The strategy of the British nationalist “Better Together” campaign against Scottish independence is clear: it aims to sow uncertainty. What will happen with the EU? What will the currency be? Etc. The idea is to make people afraid of voting yes. But this misses something key.
As Andrew Tickell of Lallands Peat Worrier fame has pointed out, the very name ‘Better Together’ is absurd. No one thinks the UK is getting better – even the latest Bond film is about its decline: not the gentle decline since the Victorian era, but a new, different, rapid decline. For every doubt about the specifics of how an independent Scotland would run, there is, right now, an equal doubt about the UK.
So, here are my questions for Mr Darling and his friends at Better Together:
1. Erm, Europe?
What with Cameron launching his half decade of debate on how much we hate the French (or whatever it is he’s playing at), this is the obvious question: which Britain will we be staying part of – one which is in the EU, or not?
And we need to delve deeper with this question too. So, 1b) is this: Cameron wants to renegotiate Britain’s place in Europe. So, erm, what will that look like? If we vote no, what are we signing up for?
2. Can the no campaign guarantee that the Westminster government won’t alter the Barnett formula?
Senior Tory MP Priti Patel uttered what many, many on the Tory benches are thinking: The Scottish Parliament should have its funding cut. The Barnett formula – which allocates funding to devolved administrations – should be altered, they say. A quick fiddle with this arrangement would pull vast amounts of money out of Scotland and send it to the English constituencies more likely to vote Conservative.
3. Can the no campaign guarantee a future Westminster government won’t cut public spending even further?
Whatever the changes to funding allocation across Britain, there is also huge uncertainty about the total level of public spending in years to come. Once upon a time, there was a social democratic consensus in the UK. The evenness of the consensus then is matched, perhaps, by the sharpness of the radicalism we see today – with the deepest ever cuts to public spending coming down the line at us, the Britain we all know and love is rapidly being broken.
4. Can the no campaign guarantee that Scots who are sick or disabled won’t have their benefits cut any further by Westminster after 2014? Or that they won’t be driven into forced labour?
How most specific funding cuts might be allocated will be up to Holyrood. But one significant matter which is reserved to Westminster is benefits. The current UK government is already forcing sick and disabled people in Scotland to work for no pay – a policy I cannot imagine spewing from Holyrood even on its most brutal days. What will the Tories force on disabled people next? Can the No campaign guarantee the safety of disabled Scots?
5) Can the no campaign guarantee that Scottish soldiers will never again be sent to die in a war that most Scots oppose?
I need to be upfront about this one. The Scottish Labour party is sufficiently reactionary that the majority of MSPs in 2003 voted in favour of the Iraq war. However, I don’t think anyone sensible thinks that an independent Scotland – with a Labour party freed from its Westminster wrecking-ball and chain – would have sent Scottish troops into that particular calamity.
Can the no campaign guarantee that there will never be another equivalent of the Iraq war?
6. Can the no campaign guarantee that a future Westminster government won’t destroy the BBC?
Another area which is reserved is telecommunications. In my experience, one of the questions people often ask about independence is what will happen to the BBC. So, here is my question: the BBC has been cut by 20%. The BBC World Service has essentially been cut entirely: from 2014, all of its funding will have to squeeze into the same licence fee pot as the rest of the Beeb. The current government has waged a war against public broadcasting – so, if anyone votes no for the sake of the BBC (and I know some people who might) can the no campaign guarantee that the beeb will be saved? Or is their best bet for a public broadcaster to vote yes?
7. Can the no campaign guarantee that a future Westminster government won’t lower the abortion limit?
Various MPs have been calling for this, and only 39% if people in England want to keep or extend the time limit at which abortions are legal. 46% of Scots, on the other hand, want to keep things as they are or extend the limit. As certain breeds of Tory reach for culture war, will Scottish women have their right to choose cut back if we stay in the union?
8. Can the Westminster government guarantee that it will introduce sufficient changes to financial rules to ensure there won’t be another financial collapse?
People sometimes ask whether Scotland alone could have bailed out its banks – the answer to which surely, lies to our North, in Iceland. But let’s ask the reverse question: Scotland was a major centre of global finance, and still hosts many jobs in financial services. The risk to the Scottish economy of failing to properly change the operation of these industries is vast. Yet it is now pretty clear that Westminster has no plans to implement significant changes.
9. Can the no campaign guarantee that a future Westminster government won’t reduce further the number of Scottish MPs?
When Northern Ireland had its own Parliament from 1921-1972, it had fewer MPs per capita at Westminster than the rest of the UK – which was seen as a solution to what later became known as the West Lothian problem (ie that N. Irish MPs could vote on matters which didn’t affect their constituents). Scotland used to have more per-capita than England, but (quite reasonably, I think) this was cut back for the 2005 elections. Once the threat of independence is gone, will this debate rear its head again?
10. Can the no campaign guarantee that a future Westminster government won’t require all immigrants to carry ID papers at all times?
I give just one example, but the general point is the important one: as Britain declines, it is kicking those who are already down harder and harder. Immigrants are all too often those being bludgeoned – something that Scots aren’t nearly as keen on as our English neighbours. International students in Scotland are already having harsh conditions imposed on them by the Westminster governments (both Labour and Tory) despite protests from the Scottish government.
If we stay in Britain, can we expect it to continue to treat immigrants to our country more and more brutally?
Now, obviously, no one knows the answers to these questions. But my point, if it isn’t clear, is this: there is no certainty in a no vote. That the union has, in recent years, been one way does not mean it will be. The question asked in Scotland’s referendum is not about stability – unfolding history is never stable. It is about which future gives us more hope.