Policies matter in politics and parties need to get them right. But equally important are issues beyond their control, whether occurring by accident or design.
Scotland’s no different and on independence there have certainly been significant events which might make all the difference. For this Tory administration’s actions are unprecedented in modern times. Many who had doubts last time and voted No, and even those who may well still harbour concerns, are seeing everything they believed in about the United Kingdom trashed and traduced; all the promises and pledges made in 2014 shown to be false or abandoned.
EU membership, security (and value) of sterling, and international prestige are being laid waste by the Johnson regime. Even once venerated institutions or beliefs such as the BBC and the Rule of Law are being hollowed out or discarded. If organizations or institutions don’t adhere to the corporate line, then they’re to be undermined or ‘disappeared’; and if the age-old values or principles block or impede, then be gone with them.
Ireland breaks up UK
The shift towards independence of the previously sceptical reminded me of John Costello, the Irish Taoiseach, best remembered for the creation of the Republic of Ireland out of the Irish Free State. As the historian Norman Davies argues in Vanished Kingdoms, the latter event was when the first UK fell apart, albeit that of Britain and Ireland. Now its successor’s threatened and events are playing a major role.
David McCullagh’s’ biography of Costello The Reluctant Taoiseach encapsulated the hesitancy. The reluctance actually related to a preference for his legal career over politics and how he had to be dragooned into the latter. But it equally applied to support for independence. As a Fine Gael leader, antipathy to strident republicanism was natural. But it was indeed longstanding, with even involvement in moderate Irish nationalism limited.
At the 1916 Easter Rising he was in his mid-20s. From a relatively wealthy family, his interest remained on his career and life after war. Politically there was an assumption by him and others that an Irish Parliament would be delivered. Support was for moderate nationalism, Ireland remaining part of the UK and within the British Empire; anything more was extreme and dangerous. For them, the Rising was unnecessary and unwelcome.
The book describes his anger as his route home from golfing had been blocked, along with wider concerns about the future. The Irish Law Times condemned “the deplorable rising”, a view that he and many others shared, believing it wrong and a threat to their social and economic wellbeing.
But British overreaction and then brutality saw the Irish Parliamentary Party swept away. It was for that reason that he and others voted overwhelmingly in 1922 for the Irish Free State. Then in 1948 the man who had once disdained Irish independence had no hesitation in declaring the Irish Republic. That Rubicon crossing came about through British actions, rather than any innate desire on his part.
Et tu Scotia?
The same situation’s now facing many in Scotland. Independence was too great a risk, and life seemed preferable and safer within the union in 2014. I recall a discussion with an advocate friend. Fear of imposed austerity not on him but those least able to endure it made him hesitate. My pleas that the housing schemes were crying out for hope and that the Tories were going to crush the poor couldn’t overcome my failure to assure him.
Accordingly, he and many others voted No. But the reasons that they did so have been trashed and burned. The Britain they believed in has ceased to be and the risks of independence are now outweighed by the dangers of staying in the UK. As with Costello, a Rubicon is being crossed by the UK.
So, events are critical, but policies do still matter. Work needs to be done by the Yes Movement on new areas or those that damaged the cause in 2014; detail spelt out. There’s a danger in politics that you fight the last campaign. It’s known what was said or done in 2014 but it’s now 2020.
Many No voters then believed independence threatened both their rights as EU citizens as well as a project beneficial to the European continent. Now pledges ring hollow, in an atmosphere of falsehood and fraud: even the succour of political change at Westminster, rendered futile by a continued lead for Johnson despite his deplorable leadership; compounded by the abandonment of EU membership by Labour and LibDems.
But for the Yes Movement, there’s still work to be done. The duplicity has made many switch, but others still require some persuasion. Expressing sympathy simply isn’t enough; Brexit has happened and what’s needed now’s a roadmap back to the EU or at minimum into EFTA. The latter in any event will likely be required as a temporary holding camp, pending both negotiations and a confirmatory, or otherwise, referendum.
Currency issue anew
That of course leads on to other issues that are a corollary of it, never mind basic essentials that were previously got wrong. Currency (your own) is a prerequisite for EU membership and, as Yanis Varoufakis has recently commented, it’s essential for Scottish Independence. It’s also been shown to be essential to deal with a crisis such as we face with coronavirus: No Central Bank, then no ability to react. The Sterling issue cruelly hurt the Yes campaign in 2014 and was the issue for many doubters, along with EU membership.
We can, as with EU membership, point to lies that were told. Osborne and his sidekick Nick (now Lord) Macpherson, the senior Treasury mandarin, did distort. It puts me in mind of a humorous recollection from that 2014 campaign. Currency and the row over sterling were running top of the news agenda at the time. Jumping into a taxi in my constituency as I rushed between engagements weeks before the vote, I was buttonholed by the driver on how the campaign was going. Telling me he’d been persuaded despite initial doubts, he narrated why.
Picking up a Chinese gentleman at the taxi rank at Waverly station, he was driving him to his hotel. Engaged in conversation, his passenger explained that he was in Scotland to see the First Minister and that he represented major Chinese state financial interests. Asked what he was thinking about the referendum, the driver said that his heart said yes but his head said no, and the Chinese passenger enquired why? The driver said it was due to currency and concern about the loss of sterling.
His Chinese passenger said that if that was what was worrying him, he had nothing to fear. Explaining that he had been golfing with Mervyn King, who my driver recalled as being the former Bank of England governor, and who had said that if the Scots wanted sterling, they could even have a thistle on it! Moreover, the visitor added that China had billions to invest and would be prepared to do so even with independence.
Checking with colleagues and officials, the gentleman was who he claimed to be, and my taxi driver changed his vote. But many others had no such insight and didn’t do so. Of course, it was a formal currency union that had been rejected but, as became clear after the referendum, a currency arrangement would have been entered into as British needs required it. That was acknowledged by Mark Carney, the then Governor of the Bank of England. With sterling crashing it isn’t the issue it once was, but an alternative is still required. British duplicity cannot be underestimated on this or on any other area. Scotland must move to its own currency as a matter of urgency – nothing else is now credible. The party should be supporting those groups and individuals already setting out the case.
Update the case
So, there’s work to be done on policies for those areas that were damaging in 2014. They need updated for 2020. Equally, work requires done on new issues of concern, such as the border (see Kirsty Hughes here). Previously, it never really factored but Brexit changes that, although it’s also the case that coronavirus has mitigated it. The ability to control movement whether between states such as Victoria and NSW in Australia or nation states with quarantine restrictions has shown benefits, as well as the downsides that go with them.
The position that was being pursued for arrangements for the island of Ireland, along with the existing common travel area that operates with the Irish Republic, show what can be achieved. All those factors further nullify concerns. As with currency options it needs to be discussed, and policy prepared. But, in the absence of immediate EU membership, the opportunity for considerable flexibility exists and that’s why the opportunity must be seized.
However, in addition to the Yes movement’s own efforts, events are playing out which are beneficial to the independence cause. Johnson and his ilk are taking a wrecking ball to not just British institutions and values but to the union itself. The rise of English nationalism is now as much a factor as British intransigence was a century ago. The actions and insensitivity of Westminster are alienating former supporters of the union. There comes a time, as with Costello, that leaving the UK is easier and less risky than staying with all its current and prospective dangers.
How ironic will it be if, as with our Celtic cousins, a Scottish Republic is delivered by former No voters rather than ardent nationalists?
Image of John Costello via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0