The first single I ever bought was Geno by Dexy’s Midnight Runners. It sat in a red, drop-front box for nearly five years before I found something worthy of joining it, Billy Bragg’s Between the Wars EP. Only two records, but five awesome songs; a well of virile socialism. On the sleeve of Geno, the Runners stood like a picket line in donkey jackets and woollen caps. On Between the Wars, two children in naval outfits ate toast and jam above the simple instruction never to pay more than One pound and twenty-five pence. This being the eighties, these records provided the soundtrack to my emerging political consciousness and the decade’s iconic imagery: a Royal Marine with the Union Jack on his radio antenna; the miners’ strike; the punk movement surrendering to the New Romantics.
My recollection is of violent social division. It was like living in a crowded family home where all parties had to yell in order to be heard. Punches were thrown, glass got smashed, and shins became bruised from the kicking – and yet once the noise died away we seemed to settle down to enjoy the relative prosperity of the subsequent decade.
Twenty years later I am in Leeds Town Hall sitting beneath the idioms written by the city fathers. High up on the wall to my left is the phrase ‘In Union is Strength.’ This feels apt: I am waiting for Billy Bragg to come on stage. The audience are seated, murmuring to their neighbours, coats folded across their knees. Bragg comes on to expectant applause and the cosy intimacy of the venue brings out the best in him. He’s chatty and personable, drinking tea because of a sore throat. The drummer is fluid and expressive. The lead guitarist alternates between a pedestal and the array of instruments provided by a hard working technician. Bragg introduces each song by relating it to the news. I delight in him singing Between the Wars though am disappointed no one joins in. When he starts Sexuality, a couple that look like they’re from the real ale community dance unabashed around the speakers. Bragg tells us with justifiable pride that of all the folk rock musicians around the world, it was him chosen by Woody Guthrie’s daughter to put her father’s remaining poetry to music. He sings some, and others from ‘Tooth and Nail’, his new album. I particularly like Handyman Blues (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2YmHtISRcz0) and There Will be a Reckoning, which show the breadth of his musical oeuvre. He intersperses these with the brazier songs I love of old. I doubt any musician coming out of the talent show sausage machine could ever write such wonderfully polysyllabic poetry, or would dare sing with such flat vowels. My all-time favourite verse is from the idiotically catchy Waiting for the Great Leap Forward:
In the Soviet Union a scientist is blinded
By the resumption of nuclear testing and he is reminded
That Doctor Robert Oppenheimer’s optimism failed
At the first hurdle
The band takes a break but Bragg stays on. People call out the names of songs and he quips: “Thanks mate, you remembered the title! I’ve got to do the words and chords as well.” Then he talks openly about how amazed he is to be still doing this after thirty years; that he is still writing and we are still listening. “Art,” he says, “is the lukewarm squeegee that cleans the glass of perception,” a phrase so tongue-in-cheek that I had to write it down. Only just starting out as an author, I find his humility and determination inspiring. Be true to yourself, he’s saying. Have courage. He sings Levi Stubb’s Tears and then, after lambasting how the press behaved in the phone hacking scandal, Never Buy the Sun. The band comes back on to kick into the classic call to arms There is Power in a Union. During the final chorus Bragg folds his guitar round his back to sing deeply into the microphone, one fist raised in the salute of solidarity. In the second row, a single fist answers the call.
After the show I run to the Town Hall Tavern for last orders. It’s a Monday night but hey, I’ve just seen Billy Bragg. I’m with a handful of friends who were all once pink-cheeked, placard-waving students who identified with the miners, the dockers, the railwaymen. Now we are management consultants, supply chain directors, marketing executives; a little heavier, wealthier, and dare we say it, conservative. But that’s not the point. I don’t think Bragg would blame us for the paths our lives have taken. He is a singer ‘mixing pop and politics’, sure, but primarily he is a musician. It would, I hope, please him that I was listening to his first EP while a pupil at a boarding school and that it cost me 50p, second hand, so the seller could buy some fags. The message I take away from the evening is simple: be active in the pursuit of social unity.
On Youtube there’s a film of Bragg tackling an English Defence League pundit who was trying to destabilise the community where he lives. The same is happening to me this year and I am determined to resist, but it’s not the EDL that I must oppose, it’s the Scottish National Party. On the 18th September, Scotland decides if it wants to be independent.
