Peter Jones: ‘No’ camp fly flag for cultural union
FOR its opening salvos in defence of the Union, pro-UK campaigners have picked softer social ground on which to fight.
Finally, the vacuum on one side of the constitutional debate has been filled. The “no” campaign, or “better together” as its supporters would wish it to be known, has stepped onto a field which the SNP have had pretty much to themselves for well over a year. Though opinion polls currently say the no-to-independence folk should win, they still have major difficulties to overcome.
It may not seem like that at the beginning. The mere presence of such a campaign will alter the terms of the debate and the balance of it. The case for keeping the union is one which not many unionists have bothered to make, either because they think it is a self-evident one, or that it is most unlikely people will vote for it.
The SNP’s stunning election victory last year, and even more relevantly, the way in which the Nationalists came from being ten points behind in the polls to being ten points in front when the votes were counted, should have dispelled such thoughts. And, to be fair, Alistair Darling, a former Labour chancellor who now leads the “better together” chorus, shows little sign that he thinks this will be a walkover.
Nevertheless, the fact that there is now a coherent campaign which is putting the case for the union, where previously there was not, will make a difference. Against the rhetoric of Alex Salmond, who puts the case for what Scotland and Scots could achieve if freed from the dead hand of government in London with remarkable clarity and conviction, there is now an opposing argument.
The fact that it is harder to win a two-sided game when there are opponents actually on the pitch with a game plan as opposed to shouting discordantly from the sidelines automatically means the SNP will find it tougher to score goals. But this is a long game, over two years long indeed. So we should expect that things will not go to either side’s plan.
It is interesting that Mr Darling, for his initial foray, chose not to attack on what has become the key battleground of this campaign – the economy. That’s perhaps because of an oddity about the SNP. Most nationalist movements, if physical oppression is not what they are fighting, have extremely strong cultural elements.
The nationalists amongst the Basques, the Catalans, the Quebecois, and the Welsh, make culture, and the flowering of it that independence could bring, a pretty central feature of their campaigning. The SNP, however, tend to use tartan, bagpipes, Burns and a’that as not much more than emblematic symbols.
I have yet to hear, for example, how independence would transform the Scottish literary, visual and performance arts. Given that the world’s stages and film sets seem to be crawling with Scottish actors, the bookshelves creaking with Scottish authors, and popular music chorusing with Scottish bands, perhaps it is too hard a case to make.
It was this symptom of cultural strength that Mr Darling was targeting when he talked of Scotland being “a proud nation within a larger state and the far wider range of opportunities for our people that this creates”. To this cultural union, he added the social union, by which I think he means the ties within society ranging from friendships to membership of such organisations as trade unions which are wider because they are established within a much bigger nation state.
Again, I am still waiting to hear from the SNP how such links and relationships could be made broader and deeper through independence.
If these are weak points in the nationalist argument, it is hard to define precisely how they could be strong points in the unionist case. Certainly, at first sight, they seem to be good points to make, for they seem to make a commonsense, straightforward case that life for most Scots does not end at the Berwick-Gretna border.
But it could equally be argued that cross-border cultural and social links are not going to be ended by independence. The National Union of Journalists, for example, of which I am a member, includes the Republic of Eire within its ambit. Granted, it is unusual in transcending the British-Irish border, but it nonetheless proves that resurrection of national status for Scotland need not mean other links get cut.
We will see how this part of the debate plays out. There is, however, another aspect to it, which is encompassed by the slogan of the “no” campaign. “Better together” carries the subliminal message of the current geopolitical context, which is one of almost complete chaos.
We do not know if the Europe to which we all, on both sides of the border, belong is going to cling together or fall apart. The euro currency is unprecedentedly frail, and restoring its strength will entail much financial sacrifice by all its members. If it falls apart, there will also be great economic sacrifice.
Against these twin and equally unappealing prospects, Mr Darling was rather obviously saying, it is better if we in these islands stick together. That again strikes the commonsense chord that there is more safety in large numbers than in small ones.
This, however, assumes that the UK government is doing a good job and there are plenty of economists, from Brian Ashcroft at the Fraser of Allander Institute to Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, who say that it is not. Too much austerity is stifling demand and choking off growth, they say, which is essential if Britain is to get back to economic health.
The SNP is firmly in this latter camp. While it can certainly be argued that their prescriptions – not cutting welfare payments and borrowing more to finance infrastructure development – would be an ineffective defence against the storm now raging, their position will get stronger if the UK economy weakens.
This puts Mr Darling in an awkward position. As a senior, albeit back-bench, member of the Labour opposition, he has to argue that the Conservative-Libdem coalition has got things wrong. But as chair of the “no” campaign, he must privately be hoping that it gets things right.
The circle can be squared by arguing that even if the UK government is making a mess of things, at least it has the big tools it can use whereas an independent Scotland would not. Nevertheless, the delicacy of this position demonstrates the difficulties the “no” campaign faces.
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