Joyce McMillan: Different referendum, same tactics

The EU referendum  campaigns 'seem to lack any real positive vision of a better future for ordinary citizens'. Picture: AFP/GettyImages
The EU referendum campaigns 'seem to lack any real positive vision of a better future for ordinary citizens'. Picture: AFP/GettyImages
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THE Remain camp has resorted to offering the same negativity as the No campaigners used before the independence vote, writes Joyce McMillan

The sight of people gloating is never a pretty one; but still, let no man or woman be denied a moment of glory, when it comes. The latest GERS figures released by the Scottish Government show that the impact of the collapsing oil price on Scotland’s finances has been severe, and is likely to look even more severe when the figures for the current year emerge; in 2014-15 we had a top-line deficit of something like £15 billion a year, which is almost 10 per cent of Scottish GDP, and therefore twice as high, in relative terms, as the soaraway deficit currently being run by George Osborne at UK level.

So “What an Eckscape” roared the jolly front page of yesterday’s Daily Record, as it congratulated the Scottish people on their wisdom in avoiding the horrible fate of independence in a world of plunging oil prices; and cries of Unionist glee spread across the media, as those who voted No in the 2014 referendum – or at least some of them – celebrated their refusal to fall for the “con trick” of Alex Salmond’s optimistic White Paper on Scotland’s Future, and their instinctive understanding that despite a new culture of confidence in the land, Scotland in fact always remained a bit of an economic and social basket case, awaiting its next embarrassing failure.

And up to a point, all of this is fair enough. The talk of a deliberate SNP “con trick” is unpleasant and unnecessary, of course. At the time of the White Paper’s publication, in 2013, hardly anyone anticipated the coming oil price collapse; indeed the UK Treasury’s estimate of the likely future oil price was even higher than that of the Scottish Government.

Yet if Scotland had been on the point of declaring itself independent next week, as Alex Salmond planned, we would indeed have been facing very hard times; and those hard times pose tough questions for a First Minister who has always said that for her, independence is only a means to an end, and that end is the kind of wellbeing and social progress, for the Scottish people, that would surely be impossible to deliver under such harsh economic conditions.

The Scottish No camp should try to keep their celebrations within bounds, though, for at least two reasons. The first is that the likely decline of the North Sea oil industry is terrible news for those most closely involved in it, including North Sea workers and their families, and all the small businesses that depend directly or indirectly on the oil extraction industry. To seem to be rejoicing over this threat to so many livelihoods, and to what was one of Scotland’s most thriving, lucrative and technically sophisticated industries, is not a good look.

• READ MORE: Joyce McMillan: Sturgeon treading fine line amid EU turmoil

And while it’s possible, if we take a long historic view, to argue that Scotland now needs to move on from the age of carbon fuels towards the age of renewables, no-one who has the best interests of Scotland at heart could possibly be as pleased by the current situation as some unionist cheerleaders seem to be.

Then secondly, there is the much wider question - increasingly debated at UK level, as the EU referendum looms - of what happens, in the long term, to any political campaign or “Project Fear” whose main line of argument involves talking down the possibility of positive change, and issuing dire warnings about what will happen if we dare to disrupt the status quo.

As the EU referendum campaign rolls on, the Remain campaign is already under attack for talking Britain down, and implying that it is “too small, too poor and too stupid” to do well outside the EU; only yesterday, I heard a Leave campaigner mocking her opponents’ apparent belief that “the sun won’t shine any more” if we leave the EU, in a precise echo of one of the satirical highlights of the Scottish referendum campaign, Vic Rodrick and Annie Gunner’s spoof version of the Walker Brothers’ The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More.

And as the EU Remain campaign looks increasingly likely to lose the referendum argument - and this time, possibly, also the referendum itself – the experience of these two mass exercises in democracy increasingly suggests the same conclusion; that in both votes, most of the political and economic establishment is on the side of continuing Union, and that in both votes, however often they announce their intention of making positive arguments, they are so bereft of any real positive vision of a better future for ordinary citizens that they cannot help reverting to the irritable tone of a ruling class telling us repeatedly that we had better vote for the status quo, otherwise it will be much, much worse for us.

In the Scottish referendum, the authoritarian and repressive tone of the No campaign spoke volumes about the collapse of centre-left politics at UK level, and of a genuinely radical, empowering progressive alternative for the people of the UK as a whole.

And in the European referendum, the tone of the Remain campaign so far utterly betrays the complex history of the EU, and - for its own political reasons - downplays the key role the Union has played in protecting the rights of workers and consumers across the continent, and embodying what is still a more generous and socially-conscious model of capitalism than the transatlantic one.

So it’s perhaps small wonder that the deepest instinct of such a fearful and deeply conservative political establishment, when challenged, is to resort to Project Fear, in all its grim and belittling negativity.

And small wonder, too, that exasperated citizens everywhere are increasingly turning away from them; whether to the demagogues of the right (the Farages and the Trumps) or to what is left of the left - to the Corbyns and Sanders who can remember what a politics of hope looked like, and to those younger politicians, including Nicola Sturgeon, who at least claim to be the heirs and successors of that left-wing tradition, in daring to dream of a better, fairer and more sustainable world, even in weeks when those dreams come crashing down in a hail of negative statistics, and seem to slip almost beyond reach.