The SNP have produced a document called ‘Scotland’s Future: your guide to an independent Scotland.’ It presents the referendum as an option between the No vote (stagnation) and the Yes vote (progress). It states baldly that Scotland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, a net contributor to the Treasury. Tax revenues from oil and gas could be invested for future generations in the same way that Norway, Sweden and Finland have vast national savings rather than substantial debts. It states that an independent Scotland would be fairer, more democratic, and more prosperous than a Scotland under the yoke of Westminster. If the SNP were elected there would be a raft of business-friendly policies to attract inwards investment: free tertiary education, lower corporation tax, cheaper air travel. They promise help for small businesses and to set up a commission to determine the future pensionable age. They promise more choices for infrastructure development and travel. Social services would be developed on the key values of supporting those in work, protecting those out of it, and ‘a climate of social solidarity’. On the big international issues Scotland would inherit membership of the European Union and the Common Travel Area (CTA). It would remain part of NATO and the UN. It would establish a network of embassies and a security agency. A national broadcaster would inherit some of the BBC assets in Scotland but retain rights to Eastenders, Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing. The fishing industry would be revived by renegotiating the Common Fisheries Policy and all of this would be administered by the thirty thousand civil servants currently resident north of the border.
The document is an inspired piece of political rhetoric. Such figures as exist are carefully placed to attract the lower income vote. Policies such as the single tier pension stand shoulder to shoulder with nuclear disarmament. There is much suggested and little promised. I am suspicious of the facts, where they exist. Could one really create a potent military force (with air capability and an army of 20,000) for a mere £2.5Bn? Or would that turn out to be a retired oil-rig helicopter and a pipe band? Are the thirty thousand civil servants who are going to run the country the same who built the Scottish Parliament and ran ten times over budget?
I am left full of questions. The document angers me. I fear for a Scotland that blindly believes this rhetoric and yet it seems that many people do. The website wingsoverscotland.com is typical of message boards that claim to be impartially ‘soaring above Scottish politics’ and yet the posts are puerile: mash-up photos, comments full of exclamation marks, and puns on people’s names. It wouldn’t matter what one said, no one would change their mind.
The sad thing is how poorly the No lobby are campaigning. Better Together, led by Alistair Darling, seem ponderous and uncharismatic in comparison and a Yes vote is always easier to sell (remember Iraq?). At least someone had the wisdom not to let David Cameron enter a televised debate with Salmond.
To find sensible discussion one has to look to the David Hume Institute, which is running a research programme about independence (http://www.davidhumeinstitute.com/). The papers assess the viability of separation from the legal, commercial, fiscal and political perspectives and there is also a fascinating benchmark of how the Basque country managed separation from Spain.
Strong messages emerge. An independent Scotland would probably be financially viable in the short term. Oil revenues could fund the balance between public spending and tax receipts although it is unlikely that they would create the budget underspend that Norway has managed to accrue over fifty years. The SNP are possibly being disingenuous with the facts, public and welfare spending being much higher than they may wish to admit (Quinn, 2012). The European Union would not allow an independent Scotland to simply inherit membership – it would have to apply in the same way as Romania has done – and the use of the Euro is out of the question. Other EU states would doubtless challenge any reduction in corporation tax. If Scotland retains the pound then much of its monetary policy would be driven by the decisions of the Bank of England whose principle interest, rightly, would be the rest of the UK. If Scotland developed its own currency and pegged it to the pound, as Hong Kong has successfully done with the US dollar, it would require an expensive financial regulator. The markets may take some years to build trust in the new state’s fiscal policies, causing the credit rating (currently AAA) to drop and the cost of national borrowing to increase. Scotland would doubtless gain some measure of UK assets – not just oil revenues but also embassies and a share of the BBC licence fee – but it would also inherit a fair share of the national debt, equivalent to two thirds of the national income (Johnson and Phillips, 2012). Oil revenues, oft listed by the Yes campaign as the source of not just wealth, but excess, are fantastically volatile and reducing (McCrone, 2012). For Scotland to attract on-going inwards investment it would require an airport to rival Schiphol or Heathrow, but where would that be built and how would it be funded? In short, failing to think through the details would be ‘costly and risky’ (Quinn, 2012). It is of interest that the Basque experience (termed Devolution Max in the Scottish context) increases the amount of resources per capita to the devolved entity but does so at the expence of poorer regions within the remaining union. This increases stresses across the community as a whole and does nothing to reduce further secessionist demands (Colino, 2012).
