Thursday, January 19, 2012

Michael Ignatieff's A-Z guide on how to lose votes and alienate people

If unionists are looking for advice on how to prevail in the independence referendum, they might do well to be wary of taking it from the man responsible for the Canadian Liberal Party's idiotically tribal decision to renege on a 2008 coalition deal with the NDP and Bloc Québécois that would have turfed the Tories out of office. That man then led his party to a catastrophic meltdown in last year's federal election, costing them even official opposition status, and leaving the Tories in majority control for the first time in a generation. And yet Michael Ignatieff seemingly has no embarrassment in penning a Financial Times article that lectures Scotland in holier-than-thou fashion on the "lessons" it must take from him. It boils down to two points - a) don't have a referendum, and b) if you must have a referendum, vote 'No'. Yup, if you thought Alan Cochrane lacked subtlety, nuance and all sense of perspective in his approach to this topic, you ain't seen nothing yet.

"In our 1980 referendum on Quebec, the result was a clear cut victory for Canada."

I really would caution you not to think of the forthcoming referendum as one that will produce "victory" for either "Britain" or "Scotland", Michael. If the choice is framed in that way, there can only be one winner.

And "our" referendum in 1980? It was a Quebec referendum, Michael, and you are not from Quebec, nor were you a Quebec resident in 1980. Perhaps before going any further you should start by clarifying whether you actually believe in the well-understood (and legally-enshrined) principle of the SELF-determination of peoples, and if not, why not?

"We learnt the strongest argument for leaving countries as they are turns out to be that most people don’t want to choose between different parts of their identity."

Unless this is to be a one-way dialogue (admittedly that's almost certainly what you have in mind), perhaps you should be open to learning a few lessons about just how far the SNP has moved in terms of respecting the British sense of identity in Scotland, and how that identity will not be imperilled by independence any more than Scottishness is imperilled by union. If you cannot even conceive of British identity existing independently of dry constitutional structures, you're guilty of precisely the one-dimensional thinking you accuse Scottish "secessionists" (yes, really!) of.

"The issue is whether Scots feel they can only assert their Scottishness by parting with the Unionist part of their soul."

Which bears out my previous points. Conveniently, the choice is not between "Scottishness" and "Britishness", because only by pretending that the terms "Britishness" (an identity) and "Unionism" (an adherence to a constitutional structure) are interchangeable can you claim that the alternative to Scottishness is somehow threatened by independence. Well, two can play at that silly game - why not frame the choice as between "Britishness" and "Scottish sovereigntism"? In that case, only a Yes vote to independence would allow people to keep both "identities", whereas a No vote would jettison one part of people's "soul".

Yes, Michael, linguistic conjuring tricks do tend to produce exactly the answer you want. Another valuable "lesson" learned.

"So the independence side is campaigning for a ballot question that allows Scots to have it both ways. “Devo max” is the ungainly option: full self-government with fiscal powers within a sovereign UK whose parliament would retain jurisdiction only over foreign affairs. This would give Scotland a future in Europe looking like that of Wallonia, Catalonia or the Basque country.

Scottish patriots such as Neal Ascherson favour this package but the question is why it has to be put to a referendum at all. It could be negotiated with Westminister between now and 2014, avoiding the existential moment of truth altogether."

You'll be relieved to hear there's a very simple answer to your question, Michael - it has to be put to a referendum because otherwise Westminster won't budge an inch. Curious, isn't it, that it's the pro-independence side that has been far more imaginative in exploring potential solutions to how Scotland's multiple identities might be accommodated by means of innovative constitutional structures, whereas the side you're busy being a cheerleader for is still stuck in the bunker mentality of "resisting appeasement" and "drawing lines in the sand".

"And our Supreme Court adds another lesson about democracy itself: if the Scots vote to go, they can’t just walk out the door. They will have to negotiate, not dictate, the terms of divorce with the British government. Issues include the division of the debt, the nature of the border, the division of North Sea revenues, the future of the currency, the disposal of UK assets in Scotland and so on. It will be as messy and protracted as divorces usually are. And possibly as tragic too."

This may be a startling discovery for you, Michael, but I doubt if there's a single person in the SNP who thinks that Scotland wouldn't have to sit down and negotiate an independence settlement after a Yes vote. However, if you believe that the very principle of independence would then somehow be conditional on the UK side playing ball in those negotiations, you have a very curious definition of the word "democracy", with which you started that observation.

As for the use of the word "tragic", I must confess I laughed out loud at that point. For the last time that word was used in quite such a hysterically inappropriate way, I think we'd have to go all the way back to Donald Findlay's (deadly serious) reaction when the Estonian football team failed to turn up for an international match against Scotland in 1996 : "Let's put this tragic situation behind us, and get on with our lives".

* * *

James Mackenzie once innocently asked me on Twitter "why so confrontational?", but I'm pretty sure even I would have thought twice about the headline "Screw you, Floella Benjamin". I obviously sympathise with the underlying sentiment (ie. that it was wrong of her to vote against delay of the Welfare Reform Bill in the House of Lords), but the use of language does somewhat undermine James' notion that Better Nation is an oasis of constructive discourse in a desert of blogging "mentalism".


  1. There seems to be a 'let's knock Salmond twice a week' editorial policy at the FT these days. Quality journalism does not seem to be an issue

  2. Wallonia, Catalonia or the Basque country? Wtf?

    What about Greenland, the Faroes, Mann, the Channel islands?

  3. "Screw you Floella Benjamin"

    the fact that the increasingly union friendly chaps at Better nation would have moderated that as "Dickish" if anyone else had tried to submit it shall concern us ranting cybernats not a jot.

  4. "Screw you Floella Benjamin"

    Certainly, during her Play School days.
    Now? I'm not so sure...

  5. I see that not only does Betternation "preempt" contributions from those of a nationalist persuasion.

    Aidan warning the "Cybernats" at the foot of his article and in the comments on another, also from a Labour person, dismissing the CyberNats to go to Newsnetscotland should they object to a piece of Labour double-standards.

    Betternation should subtitle itself the "acceptable face of Labourhame" and have dne with it

  6. I still think it's basically an excellent blog - the majority of contributions are exceptionally well-written and thought-provoking, even if I don't always agree with them. But there is a bit of an attitude problem creeping in from one or two of the editors, which could maybe be characterised as a belief that arbitrarily setting the boundaries of debate to suit themselves is exactly the same thing as promoting constructive dialogue.