One doesn’t like to be the spectre at the feast so I was relieved on Wednesday morning to find myself in varied company. Indeed, the media consensus on the launch of the independence White Paper was pretty unanimous.
Competent presentation, as we would expect; nothing really new; and the big questions still conspicuously unanswered. The faithful were delighted, the doubters will still doubt and those who oppose breaking up Britain will see no reason to alter their views. Only ten months to go.
What a waste of time and energy it all is. As Donald MacLeod wrote a few weeks ago, if the same attention had been focused on rooting out child poverty over the past few years, then Scotland might have something to show for devolution and our existing right to do things differently.
Instead, interminable debate about the constitution continues to be the substitute for radical action on anything. Childcare is the new buzzword of the Nationalists because, we are told, they need to improve their standing among women voters in the referendum. That is not a very good reason.
They have had six years of power at Holyrood to do pretty much what they want on childcare, if that was their priority. There is nothing to show for it. Indeed, I find it genuinely difficult to think of one significant area of social policy or wealth redistribution, where they have used the powers of Holyrood to make a difference.
Everything is to happen after independence but nothing before it. They ask to be judged by their promises and not their record. We are instructed to believe that only the constitution stands between the status quo, which is apparently awful, and the wishlist contained in the white paper.That is a prospectus which sounds convincing only to those who are already convinced.
The Bedroom Tax is mentioned 37 times in the white paper. However misguided the Bedroom Tax might be, that does seem a trifle disproportionate in a document which is supposed to be the blueprint for unraveling 300 years of shared history and putting something else in its place. In the great span of history, the Bedroom Tax is scarcely the big issue.
But again, there is a record to consider. A couple of weeks ago at Holyrood, the SNP joined forces with the Tories to vote down a measure which would have made evictions under the Bedroom Tax in Scotland illegal. Holyrood could have blazed a trail. But what would be the usefulness of that compared to a stick with which to beat wicked Westminster? What would have become of the 37 mentions?
Very recently, the Nationalists have come up with a new formula to cover some of the difficult issues that they face. There is no obvious reason why it would be in the interests of the United Kingdom (continuing) to share sterling with the newly-seceded Scotland. Indeed, a procession of experts have painstakingly explained why it would not happen.
So now the Nats assert that the UK government would have no choice in the matter. If Scotland votes for independence, they argue, the UK would be obliged to accept that as a vote for everything contained in the white paper – including the continued sharing of currency. It is a ridiculous contention, as several prominent Yes campaigners have also pointed out. But it is the only one offered to underpin Scotland keeping the pound.
For true believers, this is perfectly adequate. In their hearts of hearts, they don’t give a toss what currency we will be using in 30 months time. The impact on pensions, savings, jobs, trade are not so much second-order issues as irrelevant to their thinking. Their only interest is getting a yes vote across the line and then the detail – like currency – will take care of itself. There will be no second vote.
We are to have more immigration but no border controls. We are to pay our television licence fee to a Scottish Broadcasting Service but supplement its output from the BBC, who will just have been deprived of its Scottish revenue. And so on – everyone is to behave exactly as the white paper demands because the white paper says they should.
There is no concession to the idea that much of what we have and value is not in spite of our place in the Union – but because of it. Our welfare state is taken for granted and higher pensions airily promised although Scotland has a more rapidly ageing population than the rest of the UK.
Yet, as one expert in that field pointed out: “Independence would permanently break the UK’s social union, weakening the ability of Scotland to cope with the fiscal and demographic pressures which welfare states the world over face”. In other words, there are advantages in being part of something bigger.
I was passing through London on Wednesday and, as usual, bought the excellent Irish Times. They had some coverage of the referendum launch and the writer observed that “Salmond has produced not a white paper but a manifesto for the 2016 Holyrood elections in a Scotland that is still part of the Union”. I think most of the electorate are also capable of making that distinction.
The Irish Times carried another couple of relevant stories. An article on the economy described how the short-lived Celtic Tiger success, based on low corporation tax, has now been reversed. Investment has collapsed while the UK’s share is soaring because “a cut to the UK corporate tax rate along with the ambitious new innovation tax incentives mean the UK has one of the most attractive tax offerings in Europe”.
Yet this is exactly the battleground of low corporation tax which forms the core of the SNP’s economic strategy. How low would we go? And how does that square with higher pensions, Scandinavian-style childcare and all the rest. They certainly don’t have these in Ireland!
Then there was a report on a Dail debate about health care when Ireland was described as “the worst small country in the western world in which to be sick”. We never heard much about that when our own Nationalists were so busy envying the Celtic Tiger that they failed to notice its feet of clay. What evidence is there that Scotland would not be in the same position if we too had been a small, independent state?
Britain together is not a failed state and Scotland, within it, is not a failed nation. Together, we have built great institutions including the Welfare State, the National Health Service, the BBC, the armed forces, the labour movement and many more. We defeated Fascism together and have created a liberal, tolerant democracy together. We have worked together, married together, shared our talents together.
It is our entitlement to turn our backs on all of that, but why would we do it? In our small inter-dependent world, what could be more negative in the 21st century than to create borders where none need exist?