Confused? You will be…

2 Jul 12
Iain MacWhirter

Both sides of the Scottish independence debate have launched their campaigns but semantic rows have broken out over what it all means

Let battle commence. The two sides in the independence referendum campaign have finally opened their accounts. ‘Yes Scotland’ launched last month with a call for 1 million Scots to sign a declaration of sovereignty. Some thought that a little unambitious given that there are 4 million voters.

The unionists, led by the former Labour chancellor, Alistair Darling, made their pitch under the banner: ‘Better Together’ – although not apparently with the present UK government. Neither campaign has gone to plan, and the Scottish voters are bemused as the two sides steal each other’s clothes.

‘Yes Scotland’ hit trouble when the Green Party leader, Patrick Harvie, who had co-hosted the launch, distanced himself from what he called ‘an entirely Scottish National Party vehicle’. The Greens still support independence but Harvie’s remarks were clearly an embarrassment to the SNP leader, Alex Salmond. The Greens are unhappy about his insistence on retaining the Queen and the pound after independence. They think the Scottish people should decide these matters.

There was further embarrassment when it emerged that one of the SNP’s senior marketing advisers had urged the campaign to avoid using the word ‘independence’ because of its negative connotations.

Semantics has also been a problem for ‘Better Together’. It doesn’t want to be called the ‘No’ campaign for similar ‘feel bad’ reasons and has also reportedly had difficulties with the words ‘Union’ and even ‘British’. Their final strapline was: ‘A Stronger Scotland; a United Kingdom’.

If this word play suggests some confusion of identity, well that’s the point. Both sides are trying to escape from the prison of the past. Salmond has been trying to refashion independence to make it less about separation and more about creating a new partnership with England. He has even talked of there being a ‘new United Kingdom’ after independence, with a ‘social union’ replacing the existing political union.

Meanwhile, the anti-independence campaigners are trying to suggest that Scotland might actually gain more autonomy by remaining in the UK. Darling says that leaving the Bank of England in charge of interest rates would put Scotland’s economy under the control of a foreign power. He points to the difficulties peripheral European countries have experienced being in a currency union without having political control.

Moreover, Chancellor George Osborne has suggested that if Scots vote no to independence, the Scottish Parliament could be given full control of income tax. But there is scepticism about Conservative politicians promising better devolution; they offered it on the eve of the 1979 referendum and it never happened. The SNP says that the problem for ‘Better Together’ is that it involves sticking with a mistrusted UK coalition government that is very unpopular in Scotland.

The constitutional cross-dressing has made this a frustrating contest. The pro-independence parties are saying: ‘vote independence for a better UK’; while the antis are saying: ‘vote unionist for more independence’.

Part of the problem is that no one knows what independence means now everyone is in the European Union. Just how independent is Greece now that its finances are run by foreign bankers? The triangulation will have to stop in October 2014. Mind you, by then there might not even be a European Union.

This article first appeared in the July/August issue of Public Finance

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