Seeing the Light


By Derek Bateman

The next nine months will concentrate minds on Scotland’s chances post independence but it must surely mean a similar scrutiny of the developing UK after a No vote. I say “developing” but that contains an irony because on a battery of comparisons it seems Britain may actually be in the category of developing nation.

That term we normally apply to primitive economies struggling to put themselves on an upward curve aided by financial transfers from richer countries so a more appropriate phrase might be undeveloping country since in the UK’s case it has been developed but is now showing signs of unravelling into a threadbare and worn out curiosity.

And simultaneously research shows how this relative decline in the British state presents an opportunity to draw Labour voters away from a traditional affiliation to the UK and to express their real feelings about the possibilities opened up by Scottish independence. If the research is accurate, many Labour voters are already eyeing independence as an appealing prospect but can’t get over the mind-set that it is a concept owned by the SNP, a party to whom they don’t owe allegiance.

We’ll return to that. But first, the emerging critique of Britain as it crawls, slowly and painfully from recession – at least on some measures – is that it is inflexible and therefore lacking the ability to do anything other than genuflect to the City of London, is class-ridden so that social mobility is blocked (witness even John Major) and mercilessly pursuing a cuts agenda targeted on the low paid and the vulnerable.

Education is a key monitor of national performance and lays the foundation for so much else in society yet the latest PISA  results show Britain stagnating as a mid range  nation with teenagers lagging  behind their peers across the world as improvements stall in reading, maths and science with no improvement recorded in the basics of learning. Among those moving further ahead despite spending less than Britain are Slovenia and Estonia, two newly independent small nations. The UK was in 26th place for maths, 23rd for reading and 21st for science. Ambitious countries should not be scrambling to stay mid table.

Or there is the World Economic Forum report on competitiveness has Britain doing well in some categories but what about the balance as of the national budget as a percentage of GDP at 140 out of 144 nations…of gross national savings at 123…government debt at 136…national imports at 107…soundness of banks at 97…. ease of access to loans at 82? And does the UK sitting at number 55 for women in the labour market strike you as progressive?  For more on this read the Guardian.

Meanwhile food banks, as clear an indicator to poverty and stress as can be imagined are a growing feature of society. In July, the welfare minister Lord Freud said: “The provision of food-bank support has grown from provision to 70,000 individuals two years ago to 347,000. All that predates the [welfare] reforms. As I say, there is no evidence of a causal link.”

Yet an inquiry into the growth of food banks by the government has been delayed. Why? And when Alistair Carmichael spoke to MSPs he said there was a link between benefits cuts and food banks but also claimed it was simplistic to say the cuts led to them multiplying. (This sounds like the same tortured responses he gave to Nicola Sturgeon in the STV debate). Now household debt is rivaling sovereign debt and heading for £1.5 trillion.

So Britain, although by no means a basket case and with most of the features of a safe and modern nation compared to most others, is far from the gleaming model of prosperity and opportunity the government would like to present when held up against a possibly independent Scotland. And it may be that the point is being consumed by Scots yet to decide their vote in the referendum.

Work by two Scotland-based academics and published by the London School of Economics finds that the referendum result is more uncertain than opinion polls may suggest. They say: Labour affiliates are an important component with regards to the referendum result, and there appears to be a noticeable discrepancy between the party’s message and those who identify with it. Labour affiliates are not negative about the performance of an independent Scotland on the whole, but these assessments are not translating into actual constitutional preferences, perhaps partly because they see the term ‘independence’ as one that belongs to the SNP.

The suggestion is that far from believing the relentless message from the leadership about failure and doubt, Labour supporters have a different and more positive outlook for their country as a separate nation but haven’t equated that with a Yes vote yet because they regard it as something SNP people do, not them. If that’s true we are entering different territory in which there potentially is a majority for independence but it is being blocked by a traditional way of thinking about party allegiance.

It may also explain why Labour is so dogmatically averse to rational debate about the possibilities of independence to the extent that they cannot bring themselves to use the word and have a policy vacuum on what they would do after a Yes vote. But it also means there is a prize awaiting Yes campaigners who can inch Labour doubters away from historical resistance to the SNP and who can be brought to recognize change as the wish of a much wider front across society, not just of Salmond and his party.

The point is reinforced by another finding that only 14% of Labour affiliates were in favour of independence in 2012, but 26% believed that ‘all decisions’ should be made in Scotland. This is not a new phenomenon in opinion polling and shows that the term independence is a loaded one. These voters are effectively calling for independence of their country’s government but they don’t want to call it that. That could mean they are only a paper wall away from becoming Yes voters.

|Then this: Labour identifiers have become more positive about independence on average between 2011 and 2012, taking up a position just below the neutral point. This is potentially significant to the outcome of the referendum as almost 38% of Scots identified themselves with the Labour party in 2012.

I am selecting from the report so best you read it yourself for your own analysis but I think it’s also interesting that many Scots don’t differentiate in their minds (greatly) between independence and devo max which to me confirms the historic mistake of the Unionists to block a second question on more powers.

Even if they do now come up with some formulation for powers, their case is immediately shaky because they turned down the chance to put it directly to the people in the referendum. The problem they now have is convincing Scots that whatever they say, either separately or collectively, we will still be at the mercy of a British general election and a hostile English electorate after a No vote.

Courtesy of Derek Bateman