Monday, 1 September 2014

The Scottish Referendum: Why I Am Voting No.

Like most people I suspect, my reasons for voting the way I am are a mixture of logic, emotion and personal experience.  What this piece will not be is a campaigning effort on the part of the No Thanks.  It will be a process in self-examination: a totally personal outlook.

First of all though I think I should have a look at the reasons why I considered voting Yes.  The one which I found easiest to discard (perhaps surprisingly considering my stance on nuclear weapons) is Trident.

The argument from the Yes campaign is that after independence, the UK would have to remove their nuclear-armed flotilla from the Clyde.  The price of  building a new base, also the geographic difficulties, will apparently lead the British Government to give up the whole thing as a bad lot.  
If only it were so.  Although there are factions within Labour who strongly support CND, there is no evidence that the Westminster executive have ever contemplated getting rid of nuclear weapons or Trident.  Cameron has gone ahead with the planning phase of the Successor-class boats, although thanks to the Liberal Democrats, actual building will not start until after 2015.  In 2006, Labour laid out the route-map to keep the Trident system until 2050, also alternative bases and facilities do exist.  Even if the boats were ejected from the Clyde (and I would not be sorry to see them go), then in a pinch they could be based in the USA while new facilities are created in the UK.
In order to be rid of these horrible devices, one has to change minds in both Westminster and Whitehall.  Britain does not need nuclear weapons, but the capacity is seen as vital by the political elites.  Even if Scotland goes a different way, that mindset has not changed in Westminster.  We might celebrate here but in reality our voices are lost to the campaign to really get rid of them.  Effectively we become NIMBYs.  With the SNP reversing their stance on NATO (one of the few things I admired about the party), worse we become hypocrites too: since NATO is an alliance based upon nuclear weapons.  Although the nationalists point to the example of Canada getting rid of US weapons deployed upon their territory in the 1950s, in reality they were not needed there since the US had bases both in Alaska and Greenland.  I would not be surprised if Faslane became a bargaining chip rather than a solid pledge to be delivered upon.  Why would I say this?  Many NATO nations already have stocks of US nuclear weapons, often against the will of their populations and indeed governments, as part of NATOs collective responsibility.  Critics have pointed out that this does not represent the entire US stockpile, which is true: it is not too hard to imagine that, as part of Scotland’s entry in NATO and as part of the sharing of nuclear collective responsibility, that Trident remains in the Clyde while a new base is being prepared.  

The second argument that had me considering voting Yes is a negative one: dislike of the increasing powerful right wing of UK politics - embodied in right-wing of the Conservatives and UKIP.  As the nationalists are fond of chanting “No More Tories.” 
Again, I do not believe a Yes vote would instantly create some kind of left-wing Scottish nirvana.  There is still a lot of right-wing people in Scotland, and freed from the label of Toryism, I expect the political Right to undergo a swift revival in an independent Scotland.  Some would argue that would be alright, because they would be “oor Tories”.  Which would lead to a different argument altogether.
I would wish to vote for an independent Scotland for positive reasons and not through dislike of others.   
While on the topic though, I may well reconsider my position in the future should Britain leave the EU: that would be the height of nationalistic folly - albeit English on this occasion.  In seeking to leave the UK, several EU states and officials have made it perfectly clear that Scotland will also be leaving the EU and would have to reapply.  There is no reason beyond that of wishful thinking that this will be a straightforward process.  France and Spain both have separatist issues and would not wish to encourage their own regional nationalists by giving Scotland an easy transition.  In short: Scotland would be made an example of.  
I will not cast a vote to leave the EU: it is clear from the rulings from Europe that a Yes vote will be doing just that.

The final reason I would consider voting Yes is the hardest to discard and it is this: the creation of a new Scandinavian nation.  Having lived in Norway and worked in Denmark, this really tugs at my heartstrings.  The point is though is that if one wishes to create a Scandinavian nation, most people have to think like Scandinavians!  I really don’t see a shred of evidence for this in Scotland.  Scottish people are, well, Scottish and being as such, we have a lot more common with our close neighbours, the Irish, English and Welsh.  Sure, there are minor differences but just as the Norwegians, Danes and Swedes have a lot more in common with each other, sharing a common history and close linguistic links, we do here in the British Isles.  Norway only really broke away from Sweden because the Swedes looked down on Norway and treated it as a colony, just as the Republic of Ireland broke away from the Union, owing the the often harsh and terrible treatment of the majority of the people there.   However, what popped my bubble on the Norwegian dream was a letter to the Scotsman from Haakon Blakstad.  Laying aside the risk of hardships he points to for the moment, he looks to the current disunity of the nation.  

