Brilliant piece by Alex Bell in the Scottish Review.
The week the game changed
The UK is dead.
it died last week – Alex Bell
In the last week three major threats have appeared for Scotland. It could suffer the kind of extreme weather that has doused England, it could not be in a currency union with rUK and it might struggle to get into the EU. Two of these threats are man-made, and one natural. The natural one is the more serious.
I wrote a book on the history of water and civilisation in 2009. The Edinburgh Book Festival called ‘Peakwater’ ‘seminal’ in 2013. Within weeks my second book will be out. It is called ‘The People We Could Be’ and is about the choices facing Scotland. Until this week, I thought the two projects were quite separate. I am no longer certain.
Getting water to follow mankind is a key point in history. When we were no longer at the mercy of floods and droughts, we had the chance to settle and sustain large communities. Civilisation began in an irrigation ditch.
Controlled water means order, floods mean chaos but a new beginning – just ask Noah. Water runs through history as both a symbol of freedom and a threat. It is why political rhetoric likes water – a ‘flood’ of immigrants, being ‘swamped’ by criminals or cheats ‘sponging’ off the state.
There is a physical and mathematical truth to a flood; it will move in predictable ways and a certain volume of water will be capable of a measurable degree of damage. Despite the science, water is presented as a democratic thing. For every drought, there’s a radio phone-in asking the general populace for their views on climate change. With floods in England, it seems that anyone’s view is valid as to why it’s happening and what to do with it – no one seems inhibited by the science or facts of the matter.
The other two threats are not scientific, but abstractions; constructs of a political strategy. The first is that Scotland will not be in a sterling currency union. Despite this being a subjective opinion from a senior civil servant based on the performance of the Scottish Government, this is apparently a fact.
Sir Nicholas Macpherson, head man at the Treasury, has taken the council tax freeze and promises of a corporation tax cut to say that fiscal policy is ‘misaligned’ for the purposes of a currency union, and doesn’t think one can be struck.
In democracy, everyone is allowed an opinion. However, by jointly announcing an identical opinion while rejecting the opportunity to debate it democratically, the UK parties looked clumsy. What was morally wrong was to involve Mr Macpherson. He corrupted his office for the factual error of presenting an opinion as fact, and directly within a political debate.
Unionist friends also hold to the idea that when Jose Manuel Barroso of the EU says he thinks that getting the approval of other member states for Scotland’s unique ‘continued membership through negotiation’ policy is ‘near impossible’ this is also a fact about the mechanisms of the EU, when it is of course an opinion about the culture of the EU.
Unionists like these threats because they genuinely believe Alex Salmond is a con man, and Scots are too gullible to realise this. If Salmond’s trickery is exposed then the people will come to their senses. No campaigners seem oblivious to the arrogance of this stance, and how it plays the man not the Yes movement.
For Yes supporters, last Valentine’s was the day the UK died. If the No camp had anything it was the weight of history, a sense of nations muddling through – the elusive spirit of British reason. Many of us thought a collegiate mood had been struck, a common understanding that something had to give. Last week that hope was crushed.
This moment is critical because of democracy. Unionists take the view that democratic debate doesn’t have a role when the people need to be told what’s right for them. In this regard, they are not democratic. The wisdom of the elite is superior to the voice of the people.
To Yes reformers, this is the ugly face of unionism – a thuggish authoritarianism which has LOVE tattooed on one fist and HATE on the other. Whichever you get, it’s still a punch in the face. The obsession with Salmond is borderline nasty, and arguments against him do nothing to address the democratic concerns at the heart of the referendum. Unionists seem incapable of looking beyond the first minister at the million-plus people who want change.
Interestingly, the Yes movement was shaped by unionism. It got to high office and the chance of a referendum by listening to its critics and making changes. The white paper is a model of reasoned fudge, a classic British compromise. In contrast, No appears fanatical and frothy, more a mob than an argument.
The world’s first written legal code grants the monarch authority based on their ability to control waters – should the king fail to manage the floods, then he is no longer king. In broad terms, this still applies – if governments don’t appear in control, they lose credibility. Two floods have rammed home to Yes voters the degree to which London is not in control.
The first is metaphorical – the deluge of the financial crash. Civilisation was threatened by the untamed forces of finance that no one could control or even explain. Our democratically elected governments were swamped by a greater force, that of global banking, which appeared more powerful than democracy. In that crisis, the banks were saved but the state was crippled. In the aftermath, it turns out the rich are still getting richer, but the poor must pay through wage freezes and welfare cuts.
Curiously the people in charge of the decision to nationalise private debt were Mr Macpherson and Alistair Darling, then chancellor of the exchequer, now head of the No camp. Neither has ever apologised for tolerating such a crazy system, or for creating such an unfair solution. Both would now like Scots to shut up about democracy and leave government to the powerful.
The second flood is real – not a biblical judgement, just the high waters of a weird weather pattern, the like of which we are likely to see a lot of in the future. If the south-west had no sympathy with Scotland’s case last year, then it needs no explaining now. We live in a system that cares little for its fringes, and is incompetent in governing.
Scotland happens to be in the vanguard because it experienced the democratic dysfunction, economic powerlessness and sense of being left behind sooner than other parts of the UK or Europe and had a convenient vehicle of national institutions to carry these concerns. It may have taken some time to formulate its exact demand but that is now much clearer – democratic reform, devolution of power and the right of a people to fight for some control over their affairs. It is a demand that can be heard across the western world – it is the cry of people who want to make globalism accountable.
The reform doesn’t have to be independence. That just happens to be the only option on the ballot. What Scots need is power and accountability, as do folk in the north of England or the south-west. The sight of London returning to boom time, unscathed and unrepentant, does nothing to engender national unity in the UK. Friends in Newcastle and Manchester are just as agitated by this return to inequity.
So the sheer enormity of what Scotland is doing now dawns on the power elite. That is what threatens Macpherson and Barroso – the cry of the people for something better, the charge that the emperors have no clothes.
And this is the deep immorality of the union. It thinks poverty and low ambition in Scotland, the north of England and the south-west are prices worth paying for the status of the powerful. It doesn’t see incompetence or thuggery as a handicap. It rejects democratic debate and rides roughshod over principle. But the floods have come, and now we need a new beginning.
Alex Bell is an honorary fellow at Edinburgh University and former head of policy to Alex Salmond