Commentary by Derek Bateman
A foundation stone of the Better Together case was the integrity of the UK. In other words, the political and constitutional construct we know as Britain was sound, time-honoured and powerful. Our alternative was uncertain, untried and shaky. You needed faith to buy into our idea. Theirs just was…
We were all brought up with its inexplicable eccentricities and unchallenged authority. Even after devolution the common complaint was Holyrood had neither the intellectual content nor rhetorical ability to emulate Westminster. SW1 had quality in spades. EH99 didn’t even have spades.
The presumption of jaw-jutting dominance was encapsulated in the alacrity with which even our ‘left wing, radical’ representatives took to London. You might be elected by the voters of some desperately impoverished burgh but that was only the catapult which propelled you into metropolitan ascendancy. Gordon Brown was first offered junior ministerial promotion to the old Scottish Office. He rejected it out of hand, he having bigger fish to fry.
The same assumptions could be heard time and again in the questions fired at – mostly – Alex Salmond. The Radio Four presenter, asking about automatic entry to the EU, tagged on a final: this is your first foray into international affairs – didn’t go very well, did it? (Over-reaching yourself, yokel?)
The answer was along the lines of not taking lectures on foreign affairs from the people who led us into Iraq and the worst diplomatic debacle since Suez.
But in a way that summed it up. The broadcaster was (is) afflicted by the same default mind-set as the Great British public. In essence it is that Britain is the good guy whose intentions are always true whatever mistakes are made along the way. No matter how egregious the UK’s decision-making, no matter how catastrophic the effects, Britain isn’t wrong for long. Or something like that. It gets hard to tell sometimes just what the public do think such is the myopia and short-term memory syndrome of the voters. Austerity? Starving ex soldiers committing suicide? Food banks in every town? Top one per cent richer than ever? Can’t remember that, mate. I’m voting for Cameron. Don’t trust that Miliband bloke.
I’m tempted to describe this as an extreme branch of nationalism, one so fixed in its fundamental positioning that it overlooks or overcomes every shortcoming of both the British state and those who defend it most openly. This differs considerably from what has become the hallmark of the nationalist case in Scotland.
It’s true, I think, that there is a tendency by Yes to deny or dismiss criticism of the SNP government. But in my experience that is mostly a form of fending off what they see as unreasonable partisan attacks from opposition and media on anything the SNP does rather than rational analysis of policy. It is in the nature of insurgency that the whole array of existing voices will contest your right to exist and the result is a dreadnought defensive reaction. Repel! Repel!
Asked about this default blindness to SNP failure by a PhD student filming an interview this week, I outlined some of my own specific, and public, criticisms of the SNP from mistakes over indyref European policy, the currency, the way Named Person was announced to the glorification of Nicola. But I qualified it all by saying that for me and, I suspect, most Yessers, the dismal quality of the opposition and its collective empty offer of serious alternatives still left the Nationalists miles ahead, whatever their limitations. If Sturgeon talks big on education but the outcomes contradict her, do I turn to the Tory opposition for answers? Hardly. If poverty stats worsen do I give my vote to Kezia instead. Erm…
I’m backed up by the Scots themselves who still, nine years on, give a measure of support to the SNP that defies political gravity. (52 % support for Holyrood against 21 % for the Tories in second) You can’t tell me none of those SNP voters disagree with one iota of policy or non-delivery. How many are teachers who resent curriculum change but still vote SNP? Or farmers paying off loans after subsidy payment delays? Or independence non-believers who don’t buy the SNP project at all but just want competent devolved government?
But the difference here is that the SNP is not Scotland. Scots, as shown by the indyref and by the continuing polling, can simultaneously vote SNP and No (to independence). The belief in country that I think allows Unionists to be nationalistic about Britain, more or less despite the political parties, does not yet extend to Scotland. Sure, we do all the bluster about emblems and history but that’s not belief, it’s nostalgia. We’re not a state of course and we’re pushing against the grain of accepted history. We’re trying not just to change politics but to change our perception of ourselves.
One way of doing this is by comparison. Obviously. This hasn’t gone well for us as touched on above. We simply haven’t had the armoury needed to compete with the UK – no credit history and no strategic control of the economy to quote, for example. But something has changed. Britain has become defective.
The seemingly ageless nation, the mother of parliaments, its diplomatic finesse and the other accoutrements of the admirable British, are in decay. Some of us have argued for years now that Britain wasn’t what people thought. It had become a place scornful of the working and non working class, encouraging contempt instead of compassion. It elects and appoints from a tiny elite while talking of meritocracy. It talks human rights while engaging in torture, talks peace while being constantly at war – see Ian Cobain’s latest book, the History Thieves.
Now we see on a regular basis catastrophic decision-making outlined at Hillborough (with Orgreave to come), Bloody Sunday, Chilcott, today, via the Commons, Libya, Hinkley Point and of course the ongoing ruin of Brexit. The vote to come out of the EU is Britain’s Mr Bean moment. It is an inadvertent slip on a banana skin from a careless Prime Minister and a bigoted media feeding a disenfranchised public. It is going to hurt, mostly the low paid, the outward-looking student, the traveller and enterprising businessman. The price in loss of respect and friendship will be incalculable.
If the leadership had a plan for the aftermath and had hit the ground running, you could be reassured there was meaning to this whatever your own misgivings. Instead the instigators have vacated the field. Those left behind are clueless, blaming each other. There is a seismic split of Labour proportions to hit the Tories in the next year between theological outers, the hard Brexiteers, and those moderates who seek a deal allowing (qualified) membership of the single market.
Thus far Britain is irritating the EU leadership, a mistake in itself as the capacity to wound is greater by far in Brussels. It is one thing to be denuded of the professional expertise to negotiate – and in addition to have stripped the civil service bare through budget cuts – but so far the UK hasn’t even an idea which approach to take while ministers disagree over the destination. Notice how quickly the notion that parliament might be consulted was swept aside. Nominally, that’s you and me being kicked in the teeth.
I can see a time when the Brussels machinery really will have to listen to voices in the UK pleading to stay if for no other reason than the image the EU will give to the rest of the world. I see a political temptation to focus on Scotland with a history of nationhood and anti-British resistance, making us an irritating example or a pawn in the game. After all, the British membership chair will be invitingly empty throughout the exit talks. Who will be there when the music stops?
Yet, to go back to the start, the deep belief in the British brand remains embedded here in Scotland. Over the generations the British have done a remarkable job in building a reputation that survives everything. For probably a majority it trumps the efficiency and appeal of any sort of SNP-led self-government. No doubt there will be a moment when a tipping point is reached and resistance falls away. Certainly demographics are on our side. But as opponents have discovered over the ages, the UK still stands. Crumbling and unstable she may be but there nevertheless. If nationalism is core belief in country, it looks like their nationalism is stronger than ours.