Friday, February 17, 2012

All the questions are for the British Nationalists now

So, where to begin with David Cameron's "positive case for the union"? There's a lot of agreement that it's preferable that he has at last switched to a positive tone (albeit this led him to some truly fantastical claims about the magical properties of "my love, our home, this United Kingdom", which I may come onto later), but I do hope he and his followers realise that this new strategy is for life, not just for Christmas. He can't bail out when the going gets tough and revert to his comfort-zone of chortling to himself and his Old Etonian chums that an independent Scotland would be " the seat of your pants!!!!", because that would directly contradict his admission yesterday that Scotland could easily make its own way in the world. Perhaps even tougher for Tory foot-soldiers will be to stop casting doubts on the suitability of Scottish politicians for the position of Prime Minister, because those objections directly contradict Cameron's high-flown rhetoric about Scots leading in the UK. Gordon Brown was the elephant in the room during that passage of the speech - you know, the "one-eyed Scottish idiot".

Another problem is that, as John Curtice has pointed out, although it was a positive case for the union, it was the wrong positive case. The message was not "here is my vision for Scotland's future as a country" - it was "Scotland is not your country, Britain is our country, and by crikey it's fab, please don't take it away from us". He was unambiguously casting himself as a British nationalist, and defining a No vote to independence as a vote for British nationalism. That seems a mildly crazy thing to do, given that most Scots are Scottish nationalists with either a large or a small 'n'. I can't help but wonder if his advisers have been influenced by the effect a positive articulation of Canadian nationalism had in the 1995 Quebec referendum. If so, it's a classic case of learning the wrong lesson from history. A Scottish journalist who attended the flag-waving 'Rally for Canada' a few days before polling day in '95 (I think it may even have been Kenny Farquharson) pointed out at the time how hard it was to imagine an equivalent Union Jack-waving rally in a Scottish referendum having anything other than a counter-productive effect. It's not that there isn't any background attachment to Britishness in Scotland, but our own notion of Britishness is rather loose and multi-national in nature, and entirely alien from the one-dimensional nationalism Cameron is advancing, which is really a kind of 'Greater England nationalism', or 'the-state-London-is-capital-city-of nationalism'. It's not actually true that Scottish independence would rob Cameron of his Greater England "home", as he claims - but that home would certainly be diminished in his eyes. A shrunk landmass, a shrunk population, shrunk clout in international institutions. In short, independence would impair the projection of London power - and nothing can be more alarming to a Greater England nationalist than that. That's what he was getting at when he talked about the 'loss of something very special'. In particular, he gave the game away by placing so much emphasis on Britain's status as a member of bodies like the UN Security Council. No-one is under any illusions that an independent Scotland would have such a status, so it's hard to escape the conclusion that what we're being asked to worry about here is the (frankly very slim) possibility that the remainder of the UK might lose its status as well after Scottish independence. In truth, this isn't an argument about Scotland at all - it's a squeal of pain from a London politician about what he stands to lose.

Besides which, Cameron's promotion of British nationalism as a 'nobler nationalism' was absurdly contradictory. With one breath he insisted it didn't need to base itself on "ancient myths, blood-soaked memories and opposition to others", and with the next he started wittering on about the defeat of Hitler and the Battle of Waterloo! And how precisely does all the inspiring talk about 'solidarity' and 'stronger together, weaker apart' square with his isolationism in Europe? Faced with such irreconcilable contradictions, we can again only conclude that this is really about London's Little Empire, and preserving its sovereign reach.

The reality is that the 'special' things that people in Scotland truly value about Britishness are not contingent on the existence of a British nation state. Indeed, the social union across these islands may well be enhanced once we have jettisoned the resentment-fuelling straightjacket of a political union that works in the interests of one 'partner' more than another.

Of course, the other key feature of the speech was the rabbit out of the hat about the potential for further devolution if Scotland votes No to independence. Depending on whether Cameron actually means a word of it, this could either be characterised as the Douglas-Home Deception Strategy or as the Top Secret Devo Plus Plan, because apparently we're not entitled to know any details about it until after the referendum. Certainly Cameron's efforts to convince us that this isn't a repeat of the Douglas-Home wheeze from 1979 were totally unconvincing. He asked us to reflect on his record in delivering the Scotland Bill, but there's one slight snag with that - it was in fact the coalition agreement that delivered the Scotland Bill. All the mood music before the 2010 election was that a Tory government would kick Calman into the long grass, and there can be little doubt that's exactly what would have happened if the Tories had won a majority in their own right. The personal record Scots will actually be reflecting on is Cameron's failure to respect the SNP's overwhelming mandate from last May to negotiate extra powers in addition to those currently in the Scotland Bill.

