A Conversation Without End: Why David Cameron Is Wrong To Expect A “Once And For All” Decision On Scottish Independence – Column 3.8.12
JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 3.8.12
ON TUESDAY of this week, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, took a few hours off from his Olympic duties to pay a flying visit to Scotland. His arrival coincided with the publication of a Fabian Society poll showing that support for Scottish independence is on the slide again; the latest figures suggest that only 30% of Scottish voters are sure that they want independence, whereas 54% are pretty sure they want to stay in the Union.
It’s therefore not surprising that David Cameron used his few hours in Scotland to give Alex Salmond and the SNP a bit of a dressing-down onthe subject of the independence referendum, planned for the autumn of 2014. He demanded that SNP mninisters abandon all talk of a two-question referendum, offering a choice of more devolution to those who do not want full independence; and said that Scotland should settle the separation question “once and for all”, in a simple yes-no referendum.
And of course, if you view the world from the perspective of the Thames Valley, this kind of talk makes a fair amount of sense. Whatever the Tory back benches may think of Scotland’s historically high levels of public spending, British governments tend, once in office, not to like the idea of losing Scotland. If the place contains only a tenth of the UK’s population, it has a third of the landmass, and an even higher proportion of the coastline and natural resources. Governments therefore tend to conclude that the high cost of delivering services in Scotland is a price worth paying, for control of such a large chunk of land and sea; hence the Prime Minister’s wish for a swift and decisive vote, to get the independence question out of the way for good.
The truth is, though, that the state of the Union, as seen from Glasgow, Edinburgh or Inverness, is not as simple as that. It is true that a majority of Scottish voters do not want to leave the Union at the moment, and that the SNP are unlikely to win a referendum in 2014. Yet it’s also true that the presence of a right-wing government at Westminster – and the Coalition is certainly that – almost invariably causes a long-term increase in support for greater Scottish home rule; if Scots are happy with Danny Boyle’s spectacular Olympic Opening Ceremony vision of a welfare-state Britain, they are – with few exceptions – repelled and angered by the privatising instincts of Conservative ministers like Andrew Lansley and George Osborne.
Then again, the “Better Together” campaign to defend the Union suffers from the increasingly weakness of the unionist parties in Scotland, where the SNP contiunes to dominate the scene, in terms of grass-roots effectiveness. The Labour Party in Scotland is rated as boring and ineffective by a large proportion of Scots; and the two Coalition parties are hopelessly unpopular, barely scraping a fifth of the vote between them. On the big television screen, the Union may be looking a little more attractive than it did five years ago. But on the streets and in the communities of Scotland, it is dangerously short of persuasive advocates; indeed some members of the Scottish Labour Party launched a campaign, this week, to bring together Labour supporters who back independence, and are not prepared to toe the unionist party line.
If David Cameron understood Scotland a little better, in other words, he would understand that in such a complex and constantly shifting relationship, there is never going to be a “once and for all” answer to the question of the Union; it is a marriage always under negotiation, and always vulnerable to a major loss of enthusiasm on one side or the other. Even if the SNP were to win a “yes” vote in 2014, we would only be at the beginning of a long, infinitely complex negotiation about the precise meaning of independence in the 21st century, and about how the social union between England and Scotland would express itself, following a formal political separartion.
And if the Better Together campaign win their “no” vote – well, the Unionist parties seem to have invested all their hopes in the idea that if Alex Salmond is humiliated in his own referendum, then the nationalist “threat” will disappear in a puff of smoke, and they will be able to put constitutional issues on the back burner, perhaps for a generation.
Yet those parties should note this: that if support for the SNP does not translate into support for independence, then neither does support for the Union necessarily mean support for Unionist parties. On the contrary, all three of them are likely to pay a heavy electoral price for playing such petty politics with Scotland’s political future, in their stubborn refusal to join Alex Salmond in offering Scottish voters the constitutional option they most want, which is substantially enhanced home rule within the UK. And once the referendum is over, voters are likely to compensate for their rejection of independence by returning in droves to the SNP; if only because they will have observed how much more attention and respect Scotland enjoys at Westminster and elsewhere, when it maintains a high level of SNP support, and refuses to be taken for granted.
It’s Scotland’s fate at the moment, in other words, to be best represented and best understood by a nationalist party whose central aspiration most Scots still do not share. Scots do not want to be separated from the people of England; not from Danny Boyle, not from Bradley Wiggins, not even – so it seems – from the Queen. Yet in the end, it is always the voters of England – more than 90% of the UK’s population – who decide what kind of Britain we live in; whether the welfare state of Danny Boyle’s dream, or the hard-faced neoliberal Britain of insolent bankers and savage welfare cuts. And so long as England’s voters are free to reshape the nation according to their own lights, Scotland must also be free to decide that it prefers a different path. Not inevitably, but possibly; not necessarily through independence, but perhaps through greater devolution; and with no final answers at all, in what is – and always should be – a conversation without end.