Monday, 8 September 2014

The anniversary of Bannockburn: this time, there may be no winners

“The pound’s ours as much as yours,” supporters of Scottish independence keep telling me, and they’re right. And our shared pound, like our shared union, is looking shaky today, ten days from the independence referendum. That’s because on Sunday we had the first poll ever suggesting that the ‘Yes’ vote was ahead of ‘No’.

Bankers, among their many other sterling qualities, are terrified of change, any change, so the possibility of the dissolution of the union fills them with fear. And when they’re afraid, they sell. So the pound has taken a bit of a nosedive.

Bannockburn: Scots at their most fearsome,
routing the English, in 1314
The news media and conversations generally are dominated by the approaching vote. Few in England want to see the Scots go, but many of us are beginning to wonder whether they might, after all. I have to confess my position remains what it was before: were I a Scot, I’d probably want independence; as an Englishman, contemplating the prospect of losing 41 Labour MPs, and probably seeing the Conservatives encrusted onto power for another parliament or two, fills me with dread.

That being said, even if I were Scots had a vote, I’m not sure I’d vote for independence on the present terms. The Scots want to cling on to the pound – hence the mantra that it’s theirs, too – but in a currency union with the remainder of the United Kingdom. Why on Earth do they want to do that? After all, they’re in a currency union right now. Why leave the Union but maintain a currency union?

The Irish didn’t after all. They split the pound at the same time as their union with Britain. They even renamed it the punt which, as a friend recently told me on Twitter, is the only currency with the merit of rhyming with “banker.”

In any case, one of the main reasons pro-independence Scots give for their view is that they want to get away from the austerity policies being imposed on us by our Tory-led government. I can sympathise with them: they elected one Tory MP, out of the 59 Scotland sent to Westminster in 2010, and yet they got Tories dictating their politics all the same. Scots are keen on keeping the NHS free at the point of care, universities without fees, pensions higher and benefits more generous. Many of us in England want the same, so I applaud their aspiration. Like them, I lament the fact that the Tories deny us the opportunity to fulfil it.

Leaving the UK would give Scots the opportunity to pursue such policies. But not in a currency union. As Greece has discovered in its dealings with Germany, being in a currency union with a much bigger economy leaves you with little room for manoeuvre. Scotland would find itself constrained by policies, on taxation and public spending, imposed on it by the very Tories they wish to escape.

What on Earth’s the sense in that?

Meanwhile, the No campaign maintains its lacklustre approach, awaking no passion, opposing independence with arguments from an accountant’s ledger: leaving the Union might cost Scots the equivalent of a fish and chips supper a night – a painful price if you’re on the bread line (or do I mean chip line?) but hardly a rousing call to arms (“once more unto the chip shop, dear friends, once more”? I don’t think so).

And now the main Westminster parties have suddenly discovered that they can offer Scotland a great deal more autonomy, more devolved powers. The question sceptical Scots are asking is, “why didn’t you mention that before?” It does indeed look terribly like panic in response to a growing momentum for Yes.

The reality, I suspect, is that David Cameron, the most indolent Prime Minister I can remember, probably never thought of it before. He could have organised a constitutional convention a year or two ago, to consider some kind of federal arrangement within these islands. Just think. Alex Salmond would have had to take part, and look compromised, or stay out, and look curmudgeonly.

That would have put us in a strong position now: we could have been saying to the Scots, “look what’s on offer. Are you sure independence would give you more?”

But such an initiative would have involved Cameron in hard work, including tough negotiations. And he’s never shown much inclination for rolling his sleeves up.

Instead he’s left us on the back foot as we go into the referendum on the 700th anniversary of the famous victory of the Scots over the English at Bannockburn, on 18 September.

Sadly, I think on this occasion the Scots might inflict a grievous defeat not just on us, but on themselves too. A battle without winners. With little hope of gain either side of the border.

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