Thursday, 10 April 2014

No country for old Menzies

Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist about my headline, I'm not saying Sir Menzies Campbell isn't Scottish or doesn't belong in or to Scotland, nor is my mention of his age in any way discriminatory.

I'm just a sucker for puns.

But the reality is that Menzies Campbell, along with the rest of the No campaign, don't want a sovereign, fully self-governing country, which is all that line really means. I am casting no doubts on his or any of the passionate advocates of Better Together's "Scottish" credentials - which Menzies devotes the usual prerequisite paragraph towards outlining - nor their genuinely-held beliefs that a No vote is what is best for Scotland and the rest of the UK.

I've always quite liked Sir Menzies, and I thought the ageism which hounded him out of the Lib Dem leadership was appalling. In fact - as far as pro-Union articles these days go - Menzies' recent comment piece for the Guardian was a half-decent, albeit flawed, nor particularly original, attempt at conveying a more positive Unionism.

It's worth a read, if only to show what the No campaign could have been.

It starts off fairly strongly. I have the odd quibble - I believe his invocation of Britain's status as a permanent member of the security council as one of his big pluses is a misjudgement of the Scottish mood, given that the main reason we retain that membership is due to our status as a nuclear-armed state, which many Scots oppose.

He also falls into the commonly-sprung trap of conflating there having been a "Scottish voice" in UK parliamentary and executive politics (the likes of John Smith, Gordon Brown and Charles Kennedy) with Scottish representation. These two are clearly not the same thing. Just because Gordon Brown was born in Kirkcaldy doesn't mean he was representing anything other than the British interest while Chancellor and Prime Minister. That's not a criticism; it was simply his job.

The Scottish and British interest are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but evidently nor are they inherently the same thing, given England's dominance in terms of population, the economy and the make-up of the House of Commons.

Thereafter, unfortunately, Sir Menzies' arguments begin to fall some way into line with the tedium we have come to expect from the No campaign:

"Movements for independence are often based on some form of discrimination - ethnic, religious or economic, a democratic deficit perhaps, or persecution or institutional prejudice. None of these has blighted Scotland's relationship with the rest of the UK."

To pen these two sentences, it must have been necessary to wilfully forget the entirety of the 1980's and the first half of the 90's.

The movement for a Scottish Parliament in the 1990's, and today's independence campaign, was and is built around - as one of its cornerstones - the idea of a democratic deficit, the obviousness of which was brought into the cold light of day by the Thatcher era. Was there ethnic or religious persecution? Was there apartheid? Of course not, and only loonies claim there were. But to deny that a democratic deficit has and continues to blight Scotland's relationship with British governments is unexpectedly daft. Having been denied an Assembly in 1979, Scotland faced a decade and a half of Tory governments it never voted for, which performed an industrial shutdown on Scotland, used its people as a guinea-pig for the Poll Tax and used her oil wealth to prop up the dole queue.

No right-thinking independence supporter, I believe, should be dwelling on past grievances to make their case - but to deny they ever happened insults the intelligence.

Campbell continues:

"Has it been perfect? Of course not, but every few years we have had the unfettered choice to change course at successive elections. We invented the NHS, created the welfare state..."

Again, these first two sentences deny the very existence of a democratic deficit. Sure, yes, on a UK-level there are General Elections once in a while, albeit with an electoral system that hinders proportional results (which he knows all about, given he campaigned to end First Past the Post). But for the Scottish nation, the reality is our votes basically never matter.

As George Eaton wrote in the New Statesman last year:

"On no occasion since 1945 would independence have changed the identity of the winning party and on only two occasions would it have converted a Labour majority into a hung parliament (1964 and October 1974). Without Scotland, Labour would still have won in 1945 (with a majority of 146, down from 143), in 1966 (77, down from 98), in 1997 (139, down from 179), in 2001 (129, down from 167) and in 2005 (43, down from 66)."

Moreover (and this probably goes without saying), Scotland's increasingly large majorities for Labour didn't stop the Tories winning in 1959, 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992 and 2010.

There is also a bitter irony to Campbell citing great postwar British achievements such as the NHS and the welfare state, while the Coalition which his party forms part of is stealth-privatising the health service - in areas like commissioning, hospital management and even frontline services - and has spent the last four years eroding the welfare state and squeezing the poor.

Meanwhile, the Scottish government emphatically defends the British postwar ethos of universalism and fully-funded public services. Would, on current evidence, an independent Scotland actually be more "British" than Britain, in this regard?

Now we must sadly bear witness to the degeneration of Menzies' earlier, reasononable enough arguments into... basically just nonsense. Ready? Here goes:

"We are asked to make a decision that may be reversible in principle but in practice will be, to all intents and purposes, perpetual; to give up intangible benefits such as shared values, mutual respect, common responsibilities and family ties."

This is the same silly level of debate as people who say that after a Yes vote we'll somehow "lose our history", like dropping your keys down the side of the settee, or having Will Smith dressed in black flashing one of those memory-zappers in your face with the timer set to 1706.

Values are subjective. Your "responsibilities", whatever they may be, will stay the same. Your English granny will remain your English granny. All of this goes without saying, except apparently, it doesn't, because proponents of a No vote seem obsessed with bringing up the idea that the British people's values, their respect for one another, their responsibilities and familial bonds are somehow monolithic, and belong to Britain and Britain alone, whereas the truth is that they vary, sometimes rather starkly, from person to person, community to community and culture to culture. Because Britain contains multitudes of all these things.

Independence is about the transference of power, not the changing of culture or values. Please let this be the last time this has to be pointed out (the man said in a bout of naive wishfulness).

And then of course, we get the old Lib Dem favourite - what I like to call the "You'll-totally-definitely-let's-make-sure-of-it-get-more-powers" line of argument. According to Sir Menzies, everything the Scottish Government has proposed is "incapable of achievement", which is foresighted indeed, seeing as it hasn't been tried yet. Lib Dems should maybe avoid the dangerous waters of "Political Parties Don't Keep Their Promises". The sharks that infest it have a taste for Cleggian hypocrisy.

The big-three trifecta that makes up Better Together, however? Of course we can trust them! When have they ever steered us awry? "The Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats publicly acknowledge this reality (that the Scottish Parliament should have more powers)," claims Sir Menzies. But does anyone being realistic honestly think, in the event of a No vote and the removal of the threat of impending Unionist doom, that this calculation would stay the same?

I suppose it depends on your level of cynicism about the parties in question. On a scale of 1 to 10, I'm probably guilty of being stuck on about 12 and a half.

It's all very nice, talking about constructive unity, and how the Secretary of State for Scotland "should" get all three parties around a table in the event of a No vote (although I note a conspicuous absence of any mention of the SNP, Scotland's governing party no matter what the referendum result) and batter out proposals for enhanced devolution. But what exactly are English people and the MPs who represent them - who, remember, have no Parliament of their own and will have spent the last three years listening to Scotland debate breaking away - going to have to say about that?

I wouldn't at all blame them for expressing their disgruntlement in fairly vocal terms.

Sir Menzies Campbell has got it wrong here, numerous times and on numerous levels. He remains a man I like and admire. But the Scotland he loves is changing.

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