Westminster has been fizzing with indignation about the Prime Minister’s smearing of Keir Starmer with an accusation that he personally was responsible for the decision not to prosecute Jimmy Savile.
It reminded me of the social media campaign run by Scottish Nationalists during the 2015 general election, accusing Liberal Democrat MPs of being responsible for a “paedophile cover-up” at Westminster. It was an unfounded accusation, thrown with particular vigour at the late Charles Kennedy before he was eventually beaten by the SNP’s Ian Blackford in his Highland seat.
Scenes of a mobbed Keir Starmer being hustled off the street by police outside Parliament brought back memories of the same thing happening to Jim Murphy and Ed Miliband during the 2014 referendum.
Both Boris Johnson and Blackford are famous for their love of cakeism – having it and eating it. As with Brexit, so with independence.
By Blackford’s reckoning, if Scotland secedes from the United Kingdom we can still keep the good bits (like the currency or our pension entitlements) while leaving behind the bad bits (like the taxes that pay for the pensions). The SNP believe that they can reject any responsibility to pay for your pension, but demand that our neighbours to the south cover the tab.
I am no economist. There are others who have outlined far more eloquently than I could the challenges that our people and pensioners would face if the SNP actually tried to embark on this “offloaded pensions” policy – and the harsh spotlight this throws upon the fiscal challenges of secession generally.
Important in its own right, however, is what the denial of responsibility by the SNP says about their vision of democracy.
The whole point of our state pension is that we pool and share resources, geographically and generationally. Your taxes and my taxes do not get stored up in a pot for our pensions years down the line – they are spent in the here and now on the pensions of our fellow citizens, in every corner of the United Kingdom.
We accept that reality on the trust that when the time comes for us to retire, someone else will continue to pay the taxes that will fund our pensions. That chain of trust stretches back in time and can go on into the future – but it relies on a degree of trust in one another to maintain it.
In a purely legal sense, the government could end pension entitlements whenever it wanted. It would save itself an enormous amount of day-to-day spending if it did so, which is more or less what the SNP are proposing with their rejection of responsibility for Scottish pensions – a handy way of cutting the deficit, by trying to hand it off to someone else.
Whether or not we acknowledge it explicitly, however, we all understand why no government could or should abandon its responsibilities in that way.
At the heart of a functioning liberal democracy is the idea that we have lasting obligations to one another. We have obligations to those we know and those we do not, to generations older than us and to those who have not yet been born. We understand that we can be bound by decisions we disagree with and that sometimes we must pay taxes for things we dislike.
This system works because we know that we are better off together than we are working alone. If we only act on immediate and individual self-interest then, bit by bit, our common good suffers. If we work together and allow for a little compromise, however, then great things are possible.
Nationalism is the antithesis of this idea of shared obligation. In place of pooled resources and collective strength, we are told to cut ourselves away from the responsibilities and benefits of a common political community. Any compromise is a betrayal of the nation and any concession to others is evidence that we are (as the SNP love to say) “getting shafted”.
It is what makes nationalism so corrosive to a multinational political community like the UK. Every act of shared obligation becomes suspect. That the SNP do not accept such basic tenets of liberal democracy is perhaps to be expected. If they are going to deny any sense of solidarity with our friends and family around the rest of the UK, however, they might at least be consistent about it.
That is why the latest twist in the wind of the SNP over pensions is so revealing. Independence, their central – some might say solitary – policy proposition is based on the denial of shared obligation and community, and yet they are making a demand of shared obligation from the very people and institutions they reject.
It is a peculiar form of unilateralism. “We” have absolute self-determination and no obligation to our neighbours should we secede, but our former fellow citizens to the south have an absolute obligation to support us no matter that we chose to leave our shared community.
It seems more than a little odd that the SNP think that the rest of the UK is simultaneously irredeemable and yet eminently reasonable – made up solely of monstrous, thieving Tories who nevertheless will empty their pockets at the moment of asking. Is this Schrödinger’s United Kingdom?
If anything, such generous and honourable people seem like the kind we should want to keep close.
You might even ask – if our friends in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are so generous with their resources that they will share their pensions with us even after we have left, why would we want to leave in the first place?
Alistair Carmichael is the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland