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Choosing Scotland's Future: A Compressed History (November 2007)

This article was first published on openDemocracy

My text is from the prophet Andrew, son of Marr, at the end of his A History of Modern Britain (2007). "Scotland feels more like a different country, and London now seems a lot more than 400 miles from Edinburgh." Devolution hadn't taken an axe to the union of Scotland and England, but nor does it seem to have renewed it; the union "is more like two pieces of pizza being gently pulled apart, still together but now connected only by strings of molten cheese." The number-crunching of John Curtice this is not, nor the empiricism of the 1980s Leverhulme inquiry into higher education in Britain. But it seems to me a notion, or a story, that makes sense. Here's why

The transactional politics of the period since the election to the Scottish parliament at Holyrood on 3 May 2007 (and the resulting formation of a pro-independence government led by the Scottish National Party [SNP]), as much as the abstract qualities of the proposals on offer, have rapidly advanced the plausibility of Scotland's independence, within the Commonwealth and (probably) within the European Union - both as a tactic with dramatic short-term positive effects and as a strategic goal.

 

This wasn't an outcome foreseen by most of the election actors on and after 3 May - who probably expected a continuation of the ‘multi-party’ parliament of 2003-07 and of protracted and binding courtship rituals. The SNP leader and first minister Alex Salmond seems to have adapted to it about mid-May. With the heavy defeat of Labour (through the impact of proportional representation) on its local-government fiefdoms, he could reckon that a coalition agreement with the Liberals was more trouble than it was worth. Autonomy would give the SNP the chance to take over the governmental machine and use the limited time the party had before the opposition regrouped, to adopt bold initiatives, including the restatement of independence and deals made on the basis of this provisional sanction.

II Salmond takes a chance

The independence white paper ‘Choosing Scotland's Future’ was published on 14 August 2007. Although I helped draft it, and have the title to my credit, I felt then that it was premature. The honeymoon effect would wear off over the next couple of months, with the SNP's election promises and targets (which everyone expected to be harmlessly qualified by inter-party deals) coming to roost, and the consolidated spending review (CSR) looming with its promised cuts. Was it wise to offer such a hostage to fortune?

Yet, as matters turned out, yes. Alex Salmond had much to gain by carrying the war into the enemy's camp, and did so effectively. He desisted from assailing Wendy Alexander, Labour's new Scottish leader and the sister of Douglas (the UK's international-development secretary, and faithful ally of prime minister Gordon Brown), tempting though that was. She was a continuation of the ‘shuttlefolk’ who had mediated between Edinburgh and London from the vantage-point of the Heathrow VIP lounge. But with Edinburgh and London become two separate power-centres, their power lapsed. Outperformed by others on her front bench, she has yet to make the distance up.

Instead, a concatenation of events meant that the London organ-grinder, in the weeks after Brown inherited the premiership from Tony Blair on 27 June 2007, led with his chin. Which helped create a space for the first-minister's initiatives.

If Salmond was doing well up to October, when the polls were in Brown's favour (an echo of the effect of the transition between Margaret Thatcher and John Major in 1990, and transient) he was likely to do even better when Brown started to slip. Brown naturally tried to turn the CSR against the SNP (get its spending ministers to compete for resources: Thatcher's crude but effective divide-and-rule tactic) and not yielding a centimetre on oil.

III Brown stuff

But Gordon Brown was then outpaced by his long-term inadequacies: his ineptness in tactfully terminating the lasting Brown-Blair dyarchy - "Tony survives by consoling the people Gordon annoys" as Peter Hennessy put it - and, behind this, his total failure to modernise manufacture and infrastructure, the major programme of his Where There is Greed (1989). Brown, who had enjoyed Thatcher's run of luck, could be thrashed for his financial record, and was.

Most of the reasons for inflated public expenditure rest with him - misapplied national health service funding, big technology schemes going belly-up, the tax-credits fiasco, VAT frauds, selling oil for $10 a barrel at its 1999 peak and then gold at the bottom of the market. By quantifying these, Salmond and his ministers could declare him unfit for purpose and make the charge stick. The pensions-fund raid and stealth-taxes galore can also be added to this ledger on the debit side.

It got worse: as the Guardian's Larry Elliott proved in Fantasy Island, Brown's combination of the housing-retail carousel and ‘light-touch regulation’ aggravated two potentially lethal structural distortions:

- inflating a balance-of-payments deficit that could only be paid for by ‘inward investment’ (euphemism for ‘flogging British firms’)

- indiscriminate ingestion of hot capital, particularly from post-Enron Wall Street, in an avalanche of hedge funds and dodgy ‘financial instruments’.

As the ‘sub-prime’ element of these culminated in the credit crunch, Britain stood to get hammered more than most: hence the sub-prime minister's determination to defend oil to the last drop. But that, and the Trident nuclear-weapons system based in Faslane, and new civilian nukes, and Afghanistan, and Iraq, didn't play well north of Berwick-upon-Tweed.

IV ‘The might of the mighty Atlantic’

Alex Salmond was in a good position to put this across in the run-up to 20 September and the first meeting of his council of economic advisers. This was scarcely covered in the London papers when he first announced it - whereas Brown, by hiring various private equiteers and Thatcher's old chum Alan (‘who is Gordon Brown?’) Sugar, ensured publicity for his curious bunch.

The unadmitted sub-prime problem had, months before, started to alienate from Brown hitherto sympathetic London liberal-left journalists, such as Elliott or William Keegan of the Observer. After late September and the intensification of the Northern Rock crisis, the contrast between Salmond as almost a figure of Gladstonian rectitude and Brown as a diminished barrow-boy seemed plausible.

Moreover, Salmond's ‘arc of prosperity’ ethos could increasingly be backed up by the outcome of renewable-energy research and engineering. Here it appears that the tapping of wave power, ‘the might of the mighty Atlantic’, has reached approximately the same stage as North Sea oil in the late 1960s. To realise the potential, what is needed is to secure key alliances with European engineering centres; these would be bankrolled by what remains of the oil (now at over $ 100 a barrel) and the offer of the old oilfields as catchments for Europe's CO2 (which also squeezes out more oil).

The cold economic logic of this approach means sidelining links with the United Kingdom - now measurably lagging in the essential technologies, and suffering chronic underinvestment in transport infrastructure.

V

What, then, will happen? Most metropolitan reactions are characterised by pure and indeed escalating ignorance. The techno-financial membrane that existed in the 1970s and enabled the threat of ‘Scottish oil" to be succeeded by the brief heyday of ‘British’ (Tony Benn, Lord Kearton, Alastair Morton) oil has long gone. Continental countries will - in technology and infrastructure - call the shots, and Scotland, with a bit of Norwegian aid, will manoeuvre among them. Without Blair, Brown is discredited and will suffer even more marginalising.

For sure, there is no unity about constitutional futures. So in any future referendum, independence could in itself get only about a third of preferences. But the ‘greater fiscal autonomy’ scenario is opaque - neither federal nor confederal - and under pressure its supporters would probably cleave to the SNP, or to a degree of autonomy which amounted to its position. The increasing possibility of the election of the Conservatives in London would tend to cement this. No Scottish poll has foreseen any recovery in their northern fortunes, and hostility to ‘subsidised Jocks’ seems rooted and increasing in the media of ‘middle England’.

The question to be asked is this. With which capital in the British islands does London enjoy its closest relationships? With Dublin, dealings are at their best probably since Strongbow's day. Under pressure of fuel crisis, Scots energy could power an English recovery, through some sort of bilateral deal. The density of this relationship would be built up by north-to-south investment, by ad hoc regional and cultural bodies, by the monarchy - at least for a time (the concordat between Salmond and the Queen, two horseflesh-experts from the northeast, may not outlast the latter) - and by the Commonwealth. Neighbourliness, a dynamic reinterpretation of Adam Smith's ‘sympathy’, depends on autonomy. It's as simple as that.

 
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