Andrew Wilson: Yes vote won’t sever all UK ties

PROFESSOR Richard Rose is the doyen of political scientists in the UK. Born in St Louis, Missouri, he has spent more than four decades in post at Strathclyde University on and off.

Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Picture: Phil Wilkinson

His memoirs, Learning About Politics in Time and Space, were published late last year with publicity saying “he has been teargassed in Chicago, seen walls go up in Belfast and come down in Berlin”. I love such stories of well-lived lives.

We all need to learn lessons from other countries, and times, for the puzzles we ponder here and now.

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The world has changed, and is changing still. The choice we make in September looks forward into a completely different world from the one many Home Rule campaigners ever imagined. Too much of the debate echoes with the sound and fury of the politics of yesteryear rather than finding common ground in the realities we will face tomorrow.

Rose puts the point I want to make brilliantly:“What happens in Brussels or Beijing can have more impact on all parts of the United Kingdom than what happens in Westminster. The cross-national interdependencies arising from globalisation diminish England’s claim to be a big fish by increasing the size of the pond, in the words of a former Belgian prime minister, ‘There are two kinds of countries in the world today: those that are small and know it and those that are small and don’t’.”

Scotland is in the first category of country and the UK is in the second. By walking forward with its gaze fixed firmly on its past, the UK establishment is a deeply reluctant reformer unwilling to let go of command and control of a governance system unfit for 21st century purpose.

Yes, devolution in 1997 mattered enormously, but after decades of campaigning it then created a parliament with virtually identical powers to the ones already held by the then secretary of state for Scotland.

Had the UK purposefully empowered its nations and regions, with gusto rather than reluctance, we may not have the referendum choice we now have. But Britain’s establishment still clings on to centralised power.

Which explains why it is fighting its campaign against an argument and an enemy that just doesn’t exist. Decades-old tactics are being deployed and are completely missing the target. This should be about whose vision will deliver the best outcomes for people. Instead, it is about one evolving vision versus standing still in a landslide and storm.

It may take some more time, but all will eventually twig that in economic policy terms the powers on offer in the Scottish Government’s referendum prospectus are far closer to the “devo-max” so many undecided voters seek than where we stand now.

In reality, so much will remain shared and joint in our endeavours with the rest of the UK. That may not be the “independence” critics believe they are fighting against. Maybe that is what seems to be enraging them as they tilt at the wrong windmill.

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I remain very optimistic, though. With a Yes comes the opportunity to create a truly modern way of governing ourselves with new institutions that can endure and the finest living example of co-operation through interdependence of any countries anywhere. If we choose that course, the acrimony will stop and all must be given a stake in making it wondrous.

If we choose No then two things could happen. With a large enough Yes the momentum behind maximum economic and financial powers could be strong. The people will want the SNP to stay focused and engaged in that process to ensure Scotland’s interests are secured.

And they must. I often wonder if the SNP remaining in the 1990s constitutional convention would have secured a more substantial devolution settlement in 1997.

Alternatively, it could be the signal many old war-horses of centralism need to put the brakes on democratic and policy progress. The major risk of token “devo-mini” measures such as the risible Calman Commission reforms and Gordon Brown’s recent reluctant call for minor additions is that they serve only to increase the size and cost of government without bettering outcomes.

And as the vote looms closer, it increasingly strikes me that what matters most of all is how we handle the aftermath whatever choice we make. Voices of progress, co-operation and grace need to be heard over the angry echoes of men (almost always) whose time and case has passed.

One very influential and connected London-based commentator told me this week that he had been told by both Labour and Tory leaderships that they were waiting to see the size of the Yes vote before deciding what powers to “give” Scotland.

That demonstrates cynical, unprincipled reluctance in one very polished nutshell. And it is precisely why, if the outcome you seek is more power closer to home while maintaining modern ties of co-operation across Britain in an interdependent world, the best tactic in September is to vote Yes.

Twitter: @AndrewWilsonAJW