“Finally, if an independent Scotland succeeds it will be because it is totally united. When Norway wanted independence 99.5 per cent of the population voted Yes.I don’t see that sort of unity in Scotland today, and for that reason alone there should not be a referendum at all.”

Herr Blakstad is right.  Over the past, artificially prolonged independence debate, it seems that divisions between the sides have become more entrenched.   
What are my positive reasons for staying in the UK?  Frankly I'm reminded of Joni Mitchell’s song Big Yellow Taxi.  
Don't it always seem to go 
That you don't know what you've got 
Till it's gone 

The biggest thing that people will miss is the pound Sterling, or at least having any say in the matter.  This is a well-trodden path but it is fundamental to the heart of the matter.  The SNP says “It’s our Pound too!”  Well, no.  With the 1707 Act of Union, the pound Scots was replaced with the pound Sterling - at an exchange rate of 12 to 1.  There is a shared sovereignty between the nations of the United Kingdom, but only while in union.  Withdraw from the Union and Sterling goes with it.  There is no obligation whatsoever for Westminster to share its financial sovereignty with any successor state.
If the pound goes, there are three choices: keep with Sterling but with base interest rates set by the UK (and borrowing rates dependent on Scotland’s perceived credit rating), join the Euro zone when finally gaining entry in the EU or recreate the pound Scots, with it possibly being linked to one of the major currencies.  The uncertainty is real and is not good for business.  Hardline nationalists will not care: better lean freedom than fat slavery they may say.  Except we are free already and not slaves.
The currency is so important because if effects us all: relative earnings, savings, mortgages, pensions, trade.  Consumer prices in both Ireland and Norway are more expensive that here in Scotland.  That is just a fact and is an outcome of living in small nations.  
I understand that there cannot be guarantees: and the Yes campaign should be straight with us rather than giving out jaunty and optimistic views.  The most honest answer is “We can’t guarantee anything but we’ll do our best.”

Another major change which is literally in public view is the media.  Sure, the BBC has many faults: I am increasingly frustrated with the bias of BBC news, especially in matters of international affairs.  On the whole though it is pretty good.  Add to that Channel Four, and UK free-to-view television is delivering excellent programmes.  Having lived in both Ireland and Norway, I can assure you that the local output of those nations are not up to much.  What most people in those nations do is buy satellite or similar alternatives in order to tune into a wider range of international programmes.  Remember though, both nations still have television licences too.
The two examples above are obvious examples of the benefits of being part of the United Kingdom.  We should be aware of those which are hidden.

As part of its briefings on the Future of the UK and Scotland, the Innogen Institute (itself a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh and the Open University) looks at the present and future of medical research in the nation.  They observe that the SNP have focused upon preserving the delivery of services and says little about the future of research in Scotland.  Now, I will make very clear here that Innogen attempts to stay politically neutral but their concerns are clear.  Currently medical research in Scotland is hard-wired into the UK-wide system and all benefit from that arrangement.  In terms of research base and medical studies, bigger is better.  If Scotland goes independent, what is the future of medical research here?  Not only in the scale of the research base but in funding too.  Alternatives will have to be found for the latter (and that is not made clear how, except by remaining an integrated part of the UK system), but this cannot solve the scale issue.  The population would be too small to give statically viable results in many research areas.  To be absolutely fair on this issue, so I am not accused of putting words in the institute’s mouth, I give you the following quotation:

Scotland has pioneered clinical and medical research, and has built up significant assets and capabilities in the life sciences.  There are clear opportunities for building this research capacity under independence, but there are also clear uncertainties for medical research system funding and governance.”

