Debating Scottish Independence: politics after politics

Published: 16 September 2014

Guest blogger Trevor Stack reflects on engagement with young voters throughout the course of the campaign. This blog was originally published on Eutopia.

I write not an as an expert in Scottish politics, though I live in Scotland and was born and bred here, and in fact my expertise lies in Mexico. But my theoretical interests lie in the big questions of citizenship and political community at the heart of the referendum debate.

This also led me to hold educational events in Scottish schools with young voters – the voting age was lowered to 16 for the referendum.

Debate is not a misnomer for the run-up to this referendum. The ‘Yes Scotland’ and ‘Better Together’ campaigns have accused each other of misinformation and lies.

There has been misinformation and plenty of exaggeration (not least in the media establishment which has been overwhelmingly pro-Union) but nothing that would seem out of place in an electoral campaign.

I believe the issues have been set out quite well, in the Scottish government’s detailed proposal, in a series of televised debates, and in innumerable speeches, spots and leaflets.

In schools we did still find confusion, and pupils, like many adults, were dismissive of the campaigns and TV debates.

Yet it was the kind of scepticism which is crucial to democracy. There was plenty of clarity, too, among the many questions that we faced.

Some have talked of families being torn apart, and even predicted civil unrest. An MP was hit by an egg, which led him to call off his speaking tour in disgust, but he resumed it two days later.

There have been few if any similar incidents. Yet disappointingly, schools were reluctant to promote debate, and some banned referendum activities in the month leading up to it. In the schools that dared to host us, we were struck by the measured tone of debate.

Pupils chided each other for their opinions, but mostly as banter. In one school this week, a pupil did fire off a salvo of criticism of the Yes campaign. Teachers explained afterwards – he’s in the debating society, and likes to argue with everyone.  He came up afterwards to thank us for giving him the opportunity.

The temperature has risen since 7 September, when for the first time a major poll gave the lead to the Yes campaign. This sent UK party leaders, visibly panicking, on the next plane to Scotland.

The Better Together campaign had been trying to avoid sounding too negative, after being dubbed ‘Project Fear’. But this week the gloves came back off.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has put pressure on supermarket bosses to predict price rises in Scotland, though not all are playing ball.

A Treasury official leaked to the BBC the news that RBS was planning to move its registered address to London in the event of a Yes vote. "The Times" editors saw fit to say: "Despite numerous warnings, Scotland has not woken up to the dangers it will face with independence."

All this will make the middle and upper classes, ever nervous of their investments, rethink their vote. But the 16- and 17-year olds are also nervous.

A surprise finding of research is that, after the 65+ year olds, the 16- and 17-year olds are the most likely to vote No. The young fogeys are, we found, mostly anxious about the implications for their college and job prospects.

Former socialist George Galloway played on their fears in a televised debate with young voters: your best bet is working in financial services, he pronounced, and you won’t be doing that if we lose the banks.

Overall, the threats are hitting home, and last Friday’s poll marks a retreat in the Yes vote – not unlike the retreat in Quebec where a 56% Yes vote turned on the day into 49%.

The markets have given voters some reason to worry. After the 7 September poll, there were falls in the shares of some Scottish companies, and a run on the pound. The currency has been a bone of contention. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, who leads the Yes campaign, insists the rest of the UK will agree to a sterling currency union. The UK government denies this.

The only likely alternative is sterling without a currency union. No one wants the euro.

Yet it seems unlikely that independence would be the watershed for which some hope and which others fear. In the film Goodbye Lenin, an old East Berlin lady falls into a coma in 1989 and wakes a year later. Her family try to hide from her that her beloved GDR is no more.

I can imagine someone taking weeks to realise, without anyone hiding anything, that Scotland had become independent.

From the start, both sides have been anxious to occupy the middle ground – both stand for change but not too much. Salmond has said that Scotland is linked to the other UK countries by six unions – he proposes to change the political union, but to keep the currency, monarchy, EU membership, NATO membership, and what he calls the ‘social union’.

The erstwhile nationalists have shunned the language of nation, and are happy to let Scottish citizens keep their British citizenship.

At times, the Yes campaign even claims to stand for no change, in the sense of saving Scotland from the ruling Conservative Party’s plans for change.

Cameron is committed to holding a EU membership referendum in 2017, on a rising tide of popularity for the anti-EU party UKIP. The only sure way of staying in the EU, says the Scottish government, is by voting Yes.

They also claim to protect the National Health Service and university fees from Conservative designs.

Better Together have insisted that they stand not for the status quo but for change. They have long promised further devolution, and this week – after the swing in the polls – they finally committed to a timetable for devolved powers.

A No vote will not be the end, then, but just the start of a process of negotiation over the devolved powers. It’s likely that some Better Together leaders would become champions of the promised devolution.

In the event of a Yes vote, the UK government will go overnight from predicting a meltdown to playing down the consequences. Political leaders will do this not just to allay the markets.

With their careers on the line, they will need to counter claims in England that they’ve ‘lost’ Scotland.

They’ll suddenly champion a closer working relationship with their ‘northern neighbour’. I can almost hear the clichés rolling off their tongues. The union has become a ‘partnership’ – tick for a word with a business ring to it.

If the UK government seek to minimize the impact, they’ll be pushing against an open door. Salmond has reiterated that he’ll see a Yes vote as a mandate to negotiate. This is where Yes voters may find themselves being sold short.

The UK’s Trident nuclear arsenal is held in Scotland; the Scottish government has pledged to remove it, which would be a major headache for Westminster. Yet the Scottish government will need a currency union to avoid major headaches for itself. It’s not hard to imagine a ‘temporary’ currency union being traded, for example, for a ‘temporary’ delay in moving Trident.

In the first TV debate in July, Salmond insisted, when challenged on policy issues, that they would be decided by ‘the Scottish people’. At the time, many Scottish voters were not impressed. By the second debate, it seemed that the message was getting through.

What was being fought on the terrain of policy, as one would fight an election campaign, is now being seen as a matter of self-determination. It is, in a nutshell, about not being governed by Conservatives in a country that for years has had only one Conservative MP. And why not? This is politics, in a world said to be beyond politics.

There are many ways of neutralising popular sovereignty. Excited reformers write of unseating the political establishment, progressives hope to offset the socio-economic inequality which has marked the UK, while radicals on the Left have written of smashing the imperial state.

If they want any of this, the real fight will start after a Yes vote, when the Scottish government would turn to ‘manage expectations’.

This says much about independence in Europe today. A Catalan TV crew filmed one of our Referendum events last week. They were delighted with the sober tone of debate, which they can take home to counter Spain’s claim that independence referendums make for disorder and strife.

Only 31% of those polled felt that the Referendum has been negative for Scotland – considerably less than the expected No vote. Whatever the outcome, secessionists across Europe will feel emboldened. This might seem to go against the grain of a globalising world.

Yet one reason for the sober tone is that voters realise that, in a globalising world, the difference between Yes and No will be less than life-changing.

Decentralisation is, after all, a mantra of global governance. The UK Deputy Prime Minister said last week that, whatever the result, the debate underlines the urgency of devolving powers across the UK, including to the regions.

Yet power so often ends up recentralising elsewhere, not least in Brussels. Independence may not be so different. If the pound in a currency union is still managed from London, while Scotland becomes a smaller nation in Brussel’s orbit, with its defence run by NATO from Washington, independence could be just another variation on the global theme.

This gives voters security – they know that an independent Scotland wouldn’t be going it alone. But they may sense that, whatever the outcome, they won’t be feeling like ‘the people’ for long.

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