Joyce McMillan: Bravery needed in referendum

In the aftermath of Bank of England Governor Mark Carney’s visit, Scots must approach the referendum bravely, says Joyce McMillan
First Minister Alex Salmond welcomed Mark Carney to Bute House on Wednesday. Picture: PA WireFirst Minister Alex Salmond welcomed Mark Carney to Bute House on Wednesday. Picture: PA Wire
First Minister Alex Salmond welcomed Mark Carney to Bute House on Wednesday. Picture: PA Wire

THERE was a great fluttering in the dovecots of the Scottish establishment this week as the new Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, arrived in Edinburgh to give us his thoughts on the SNP government’s plans for a shared sterling zone, following a Yes vote in Scotland’s forthcoming independence referendum. As one might expect, Mr Carney made a measured speech, highlighting the complexity of the negotiations on currency union that would follow such a vote, and pointing out the obvious truth that any nation that chooses to enter a currency union – whether with the EU or with anyone else – has to give up some elements of sovereignty in doing so.

At this point in Scotland’s referendum debate, though, what Mark Carney actually said seems to matter much less, to most of the politicians and campaigners involved, than the instant re-spinning of his comments to support their chosen side of the argument. The SNP and the Yes campaign wanted to emphasise Mr Carney’s clear view that such an agreement could be made to work, given the will on both sides to make it do so; the No campaign and the UK Treasury, backed by mainstream UK media opinion, chose to give the impression that the Governor had uttered an awful warning of economic ruin and crisis facing Scotland following independence, and of the harsh conditions that would accompany any Bank of England bailout. In some quarters, the idea of Scotland as an economic basket-case seems so ingrained, despite current statistics, that disaster seems not only possible but probable; and the No campaign, pursuing their “Project Fear” strategy, are playing vigorously to those pessimistic instincts, with every chance – despite recent polls – of ultimate success.

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As Scotland rounds the headland into rough winds of the new year, in other words, it becomes increasingly clear that September’s vote will be a contest between those who are willing to risk heading for the choppy waters of a long independence negotiation, and those who think there will be smoother sailing for the good ship Caledonia if we simply stick to the familiar structures of British institutions.

Whether those institutions are still effective guarantors of stability is debatable of course, particularly following the financial crash, and the recent sharp rightward shift in UK politics. Yet Westminster, Downing Street and the Bank still put up a good show of being as they always were; and most voters in Scotland are probably still willing to believe that the status quo means peace and quiet, whereas independence means uproar and uncertainty.

Beyond that, though, there is one other factor in the debate that makes realistic discussion about the likely aftermath of a Yes vote more difficult; and that is the apparent serene conviction of Scotland’s governing party that all would certainly be well, in that best of all possible worlds. At its highest and most creditable level, this conviction takes the form of SNP ministers showing some confidence in the fundamental common sense of the UK government, and suggesting – probably rightly – that Whitehall and Downing Street would not actually try to create damaging instability across the British Isles, just in order to spite the Scots for voting Yes. Somewhere in the middle, there’s the slightly hazy, not to say shifty, conviction that some obvious problems could simply be made to go away – including, for example, the knotty question of university fees for English-based students.

And somewhere near the bottom of the intellectual and ethical heap, there’s the sentimental nationalism of some Yes supporters who seem to believe that Scots are simply a superior lot, who will always vote for the values of wisdom, compassion, justice and integrity engraved on their parliamentary mace; and that an independent Scotland will therefore naturally be a better place, from Day One.

It’s possible to argue, of course, about how far Scottish and English opinion differs on the major issues of the day; the statistical differences are generally much smaller than some nationalists imagine, and – on subjects including Europe, and general trust in the state as a service provider – rather larger than unionists would wish. What’s clear, though, is that essentialist beliefs about national character are at best useless in 21st-century politics, and at worst absolutely dangerous. Scots will have their own demons and divisions and vested interests and reactionary impulses to face down, whatever the outcome of the referendum campaign; and the idea of a sunlit future just beyond a referendum Yes vote is therefore as implausible as the image of a newly independent Scotland immediately disappearing into some whirlpool of economic decline, a veritable Corryvreckan of national debt and humiliation.

So what can we expect, in the event of a Yes vote? Well, the SNP might indeed, as it predicts, be able to make a formal declaration of independence in March 2016; but in truth, the complex negotiations of Scotland’s independence deal – on everything from the currency to defence and broadcasting – would probably take the best part of a decade, during which it would be in everyone’s interest to remain calm and businesslike.

And at the end of it, Scotland would have not some perfect vision of freedom, but the complex patchwork of sovereignty, co-operation and binding treaty obligation that is all any nation can hope for, in our deeply interconnected world. As a Canadian, Mark Carney must be as well aware as anyone that the British state, as a former imperial power, has vast previous experience in negotiating these kinds of deals, from the original dominion status of Canada itself, to the long link between sterling and the Irish pound that followed the independence treaty of 1921. He knows, in other words, that the deal can be done.

And my wish for Scotland, when we go to the polls in September, is therefore that people will find the energy to set fear and fear-mongering aside, to trust in our shared ability to avoid rocks and whirlpools, to acknowledge that we face choppy waters in all directions; and to vote as free citizens on what we think we should do – rather than on what we think we cannot do, or what we have been told others will do to us.