Analysis by Alex Porter
Scottish Unionism has seen better days and there are any number of angles on its current crises. So, as the great referendum debate starts to take shape can the usual arguments for Union hold?
Shoogly peg 1: The media is the massage
One worth consideration is that control over the traditional media no longer equates to control over the political loyalties of Scots. Unionist politicians can gang up on a Nat in a tv debate and believe their collective reasoning to be indestructable but the Nats still win elections. That must rankle in certain quarters.
Every year around 1.5% of the population becomes eligible to vote. These people are young and clued-in with all things world wide web. Every year 1.5% of the population – with few internet skills – leaves Scotland to the rest of us. Taken together these figures mean every year 3% of the voting population becomes instantly internet savvied and so the influence of traditional media dwindles. Of course, the rest of us in the middle are not sitting still so are also becoming more internet savvy. At every passing election the Katie Grants of this world talk exclusively to her own rapidly-dwindling kind.
One very real danger for Unionism posed by the internet is that voters have so many varied sources of information. The consequence is that their ‘bollotix’ alarm sounds at the merest hint of a dodgy narrative on TV news reports. People are not easily led or misled anymore. It was thanks to the internet that the SNP overcame the hositility of Scotland’s Unionist media to win their historic first term in 2007. Four years later social networking and other internet channels played no small part in delivering the SNP a majority of Scotland’s 129 seats in Holyrood.
It stands to reason then that the internet will play a key role in who wins Scotland’s independence referendum. More Scots now get news from the internet than any other source such as the BBC and that trend is consolidated year after year in proportion to the passing of traditional Unionism and its print media allies. Unionism depended heavily on influencing traditional media and so even if there is any substantial remaining attachment to the Union, Unionists must surely realise that it can no longer get its own way because it can massage the message.
The contrived narrative about Scots having no desire to exercise their democratic right to an independence referendum is now consigned to the midden of history where it always belonged. However, said midden will have to wait a wee while longer before giving refuge to ‘received wisdoms’ of Scotland’s pro-Union mainstream media on the subject of the benefits of independence. Will Unionism be able to bamboozle our internet savvy Scots voters into sticking with the “Union dividend” in the midst of austerity cuts? Somewhat, but Scottish nostrils will detect a reek and so an opportunity presents itself to the SNP.
Political beliefs are no longer simply drip-fed to the Scots electorate by fusty establishment figures like Jim Wallace (Lord Wallace of Tankerness) with a penchant for ermine but are arrived at using peer-to-peer recommendations via social networking channels. Scots, especially young Scots, have developed a healthy distrust of traditional media’s political commentary and reportage. Information passed on from a friend, on the other hand, has value. Having young bright things such as Kirk Torrance, the party’s New Media Director, to advise the SNP who have grasped this new paradigm shift leaving Scottish Unionism a decade behind the curve.
Shoogly peg 2: Independence a distraction
Watching the Unionist-leaning media having a post-mortem about what has gone wrong was the icing on the cake for Nationalist activists. Most Scots couldn’t give two hoots what happened to Unionism. The Unionist political establishment, or what remains of it, is shocked and the old Jedi mind-tricks that once held sway in TV political commentary are now exposed, deliciously for independentistas, as blindingly obvious scare-tactics in real-time.
The well-worn classic is the one about how debating the constitution is a distraction from dealing with the economy. If that’s the case then how can Unionists such as former chancellor Alasdair Darling also argue that an independence referendum should be held quickly so as to minimise uncertainty for business? If independence is not relevant to the economy then what could business be uncertain about? People are not daft and if you treat them as if they are they’ll eventually change the channel.
For their part the Nationalists could argue that the delay in transferring tax-raising powers to Holyrood is causing uncertainty for Scottish business. Many Scottish boardrooms feel threatened by London’s current advantages and so the business landscape is now very favourable to fiscal autonomy – Unionism would be foolish to lose whatever business constituency is still retains and some, such as the decimated Lib Dems, are beginning to realise that only by proposing substantially more powers will the Scotland Bill become palatable to the Scots electorate.
Today’s Scots, and especially internet-savvy Scots, know full-well that independence is about politics and economics and therefore jobs and services – to suggest otherwise is treating the electorate contemptuously and the recent election showed that Scots have had their fill of specious, negative soundbites.
To his credit David Cameron, in reaction to the SNP’s landslide, did promise he would make a positive case for the Union during the referendum campaign. It is not clear who in Scotland will bother to listen to the English Etonian Prime Minister, least of all Scottish pro-Union supporters. Scottish Unionists, on the whole, have defined their Unionism entirely by what they are against and so when pushed – and they haven’t been pushed much until now – can’t express why they support the Union except in vague terms of economic benefits.
