. In it, the authority of the parliament and the government is derived from the monarch. It is by the grace of the Crown in Parliament that the people are permitted to choose those they send to the parliament as their representatives.
This may be a crude representation, but it serves to highlight the fundamental differences between the two systems and, more crucially, their total incompatibility.
These two principles have coexisted side by side for centuries only because the difference has been ignored. The referendum puts an end to that. The two principles being offered as the choices in a plebiscite has unleashed a constitutional genie that will not go back in the bottle for the simple reason that the bottle no longer exists. The bottle’s existence was conditional on there being no formal acknowledgement of the sovereignty dichotomy. The bottle has now been smashed regardless of what the referendum result may be.
A No vote creates an ongoing constitutional problem in that it ostensibly settles the matter in favour of parliamentary sovereignty – and will be held by the British establishment to have done so – but the irresistible force of popular will then comes up against the immovable object of the inalienability of popular sovereignty.
In short, a No vote creates a situation in which continuing constitutional dispute is inevitable. A conflict which will be increasingly rancorous and one which can only, and ultimately must be resolved by independence.
Victory for Tories
A no vote will be paraded by the Tories as a victory for David Cameron. The mileage they get from this will almost certainly be enough to secure them a win in the 2015 UK election. Our reward for voting No will be yet another government that we have rejected at the polls and yet more policies that are anathema to us.
At what point will people say, enough?
End of political discourse
One of the benefits of the referendum campaign in Scotland has been a revival of political discourse. The political environment is richer and healthier and more diverse and more active than it has been in decades. It is questionable how much of this will survive the deadening effect a No vote.
While there is the very real possibility that political discourse may be depressed by a No vote there is also the chance that much of the energy may be diverted to less constructive forms of activity. People are getting exited about the possibility of change. Independence is the key to virtually all of that change. A No vote will trigger a wave disappointment and frustration that will have to find an outlet. It is not easy to see how this might play out.
There will be considerable upheaval in the political parties too. But speculation on that topic could well be endless.
Setback for progressive politics
The independence movement in Scotland, and the previously mentioned political discourse that this has engendered, has become something of a standard-bearer for progressive politics in the UK. There is a distinct possibility that a No vote will take some of the momentum out of the drive for political and economic reform while simultaneously providing a fillip to more reactionary elements.
Loss of respect
The people of Scotland are being offered the opportunity to rectify an anomalous situation. We have the chance to reinstate our nation’s rightful constitutional status. We have the chance to assert and affirm the sovereignty of Scotland’s people in Scotland.
We are offered the opportunity to bring our government home. To have our country governed according to the needs and priorities of Scotland’s people. To take decisions for ourselves. To manage our own affairs. To be a nation again.
If Scotland rejects independence we will be a global laughing stock, subject to a barrage of ridicule and contempt that we will have earned by our lack of resolve. If we don’t respect ourselves, why should anybody else do so?
Damage to relationships within UK
I have written at some length on this topic in an earlier article, Vote Yes to save the union. I would invite readers to take a look. For those who have no wish to do so, the following selected excerpts may give a sense of my argument.
We all, nationalist and unionist alike, tend to value the same things about the union, differing only in the emphasis that we put on each. Where we part company is principally, if not solely, on the matter of the political union of the UK. I would urge unionists to think long and hard about whether we do not have a common interest in that regard also.
The sheer mindlessness of the anti-independence rhetoric pumped out by Blair McDougall’s appalling Project Fear operation precludes the kind of nuanced analysis that Alex Salmond has offered [when he spoke of the six unions: the political union of the UK; union with Europe through the EU; the currency union, the Union of the Crowns; a defence union based on Nato and a social union among the people of the UK].
Whereas the circumstances of the world in which we live require a concept of independence that involves a redefining of relationships, the No campaign can think only in terms of a complete severing of those relationships. It presents a totally false choice between all of the six unions, or none of them. Even to the point of threatening to wilfully destroy things that work well, such as the currency union.
Those unionists who value the same aspects of the union as nationalists do must ask themselves whether they are prepared to sacrifice the good bits in order to preserve a political union which serves nobody other than the elites of the British state. They must accept that a No vote does not mean a return to some comfortable status quo ante. Scotland has changed in ways that make that impossible.
A No vote on 18 September 2014 will have consequences. The outcome itself and the all too easily envisaged response of the British state to that outcome will alter an already unsatisfactory political union in ways that must inevitably have a deleterious effect on the social union that we all value so much.
Scotland’s independence referendum is all too often portrayed as a choice between a Yes option fraught with unspeakable dangers and a No option which is consequence free. This is a misleading and even a dishonest representation. Choices are always accompanied by consequences. If the people of Scotland are to make an informed choice on September 18 2014 then it is essential that they should be made aware of the implications of both options. Just as it is vital that they understand the difference between malicious scare stories and genuine concerns. My hope is that this article will prompt a discussion which may lead to a better appreciation of what a No vote would mean for Scotland.