On the 18th of September people living in Scotland will have the opportunity at the ballot box to answer Yes or No.
Since the date of the referendum was announced the onus has been on independence enthusiasts to bring forward arguments in support of their cause, and they have responded with gusto. The energy that has gone into promoting the possibilities offered by independence and the perils of remaining part of the UK has been remarkable, given our usual apathy to all things political.
Much of what is being touted as consequences of independence – reversing the UK’s austerity programme, removing nuclear weapons, re-nationalising strategic industries, taxing the rich, and other things numerous and varied – are no more than aspirations.
There are no guarantees that any of this will actually happen in an independent Scotland, but there is widespread belief among Yes campaigners that these things will be more likely in an independent Scotland because a Scottish government will be more responsive to the collective will of the Scottish people than the UK government in Westminster.
“We will get the governments that we vote for” goes the mantra. Yes campaigners might disagree which policies should be given priority but they all believe an independent Scotland will be “more democratic” than the current arrangements within the UK.
Sadly, this doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
In the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary election the SNP formed a government after what was described as a “landslide” victory in which it got 45% of the vote. But this rhetoric obscured the hard fact that fewer than half (46.3%) of the people who were eligible to vote actually turned out. In reality the SNP has been in government for the last three years and five months having been voted into power by only 21% of the electorate.
This is remarkably similar to the 2010 UK General Election where 20.4% of the Scottish electorate voted for Conservative or LibDem candidates (9.6% and 10.8% respectively). So just about the same proportion of the Scottish electorate voted for the current UK coalition government as voted for the current Scottish government.
The claim that Scottish elections are “more democratic” because of proportional representation is equally bogus.
In 2011, under PR, Scotland got a “landslide” majority government thanks to just 21% of the electorate voting SNP. In 2010, under first-past-the-post, 21.4% of the UK electorate voted for Conservative candidates but this wasn’t enough to to form a majority government. Instead we got the Con/LibDem coalition which polled a combined 35% of the electorate – a demonstrably fairer outcome under a voting system that’s supposed to be “less democratic” than PR.
The differences between the results of these elections are less striking than the similarities. Neither came anywhere close to the idea of popular democratic majority that we think is right and proper.
The truth is that our systems of democracy are hopelessly inadequate to the task of reflecting the constantly-shifting needs and aspirations of our diverse communities, and nothing has been proposed that suggests this will change in an independent Scotland.
Central governments, formed by tiny elites, will continue to exercise almost absolute power over us. And these governments will continue to be put in place by small minorities of the electorate by way of a flimsy approximation of democratic process.
Our democratic systems are not the only ones that are malfunctioning. The banking crisis of 2007/08 and subsequent recession have exposed systemic flaws in the financial mechanisms on which we rely to keep our economy working.
During the independence campaign there has been a great deal of heat generated by the arguments over who’s going to be wealthier or poorer after independence, and what currency Scotland will be able to use. Lots of heat casting not a glimmer of light on the dark heart of our debt-raddled economy.
Nowhere in the mainstream campaign has anyone from Yes or No acknowledged that our financial and fiscal systems are fatally flawed. No plans have been proposed to tackle the creation and destruction of money as interest paying debt, a system that cannot be sustained for much longer before it buries us all under a mountain of credit that’s impossible to service.
None of the good things that enthusiasts for independence want to happen are likely to happen or be sustained until we make structural reforms to our dysfunctional systems of democracy and finance. The same goes for the “strength in unity” arguments of those who seek to preserve the union by voting No.
Separate or united, we are weak and vulnerable because the frameworks within which our society operates make us so, and nothing that’s being proposed by either side of the independence debate will change this.
Regardless of whether you vote Yes or No in the referendum, whatever you want, the only thing that you’re going to get is another version of the status quo. The same chords ringing out variations of the same tune. Stuck in the same groove of boom-to-bust economics playing along to the same plodding political baseline.
This probably doesn’t matter much to those who are passionate about the idea of an independent Scotland or the idea of the United Kingdom, but for the rest of us who are suspicious of nationality and see government as a service rather than an extension of identity, being asked to choose between independence or union is a bit like asking a drowning man if he wants a scone or a pancake with his lungful of water.
But we are where we are. The independence referendum is upon us. The question is, which option offers the best hope of getting the structural reforms that we so desperately need if we’re going to save ourselves from economic collapse and stop ourselves from wearing out the planet in the name of progress?