The conclusion of their briefing paper is:

The key message from our research is that Scotland is not so fundamentally different from the rest of the UK in terms of institutional assets, infrastructure, approaches and capacity for healthcare and medical research.  It has key strengths, but what is missing is policy and economic evidence of what devolution, and potential independence, means for health and wealth.  What is clear is that there are many different views about the benefits and limitations of the existing healthcare system and the complex research system that has evolved alongside it.  In the public debate, emphasis has been very much on the fiscal and currency issues and where health has been discussed, it has focused on the NHS and assess to healthcare, with research very much marginalised.” 

In other words, in the rush to gain the popular vote, whole areas vital to the future of the nation’s health have been overlooked.  It is not hard to imagine that this is the case too in many other areas of academic research.  If the academic and research funding and prospects are damaged by independence, that will mean only one thing: our youngest and brightest will go to places where they can continue their work.  Just in case you think I'm making this up, this story has arisen literally as I write: Fears of Academic Exodus, which appears in this morning's Herald.

No honest self-examination should leave out the negative aspects of why I am saying No.  We all have personal prejudices and I am no exception.

The first time I encountered hard-edged nationalism was at university, in my case that was Aberystwyth.  By the time I arrived as a mature student, I was already an active Liberal Democrat.  I tell you, apart from my flatmate who was a Plaid Cymru supporter who I got on with really well, there was no talking to the other Plaid activists.  Every single discussion was a war of point scoring and attrition.  There was no commonality nor any attempt to find any on their part.  
What really opened my eyes though was how my flatmate treated by a couple of Plaid activists one night.  He was a Welsh speaker, no problem there but he was also English-born.  The boys from North Wales treated him with ill-concealed contempt and barely tolerated his presence.  

My experience from Wales led me to examine the philosophy of nationalism and I came to the conclusion that the whole genre focuses on the small differences between groups of people, while ignoring the vast areas of commonality that exist between all of us.  Now I was challenged on Twitter over this view who, with some justification, pointed out that nationalism  embraces concepts all the way from Nazism to the ANC struggle against apartheid.  My reply to this is that what is being described is the struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed.  If there is equality between the two sides, where does nationalism come in?

There are many things that irks me about the SNP, a minor one is the attempts to create or at least rewrite history.  A small example was commentator Leslie Riddoch dreaming that following a Yes vote, we could get rid of all the Hanoverian street names in Edinburgh.  It may have been unkind of me, but the game ended when I pointed out that Bonnie Prince Charlie didn’t lead the army south to free Scotland, but rather to rule over the entire Union from the throne in London.  A more serious example of rewriting of history in order to create a nationalist narrative is the widespread introduction of Scots Gaelic in signage across the country.  While I have nothing against the language itself (my mother speaks the Donegal dialect), there are many places in Scotland where it was never widely spoken.  I hear that when there was an attempt to introduce the practice into the Northern Isles, there was a widespread rejection of the new signs.  When the local opinion was sought, the consensus was that if there was to be bi-lingual signs, the second language should be Norwegian.  As far as the East Coast is concerned, I remember a friend of mine in Aberdeen was working on a PhD. which showed that most Scottish place names, far from being derived from either Norse or Gaelic, actually had their linguistic roots in Welsh: the original Celtic language that was widespread in these isles prior to the Germanic invasions.
Top tip SNP: it you want to introduce authentic bi-lingual place names, stick to Welsh.

To summarise my personal experience: I am half-Irish, English-born, Welsh-educated resident of Scotland who has been here for quite a few years now.  I have travelled widely and have also lived in Ireland and Norway.  I have found that what unites us in these islands far outweighs any perceived differences.   
Believe me, most foreigners can’t tell the difference between us, apart from the accents.

Where do we go from here?  Following a Yes vote, Alex Salmond has called for No voters to get on board Team Scotland.  Scottish secretary Alistair Carmichael agreed to this stating that following a Yes vote, he would indeed join the Scottish side in negotiating the best deal for Scotland with the United Kingdom.  As will I - if anybody should call upon me to do so.  The flip side of this coin though should be that Yes campaigners should pledge to accept a No vote, we should then work together to see what is the way forward for Scotland.  The Westminster parties have made pledges on new powers for our nation.  I realise that committed Yes supporter will treat this with distain but they shouldn’t.  The pledge is important because it is a public acknowledgement that things cannot stay the way they are.  It is now possible for Scotland to build a distinctive nation while underpinned by the financial strength of the United Kingdom.  Let us not discard that lightly.  

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