The Last Chance for the Unionist Case?


By Bob Duncan
As I predicted a couple of weekends ago, the independence debate is beginning, at long last, to move from the procedural to the political. The argument over referendum dates, wording of questions etc. is quietening while attention is turning to more substantive issues such as the shape of an independent Scotland, her institutions and infrastructure.

The SNP and Scottish Greens, at least, have begun to outline their own visions for Scotland after the union, and are listing those aspirations which believe will become possible in an independent nation state with the full set of powers that entails.

The unionist parties remain predictably negative but have also, if reluctantly and haltingly, started to define the independent nation they would like to see – most noticeably by voting in Holyrood to retain the Queen as head of state in Scotland, once the Act of Union has been dissolved. It has been a slow start but it is, unquestionably, a start.

So, in a spirit of cooperation, I am offering several pieces of constructive and helpful advice to assist the unionist parties and their supporters throughout the remainder of the pre-referendum debate. They will realise that they have not made the best of starts – Cameron, Osborne, Moore et al. having so far only managed to increase support for independence and membership of the SNP.

Independence, however, is not inevitable – not this time around anyway – and there is scope for unionists to engage from now in a more thoughtful and adult manner. So here is my advice.

Stop repeating that it is time to make the positive case for the union and get on with actually articulating it. Vacuous slogans such as “stronger together, weaker apart” will gain no traction with voters unless they are explained in terms of concrete examples, demonstrating why this is the case and, more importantly, to whom it refers. Otherwise, the assumption will be that this slogan applies only to the position of England, within or outwith the union.

Stop using the word “separation” as a synonym for independence. None of the nations who have thus far gained their independence from Britain commemorates their “Separation Day”. Ask the United States what they celebrate on the 4th of July. The continual use of pejorative terms like this just emphasises the paucity of your argument. Sadly, this use of language is a legacy of decades of spin.

Stop trying to insinuate that Scotland would not be economically viable as an independent state. This myth was busted long ago and attempts to resurrect it do you no service. Scotland has, for decades, contributed much more to the UK exchequer than it receives back, Scots are not “subsidy junkies” and we will not become Bangladesh, Albania or even Skintland after independence.

Stop referring to the part of the UK which is left after Scotland secedes from the union as the UK or rUK. The UK was formed by treaty between Scotland and England and when Scotland leaves so will England, as the UK will then cease to exist. The Act of Union was a bilateral agreement and, regardless of population or political gravity, and despite appearances, there was and is no senior party in the union.

Whatever the nation of England, the principality of Wales (which is constitutionally part of England) and the province of Northern Ireland (which is not) wish to call themselves, even if that is (perversely) the United Kingdom, they will not be the successor state of the UK any more than Scotland will be.

England may well argue successfully to keep the UK seat on the UN Security Council, for example , by virtue of population size (civilian and military) or nuclear capability. It is hard to see why Scotland would even try to oppose this. But if England does this it will be by negotiation, not by right.

Stop attempting to imply that an Independent Scotland would need to ask Westminster for permission to continue using Sterling and the Bank of England. Despite the historical misnomer, the BoE is the central bank of the UK, not of England.

The BoE is independent of government, it is partly owned by Scotland, it has been nationalised for decades and it controls Sterling which is the currency of both countries (plus Northern Ireland). Each of those conditions will continue to be true after the union is dissolved.

Although Sterling was established as a UK currency by the 1707 Act of Union, the BoE as a central bank is a 20th century invention and its status, including the status of its currency, will not alter post independence, except by negotiation.

Stop hiding information from the public whenever it supports the case for independence. The burying of the McCrone report in the 1970s, with the subsequent collusion of all successive UK governments, along with their colleagues in the first two Scottish Executives, was a betrayal of the people of Scotland of which all should be justifiably angry.

Stop pretending that North Sea oil and gas reserves are almost exhausted and will soon run out. This lie has been peddled since the 1970s and each decade we are told the there is only enough left for another ten years at most. UK government estimates of the value of existing fossil fuels in the Scottish sector exceed £1.5 trillion and this does not take into account the potential for new discoveries, particularly on the Western seaboard.

Stop ignoring or denying the possibility of Scottish Independence and begin planning for the consequences of a YES vote in 2014. Within 18 months of the referendum, there will be a general election which may well elect the first government of the new independent Scottish state.

Unionist parties will need to start planning now if they are to be in a position to engage with the electoral process and form part of this government. Simply assuming either that Scotland will vote NO, or that the SNP will suddenly fracture into schisms after a YES vote, will leave unionists unprepared for the realities of the post-referendum period, potentially disenfranchising many of their supporters.

Stop inventing and promulgating ridiculous scare stories in an attempt to instil fear in the electorate. Our airports will not be carpet bombed by England, our defence and shipbuilding industries will not be destroyed, we will not be left open to invasion by some unnamed bogeyman, we will not need to learn Gaelic to gain a civil service or council job and the pandas will not be taken from Edinburgh zoo. No-one believes these any longer and public opinion is turned against those who peddle them.

If unionist parties begin adult campaigning now, explaining exactly why they believe Scotland would be better off remaining under the rule of a parliament in another country, then they may or may not win the debate, but they will certainly do better than if they were to pursue the combination of scaremongering and negativity which has characterised their argument so far.

Personally, if a definitive and compelling case for the status quo could be made, I suspect that it would have happened long ago, so I remain unconvinced of its existence. If, on the other hand, it can be made, then surely this is the time to do so, before time finally runs out for the NO campaign.

With groups such as the BNP, English/Scottish Defence League, National Front and Orange Order beginning to man the ramparts alongside the London-based mainstream parties, any well argued and articulated case may soon cease to be audible against the background noise from the barrage of hatred, sectarianism and ethnic British Nationalism which will inevitably be launched by this New Model Army of the right.

It may also prove impossible for the Labour Party in particular to gain any ground whatsoever, once it is so visibly ensconced with not only the hated Tories, but with their ultra-right friends as well. For Scottish Labour, independence may well come as a blessed relief from the ignomony of those overly pragmatic and ill-considered pre-independence alliances.

Only time will tell.

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