On the face of it, independence is the way to go. The process of breaking away from the UK opens up opportunities for doing things differently, escaping from the stifling inertia of the UK establishment. As one indy enthusiast put it, we should vote Yes “because UK politics is trapped inside its own sense of helplessness.”
The possibility of reforming the structures of democracy does indeed seem more likely in a small country with a less entrenched sense of class and hierarchy than dreary old England, the dominant partner within the UK. There is much pre-independence talk about a Scottish constitution and reform of our ridiculously over-sized “local” government areas. It will be much harder for an elite in Holyrood to withstand a popular movement for democratic reform than it is for its counterpart in Westminster.
For structural reform of how we do politics, the balance lies firmly in favour of independence.
But what about money and taxation?
Imagine, in post-independence Scotland, an awakening to the lunacy of creating and destroying money as debt which prompts the development of the the most elegant and effective financial system that the world has ever seen. Even supposing we could pull off this trick in the shadow of the mighty economy across the border, when sterling collapses under the burden of its own debt (as it surely will) Scotland’s biggest trading partner will descend into chaos, taking Scotland’s economy down with it.
Could we reform Scotland’s financial and fiscal systems first and then export the example to the remainder of the UK before the whole thing implodes? Possible, but unlikely. The sterling economy is of an order of magnitude bigger than that of Scotland’s, and the two are so intimately entwined that any radical changes in the way that money works north of the border would be undermined by those with vested interest in maintaining the sterling status quo, which works very well indeed for those who control it.
Effective reform of our financial and fiscal systems is the key to transforming our society for the better, and these reforms are more likely to endure if they’re applied to sterling, which means doing the work of reform from within the UK.
It is, however, a fine balance of argument in favour of voting No. A balance that’s tipped more by gut feeling than intellectual certainty.
But then we have the problem of distraction.
If we vote Yes it will signal the start of a process of disentangling institutions of state from the UK and establishing new ones in Scotland. This will be messy, tedious and protracted. Even if the civil servants can remain civil the politicians will not. A triumphant Scottish government will be out to flex its independent muscles while a wounded Westminster, with the Daily Mail baying at its heels, will be in no mood to make things easy for the departing Scots. The division of assets and liabilities will descend into the mother of all arguments that will take a long time to resolve.
I am deeply skeptical of the 18 month transition period between the referendum and independence day that’s being advertised by the official Yes campaign. Witness the Scottish Parliament building which took seven years and more than ten times the original budget to complete. That was a tiny, straightforward project compared to negotiating separation from the UK and setting up the machinery required to run an entire nation. The prospects for a swift and efficient winding up of Scotland’s affairs within the UK do not look good.
I fear that much of the positive energy that’s been generated by the independence debate will dissolve into habitual cynicism and apathy as the house-keeping tasks drag on, year after year, soaking up time, money, and the will to live.
Much as I am attracted to the idea of breaking the establishment mould and creating new systems in an independent Scotland I have to conclude that the best chance of getting all the good things that my independence-minded friends are aiming for is to campaign for structural reform from within the UK, starting with money and taxation.
This will no doubt baffle those who are convinced that independence offers the only hope of change, but the more I think about it the more sense it makes. Our problems are structural, not geographic. It seems to me that the best way to change the status quo is to get down to the hard work of changing it. Moving it north in the hope that the job will be easier feels like a diversion.
The truth is that I don’t much care where the various bits of our government sit. I care about how they work and what they’re able to do to make our lives secure, comfortable, and sustainable. And I know that in order for government to work properly we need financial and fiscal systems that are designed to help us, not hinder us.
The political establishment of the UK is crumbling. Membership of political parties has shrunk to a fraction of what they were when I was a boy, and the power of the mainstream media is being eroded at a tremendous rate by the internet.
Disaffection with the way the UK does business runs wide and deep through the British Isles and I get the sense that people have an appetite for change, if only they could see something tasty to sink their teeth into. Making money work properly for everyone is a project that could bring people together. With sterling, we have an opportunity to create a financial system that’s more effective and sustainable than anything we could achieve in an independent Scotland.
For this reason alone I’m voting No in the referendum.
But that doesn’t mean that I’m certain I’m right. As the song says, “you pay your money, you take your choice.”
The independence referendum offers nothing except a choice of two paths towards opportunities for reform, neither of which is obviously a shorter or easier route than the other.
I’ve opted to take the UK fork in the road, but I love the energy and optimism that has grown out of the Yes side of the debate and will happily join them in the quest for better things if the referendum result goes their way.