A Year in the Life of the Indyref

What did we learn in 2013 in the debates over Scottish independence? Here’s a personal view of five of the year’s highlights.

1. Pre-negotiation?

It is clear that the UK Government is contingency planning in the event of a Yes vote. The Government would be mad not to be, not least because in the detail of the contingency planning one finds all manner of things that are wrong with or absent from the SNP’s account of what independence would entail. The UK Government’s line in 2012 had been that it was not contingency planning: this shifted early in 2013. The new line was that the Government would not “pre-negotiate” the terms of independence — any such negotiations would be dependent upon there first being a Yes vote in September. But even this line has not always held, and the Government would in my opinion be well advised not to stick to it too rigidly in 2014.

One of the biggest hits the No side of the argument scored in 2013 was when Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne came to Glasgow in April to explain just how unlikely it is that the UK Treasury would sign up to the currency union the SNP want for an independent Scotland (“iScot”). This does not jeopardise iScot’s chances of using the pound (in the sense, for example, that Panama uses the US dollar), but it does mean that were iScot to do so it have no control over its monetary policy, its interest rates, and the like, making it more dependent on London (not more independent of it): like Panama, it would be using the currency of a foreign power. This is all well and good, and the Chancellor brilliantly succeeded in putting the SNP firmly on the back foot and keeping them there for some weeks (where they grew increasingly uncomfortable) but what is this if it is not pre-negotiation? This stuff works, and the UK Government should not be scared of doing more of it in 2014.

2. Campaign v Campaign or Government v Government?

Each of the lead campaigns showed their limitations during 2013. Better Together struggled over the summer to maintain the momentum established by the UK Government in the earlier months of the year. Better Together and the UK Government are still feeling their way as to how they should operate most effectively in relation to one another. In 2013 it didn’t matter so much that they sometimes got this wrong, but no such mistakes can afford to be repeated in 2014 (and they know this).

On the other side things are both far worse and rather clearer. Yes Scotland had a horrible year. They lost key people (because they were under-performing). They were caught making payments to so-called “independent” experts for their newspaper columns. The group “Labour for Independence” appears to have been exposed as something of an SNP front (although there are, typically, two views about this). And the big noise Yes Scotland made about having been illegally hacked seems also to have been rather misjudged, although this is a murky story which few have got to the bottom of. By year’s end, with the launch of the White Paper (of which more below), it was clear that Yes Scotland were in the background and the lead role on their side of the argument was going to be taken by the SNP Government.

This is both a problem and an opportunity for YeSNP: their rainbow alliance of non-SNP pro-indy parties and groups has more or less evaporated (save for some irrelevant far-left types who talk to no-one but themselves and the hapless Eddi Reader, WHO LIVES HERE). However, if this is a battle between the full resources of the SNP machine and the Scottish Government, on the one hand, and Better Together, on the other, we are going to be monstered. Yet, if this is a battle in which Better Together are going to have to call on the services and resources of HM Government does this not play into the First Minister’s hands? For it is he who (wrongly) wants to make this into a Scotland v England battle or, perhaps, a Scotland v English Tories battle. This just underscores the importance of the Unionist side sorting out the proper working relationship between Whitehall and Better Together. But it also belies the unrealistic aspirations of those who saw in the independence debates a chance for a new politics to emerge. No such new politics came to the fore in 2013 and none will in 2014 either. This is party on party, Government on Government. I have no trouble with this: politics is as politics was, and it would do us all a lot of good if there were less dreaming of new dawns and more engagement in the politics we have.

3. Positive v Negative

By far the most tedious refrain of the year is that we Unionists have nothing positive to say, and that it’s all doom-laden scare-mongering. This is bollocks. Here’s some evidence that it’s bollocks. And here’s some more. Two great pieces, each thoroughly positive, about why we are better together than apart. Each gives reasons — yes, positive reasons — as to why we should vote No to independence and Yes to Union and ongoing devolution.

4. Hope v Fear (or Hopeless v Fearless)

Related to (3) is the allegation that Yes Scotland is a campaign of hope whereas Better Together is a campaign of fear: “project fear”, as some have dubbed it. This is just silly. The truth is that each side employs both hope arguments and fear arguments. Most of what the SNP says about “Westminster” is fear: we should be afraid of the Tories, of the bedroom tax, of austerity, etc, as if there would be no right-of-centre politics in iScot, no need to balance budgets, and no need to bring our sky-high welfare spending under control. Likewise, there are plenty of hope arguments on the No side. It is by voting No that we secure the full opportunities of the UK’s rich jobs market to aspiring Scots. It is by voting No that we ensure there are no obstacles to trade in the UK’s single market. And it is by voting No that we all get to share in the delights of the success enjoyed by British athletes and sportsmen and women, wherever in these islands they are from.

Instead of “hope” and “fear” what strikes me as characteristic of Yes and No arguments is that so many of them are “hopeless” (on the Yes side) and “fearless” (on the No side). The SNP’s blind insistence that iScot would be an instant Member State of the European Union simply because we say so is a hopeless position for them to have adopted. And Better Together’s insistence that those advocating the break-up of Britain should explain exactly what the implications would be for pensions, for public broadcasting, for currency and for EU membership are precisely the fearless questions which should be asked and asked and asked again until we get some credible answers.

5. The Failure of the White Paper

To provide credible answers to the many questions which have been asked of the SNP’s plans for independence was the task which was supposed to be performed by the independence White Paper, which the Scottish Government published in November. But despite the document’s absurd (and wholly unnecessary) length, the White Paper manifestly failed to deliver. Yes, we all know that it runs to 650 pages and yes, we all know that within them 650 questions are set out and addressed. But what those few of us who have actually read and studied the White Paper know is that the big questions are afforded no credible answers at all. The real purpose of the White Paper, it turns out, is to deceive the vast majority of voters who will never read it into thinking that because it’s so damn long every conceivable question must have been fully answered somewhere within. The ploy is a desperate one and it will not work. We’ll keep asking the questions. We’ll keep spelling out the implications of independence. We’ll keep making the case for the Union. And we will prevail.

Happy new year.