Ewan Crawford: Self-empowerment is vital in uncertain times

THE SNP Government’s GUBU moment should not distract voters from the bigger, better picture that is now on offer, writes Ewan Crawford

THE SNP Government’s GUBU moment should not distract voters from the bigger, better picture that is now on offer, writes Ewan Crawford

BACK in the 1980s, politicians in Ireland feared one thing above all others: the appearance of the dreaded GUBU.

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Coined by the journalist, writer and politician, Conor Cruise O’Brien, it was an acronym used as a label whenever some minister or other had to endure yet another calamity.

GUBU was based on a phrase used by the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, to describe a particularly turbulent series of events, which he said was grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre, unprecedented.

It can be seen as the forerunner for the word “omnishambles” introduced to political discourse by the BBC satire, The Thick of It.

Tony Blair’s former press secretary, Alastair Campbell, had his own way of describing unforeseen and damaging events as “those sinking moments when the words ‘Oh damn!’ flashed across my mind,” (except he didn’t use the word damn).

Inevitably, after a certain period in government politicians of any party will have to endure a number of GUBUs or “Oh Damn!” moments.

In the last two weeks the Conservative-LibDem Coalition has endured the Andrew Mitchell affair (“Gategate”), the George Osborne first-class ticket pantomime and confusion over energy tariffs to name just three.

Here in Scotland, it was quickly decided that the resignation of two SNP MSPs over Nato policy and the vicious row over legal advice surrounding an independent Scotland’s membership of the EU, added up to the SNP’s worst week ever.

Of the two stories, the EU spat is the one that the SNP’s opponents are enjoying the most.

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The attack has been based on two main threads: abuse heaped on the First Minister and the question of uncertainty in the event of Scottish independence.

The personal assault on Alex Salmond is essentially a continuation of a strategy deployed constantly by opponents who seem genuinely baffled by the electorate’s decision to put his party into government.

The level of apparently uncontrolled vitriol from senior figures, past and present in the Labour Party, reflects, I would suggest, more on their own character and suitability for office than anyone else’s.

But if these attacks can be largely dismissed, the issue of uncertainty cannot. This needs to be taken seriously, not because it stands up to scrutiny, but because it seems clear this is going to be the major theme of the No campaign in the independence referendum.

The issue for those on the Yes side is therefore how to handle it. The first thing to do is to accept that if people are going to be confronted by a barrage of claims, however spurious, about uncertainty, week after week for two years, than inevitably some of it is going to register.

This acceptance can then act as a liberating force, freeing up the Yes side to face the political climate that will actually exist in 2014 not the one it might like to exist.

In particular, accepting that some people may be swayed by the uncertainty argument forces those who support independence to come up with a compelling case that will convince people, even if the No side’s campaign has had some impact.

That does not mean accepting for a second the validity of the No arguments. On the question of EU membership, for example, the fanciful proposition is that Scotland, currently within the EU and by definition meeting all the democratic and legal requirements of an organisation which is actively embracing new members, will be expelled if a majority of people vote for independence.

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On the issue of sterling it is said that despite tens of billions of pounds of cross-border trade between England and Scotland, the Westminster government will be as obstructive as possible in relation to the currency regardless of the impact on its own companies.

But these political realities will not stop the dire warnings from those politicians determined to maintain Westminster control over Scotland.

It will therefore be important to highlight that there is no status quo option in the event of a No vote in the referendum.

There is no certainty versus uncertainty.

Major changes, that we have little or no control over at present, are taking place in relation to the economy, social policy, European policy, defence and other areas.

The issue then becomes how much influence we can have over these big changes that are going to affect our everyday lives.

Is there really more certainty in continuing to hand over power to a government in Westminster that most people in Scotland may or may not have voted for?

The referendum will ultimately be won or lost depending on people’s views on their and their families’ economic prospects and security.

In this respect there was a significant development last week which attracted little publicity. The UK government issued a statement highlighting what it called a “bonanza” in the North Sea with “record-breaking” levels of investment and highlighting a £40 billion boost to the UK’s trade balance.

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This comes at the same time as two perverse Westminster policy choices for Scotland. The first has been to slash a large number of public sector jobs. The second has been to deny us the competitive powers needed to create private sector employment to compensate for the loss of those public sector jobs.

If we could combine our North Sea oil revenues, which the Coalition said last week will continue for many years to come, with our other abundant natural and human resources and normal, competitive powers, there is every chance of achieving greater economic security and fairness than that offered by the London austerity fetish.

That is the real choice facing voters in Scotland as the referendum campaigns get underway in earnest.