Put simply, I believe what Winston Churchill wrote in 1936: “The Union has grown strong the longer it has lasted.” Independence would be completely against the run of history. I was brought up partly in Dumfries, partly in Leeds, and partly in Edinburgh. I went to university in Belfast and having married an Englishwoman, settled in Yorkshire. Only then, in my thirties, did I move my voting rights south. I served in a British regiment in the British army in which the battalion colours (red, blue, and green) referred to their historic recruiting areas. The idea of independence is abhorrent. Tearing apart the United Kingdom is to rip my mother from my father.
Taking the three pillars of the SNP argument in turn, I do not believe that a vote for an independent Scotland would make the country more democratic. The referendum franchise is extended to 17 year olds but does not include the diaspora. It has been decided that being non-resident we do not care, and this is simply wrong. I care deeply: all my blood relatives live in Scotland and if I were to retire there I would have just as much interest in its future stability as the current teenage population. McCrone (2012) states that 610,000 Scots emigrated between in the 1950s and 1960s, the equivalent of 130% of the population of Edinburgh. A rough survey of my classmates identifies that roughly half now work in England or abroad, meaning that there could be over a million and a half interested but disenfranchised parties. This is not a democracy I recognise.
An independent Scotland would not be more prosperous. Measured by Gross Value Added (an assessment of productivity) Scotland is, currently, a net contributor to the UK, as is London and the South East. The other regions of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland are net users of this wealth. But it is a fallacy to say that independence would mean everyone in an independent Scotland would become richer. There will always be regions that produce and others that consume and in a smaller state the resource available to support the needy would be reduced. Independence could be devastating to those who depend on the state for their wellbeing.
The SNP appear to think that Scotland is one nation and that independence is equally attractive throughout. I challenge this. I think the appeal of it is mainly held in the cities of the central belt and that the reverse view exists in the liberal north and the conservative borders. The SNP did very well in the 2011 election but this was fought within the context of a devolved parliament operating within the UK whole. They would be unlikely to sustain such a broad majority in an independent country, especially once a credible opposition took shape. A vote that narrowly scraped through in favour of independence would be catastrophically divisive and could spark further secessionist demands, as was the Basque experience (Colino, 2012). There would be those who gain, sure. But this would be localised and in the short term. An independent Scotland could never provide long term benefit to all.
Sitting back from the hubbub and blether it strikes me that the independence vote is essentially an emotional one. If you want to believe that an independent Scotland will be rich, no statistics will persuade you otherwise. Conversely, the unionist argument is always presented in rather dull, rational terms: how Scotland benefits from UK fiscal regulation and market trust. Alistair Darling lacks popular appeal but he has managed to push the hard questions into the public agenda, and Salmond has failed to answer them (Campbell, 2013).
The Unionist vote needs to define its emotional pull, the reason why people like me – the British Scots – feel as strongly for the Union as anyone does for independence. In Leeds Town Hall, Billy Bragg talked movingly about a diagram he once saw that showed the correlation between declining membership of a (trade) union and increasing wage inequality. Paraphrasing the lyrics of one of his songs, a union protects the rights of the weakest in society. Independence for Scotland would build a wall that removes the mutuality and power of the Union while placing the most vulnerable at risk.
Bragg, Billy, Tooth and Nail tour live at Leeds Town Hall, 25th November 2013
Campbell, Alastair, Blog: If only Smart Alec Salmond could have brought himself to say ‘don’t know’ to some of the questions on website: http://www.alastaircampbell.org viewed December 2013
Churchill, Winston, A History of the English Speaking Peoples, Volume 3 – The Age of Revolution, Cassel: London, 1970
Colino, Cesar, Devolution-Max a la Basque: A Model for a Scotland within the UK? The David Hume Institute: Edinburgh, 2012
Johnson, Paul and Phillips, David, Scottish Independence: the fiscal context, The David Hume Institute: Edinburgh, 2012
Kelly, Owen, Scottish Independence and Financial Services – an Industry Observer’s Perspective, The David Hume Institute: Edinburgh, 2012
McCrone, Gavin, The Scope for Economic Policy After Independence, The David Hume Institute: Edinburgh, 2012
Quinn, Brian, Scottish Independence: Issues and Questions, The David Hume Institute: Edinburgh, 2013
The Scottish Government, Scotland’s Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland, Edinburgh, 2013