But even if we were naive enough to take these incredibly vague hints of jam tomorrow seriously, Cameron has just got himself into a bit of a bind. At the heart of the unionist strategy until now has been the constant demand that the SNP must answer a series of detailed questions (almost all of them already answered umpteen times) about what independence will look like. But at a stroke, we're now in a position where we have infinitely more clarity about the effect of a Yes vote than we do about the effect of a No vote. There are an endless series of questions that need to be put to Cameron about how powers will be divided between Westminster and Holyrood under the Top Secret Devo Plus Plan that will supposedly be triggered by a No vote in the referendum - and incredibly he seems to think an adequate response is that the Scottish people don't have a right to know until after they vote for it. It's no use arguing that the referendum is about independence and not enhanced devolution - he has explicitly linked the two issues himself by including the prospect of delivering the Top Secret Devo Plus Plan in his list of reasons why people should vote No. There's no way back - from this point on, all the hard questions on detail are for the Brit Nats.

A few other miscellaneous points from Cameron's speech...

"I am a classic case.

My father’s father was a Cameron.

My mother’s mother was a Llewellyn.

I was born and have always lived in England."

A great many things can be reasonably said about a multi-millionaire Old Etonian Prime Minister who is a direct descendant of William IV and is married to a baronet's daughter, but I'm not sure "classic case" is one of them.

"Scottish pilots helped us to free Libya from tyranny and prevented a failed pariah state festering on Europe’s Southern border…"

But Danish pilots helped even more. Denmark, let's not forget, is an independent country with roughly the same population size as Scotland. It is also in the enviable position of deciding for itself which international military adventures it wants to get involved in, and which it doesn't. An independent Scotland might well have freely chosen to assist in Libya - I strongly suspect we wouldn't have touched the Bush/Blair invasion of Iraq with a barge-pole.

"We’re safer, not just because of the expertise and bravery our armed forces to which Scotland makes an immense contribution…

…but also because of our policing expertise and security services respected the world over.

When a bomb went off at Glasgow Airport the full resources of the UK state went into running down every lead."

Would it be terribly insensitive of me to point out that if only we had been decoupled from Britain's slavishly pro-Bush foreign policy, that bomb in Glasgow Airport would probably never have gone off in the first place?

"…but a common system, rules and currency which has helped to make us the 7th largest economy in the world."

Down from 4th just a few years ago, David. Do you think he'll finally be too embarrassed to parrot that rather desperate line when the ranking is 14th?

"One issue that is very close to my heart is aid.

And this is an issue where Scottish people have a huge influence...through the UK, Scotland has global reach."

It's hard to escape the conclusion that he's suggesting that Scots care more about overseas aid than others in the UK - but if so, it's difficult to see what difference we can possibly be making given that this isn't a government Scotland elected. The logical conclusion to draw is that the combined overseas aid budget of Scotland and the remainder of the UK would increase after independence, because a Scottish state would accord it a higher priority, and the UK government would carry on much as before.

"I believe in real devolution and want to make devolution work better.

I want a Scotland where more people own their own homes.

Where more people keep more of their money."

Another part of the speech that makes me deeply suspicious about the Top Secret Devo Plus Plan. This is thoroughbred Thatcherite language - she also used to regularly talk about 'real' devolution in place of, well, real devolution. Thanks all the same, Dave, but the kind of devolution we're looking for isn't a play on words.


  1. I am particularly attracted to your point about the changing paradigm of the Yes/No aftermath. It's a great point to make that Cameron has now made a No vote a lot less clearer than a Yes vote would be, and that it will now focus the attention on his government to clarify, in detail, exactly what they mean by his comments.

    Isn't it great when you opponents carry out your political strategy entirely unbidden? It really is very generous of the Prime Minister.

  2. I'm so glad you decided to keep on the boards James. Great analysis. I'm thinking with this latest gaff from call me Dave, that he will now try and hand the ball on to Labour. He knows they have some say in Scotland and if they fail, they will have caused themselves so much damage in the process, (this will include England, as English Labour supporters will not be impressed when they see their party siding with the Tories) that it will leave call me Dave virtualy unchallenged.

  3. I enjoyed reading the article.

  4. Excellent analysis.

    His speech, as well as being full of patronising pap was on several occasions historically inaccurate. Only in small ways, but it showed that, for all the passion he wanted us to believe he felt about Scotland, he didn't actually either know, or have his people research the subject with any level of care.

    He seemed, as you pointed out, to have attached significance to the union for many things that could well have happened without it. The one that most struck me was the reference to the fact that we fought together against Hitler, but the likelihood is that we would have done so anyway, had we been independent, just as Canadians, Australians, Indians and other Empire troops did.