Robin McAlpine: Sink the fear and open door to real debate
THE issue of defence as a priority in the campaigns for and against independence is missing the point. We need to focus on hopes , not worries, writes Robin McAlpine
Like the tabloid stereotype of a pensioner rushing home from the corner shop to triple-lock the door against imagined psychopaths who never come, there is a risk that Scotland is in the habit of seeing the world as if trembling behind its door and peering through its letterbox. Fear is becoming the only currency in Scottish politics – and it is infecting us all.
Both the pro- and anti-independence camps are mesmerised by any sense of weakness, their own or their opponents’. They just can’t stop themselves from returning over and over to the “fear issues” – debt and deficit, monetary policy and currency, war and terrorism. The outcome is the same as every outcome predicated on fear – bad decision-making.
In recent weeks the issue that has been at the forefront of these is war. The background was a mini-hysteria promoted by the defence industry and the military establishment about whether an independent Scotland could afford enough bombs. This was predicated on the assumption that in some way Scotland faces a real and imminent existential threat.
A sensible response to this would involve three steps. First, you would point out that these well-funded lobby groups have a strong financial interest and so some scepticism would be healthy. Second, you would make a calm assessment of what threats Scotland might really face. And third you would put all of this in the wider context of what sort of role Scotland, independent or not, might seek to play in the world.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, a few in and around the SNP made the argument that one of the “fear issues” where the case for independence is perceived to be weak could be closed off. “If only we could say that as Nato members Scotland would be protected”, went the reasoning, “no-one would need to be scared”. This runs counter to the instincts of most in the SNP leadership but it seems that some leeway was granted to see if the pro-Nato group could build a strong enough case to back its assertion that Nato offers a get-out-of-jail-free card on the defence issue. They failed.
You will have read otherwise, but the general SNP position on Nato was right. As a defensive organisation Nato is from and for a different era; as an offensive organisation it has been a disaster, unless you are a defence manufacturer or have an oil or “reconstruction” contract. A stream of civilians have been killed in recent Nato bombings, more than ten years since the Afghan war began, with not a hint of stability for that country or Iraq and not a single lesson learned, if the rhetoric on Iran is indicative. The costly PR deployed by Nato can’t cover up the fact that over and over it has failed, expensively, in its stated objectives.
Defence is in large part a faith-based policy – in most cases you just have to take both the threat and the effectiveness of the proposed response at face value. The prime example is the case for Trident renewal. Almost anyone, even in the defence business, if asked would concede that there is no foreseeable threat to Britain to which a nuclear attack is an effective response. By extension, if you can’t imagine a situation in which it could effectively be used, who is it deterring? Territorial attacks by nation states basically don’t happen any more – and nuclear weapons don’t solve civil wars, terrorist atrocity or cyber crime.
“But”, we are told, “what if?” By its very nature the security and defence debate has to be based on fear, rational or otherwise. If we did not fear bad things happening to us we wouldn’t spend large sums to protect ourselves. But as fear of the unknown has no logical end-point the debate is endlessly malleable. Imagine if the rest of the public sector was run on the same basis: budget meetings would open with someone asking “but you’re spending billions of pounds of NHS money on this medicine – what disease does it cure?” and someone else answering “who knows, but we’d better buy it just in case”.
The only mistake the SNP made was not to close down the issue of Nato earlier. It is hard for us Britons to accept but countries all over the world get by just fine with small and genuinely defensive armies. I can barely think of a developed country I have visited where people take the threat of imminent attack seriously or talk about “having” to drop bombs on someone else. Only Britain.
Fear makes us make bad decisions. It makes us think we need Nato. It stops us asking whether Britain needs a democratic monetary policy or whether an independent Scotland should have its own currency. It makes us talk about debt and deficit as if they are unusual and dangerous. It leaves us thinking we need a big business endorsement of any action (or “it must be wrong”). It is useful only for keeping us trembling behind our doors, doing as we are told.
But we’ve seen a chink of light. The launch of the Yes campaign was criticised by some because it was not dominated by the fear issues (“why aren’t they talking about debt and deficit?”), because it placed social and cultural issues centre stage (“they’re all social campaigners, artists and community groups!”) and because it did not fetishise corporate endorsement. Some described this as “shambolic”, but I wonder if that is because they have forgotten what hope looks like. Only fear is neat and orderly.
The Yes campaign needs to build on this much more inclusive story about our future and the No campaign has to respond in kind. We need to start focusing on our hopes and stop obsessing on our fears. Otherwise, by 2015 Scotland will be a country scared of its own shadow.
• Robin McAlpine is director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation
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