Instead, we are bombarded with the economic downside of independence but this is never convincingly substantiated by official statistics which could prove or disprove their case. Those figures have been long concealed from public view arousing yet more scepticism of the case against independence.
Shoogly peg 3: Umbrellausterity
Which brings us to the next shoogly peg of Unionism. Scotland needs the umbrella of Union to protect it from the uncertainties of the international economy. What planet are these commentators on? The reality of living in UK PLC is perfectly and simply understood by all Scots who know what the word ‘austerity’ means.
Austerity cuts are imposed on Scotland by Westminster which is running an unprecendented and ballooning deficit. UK government debt stood at £903.4 billion at the end of March and heading due North. At the same time Scotland’s economy under the stewardship of John Swinney is in surplus. So, despite Scotland’s economic surplus the Scottish parliament has to lose out to pay for poor house-keeping South of the border. Some umbrella.
The umbrella metaphor goes from the ridiculous to the sublime when reflecting on the plummeting value of the pound. A depreciating sterling means foreign goods and components become more expensive. Scottish importers must then pass their increased costs on to Scottish consumers. What is becoming clearer, month by month, is that an increasing number of economists and analysts accept that there is no reason to believe that austerity measures and historic low interest rates will do anything but make the UK economy worse.
Britain is being left behind by its key trading partners according to Scottish economist Brian Ashcroft. Germany is a manufacturing power-house and so can balance its books by exporting goods it makes. Manufacturing only accounts for 12.8% of the UK’s economy. That is a dire state of affairs and means there’s no easy way of paying off spiralling govenment debt. Closing the gap in manufacturing would require more than a generation of capital investment. Capital is formed by companies saving money but with interest rates held at 0.5% there is no incentive for them to save.
There-in lies the UK’s catch 22 – raising interest rates is not an option for Westminster as its debt now approaches £1 trillion and the UK’s consumer debts are higher than the rest of the EU combined. If the people are already struggling and you land them with higher interest payments how will they be able to also pay for the government’s increased interest payments through taxation? Some umbrella.
To continue borrowing the UK government must borrow against future North Sea oil revenues. If it can’t then confidence in the UK economy will nose-dive and capital will flee. The fly in the ointment is the referendum on Scottish independence which is now certain after the SNP’s landslide victory. Much of the commentary from the English print media suggests that the English would be glad to get the subsidy-junkie Scots off their backs. The London treasury knows the truth, though, and the issue of control over North Sea assets could not be more sensitive. The truth is that Scotland’s North Sea resources are the UK’s economic umbrella.
Nationalist self-imposed shoogly peg
Set against this economic reality it makes perfect sense for the SNP to prioritise securing more tax powers for Scotland’s parliament in advance of the referendum. If parliament secures more economic powers – especially corporation tax – then full independence will become increasingly certain as the divergence of the Scottish and English economies gathers pace.
One potential pitfall for the referendum ‘Yes’ camp though is the thorny subject of currency. Scotland’s Finance Minister John Swinney simply must face the issue of a Scottish currency head on. It is unfortunate and potentially damaging that the SNP are uncomfortable on the subject of advancing an independent Scottish currency as the monetary gods are currently smiling on Salmond.
With the UK’s debts mounting, London’s approach will be to continue inflating debt away by increasing the money supply. This will accelerate the devaluation of sterling. It matters less then if Scots keep more of their money if that money buys less and so fiscal autonomy is only part of the economic powers equation.
There is a real opportunity for the Nationalists to argue that a strong Scottish currency, backed by oil, would quickly rise in value against sterling (suddenly not backed by oil) meaning Scotland’s share of the UK deficit will be much cheaper to pay off. The case for an independent Scottish currency can be won in the boardrooms and it simply must now be the subject of national debate.
With such a strong case to make there is no reason to risk the distrust of Scots who have shown they want to be levelled with. And the currency issue will be brought up again and again by Unionists who sense the SNP’s unease on the subject. With everything going the SNP’s way why would they throw a lifeline to the ‘No’ camp?
Hanging Scotland’s Jacket
Our independence referendum will of course be about many issues and at core be about how secure Scots feel about themselves and their culture. Perhaps it is a weakness that the debate is reduced to “little more than a car boot sale haggling session” but the fact is that much of the debate will centre on the issue of economics.
The problem for Unionism is that its economic rhetoric no longer mesmerises as it once did and so the ‘No’ camp must quickly get with the internet programme. The ‘Yes’ camp on the other hand is ahead of the game and has the momentum in a nation which seems to no longer fear the word independence any more.
The only danger for the cause of an independent Scotland is whether or not the ‘Aye’ camp will feed Scotland’s insecurities and try to sweep the issue of currency under the carpet. If the latter want Scots to take a leap in the dark with them then Scots will have to believe that they are being told it like it is.