If you are visiting this blog post for the second time you will notice that I have changed the heading. If you have just arrived, I should explain that the original heading said In a state of hysteria Scotland risks making an irreversible decision based on the fever of the moment. I apologise for careless use of an emotive word (you will see from comments below that I have been criticised for implying that everyone voting Yes is acting out of hysteria and in blind faith). If you read my argument I hope you will see that is not what I intended, or said. But I do not think I was wrong to express alarm at the mood of the country which seemed to me to reach fever pitch with yesterday’s demonstration outside the BBC. Enough. Here is the post which has attracted more attention than most of my thoughts. It starts with a quote from an article in the Financial Times magazine.
Hysteria becomes a political tool used by the instigators to push through agendas that would never have been possible in a non-hysterical situation.
I should make it clear straight away that Douglas Coupland was not referring to the Scottish referendum in his Financial Times column Observation. In fact the piece was subtitled God, no-God: how the Internet forces us to choose between science and religion. But even that strikes a chord in this feverish last phase of a two year campaign. There is more than a whiff of religious evangelism about the nationalist cause. So what are we being asked to choose between? On the one side blind faith, on the other – well, what?
I will come back to the positives of the No campaign in tomorrow’s blog post. Today I am concerned with what feels like a dangerously hysterical mood in Scotland. Another disclaimer: I know many people have decided that Yes is a risk worth taking because they believe it is a chance to create a fairer nation. But I fear many others are being encouraged to vote Yes on the basis of promises, many of which – to put it charitably – will be difficult to meet. See impartial analysis on Scotland’s Decision: 16 Questions to think about before the referendum on 18 September
As a no voter I see straight questions asked of Alex Salmond as rational and reasonable. But I hear even the most sensible yes voters responding with incredulity: how can we not grasp the opportunity of a lifetime, the chance to build a new fairer nation, a beacon of hope to the wider world? Others angrily dismiss any counter-argument as quisling scaremongering, and worse. “Attacking moderates,” observes Douglas Coupland “…is a common political tactic used by members of extreme orthodoxies”
I have never been to a revivalist meeting but I imagine the mood is much like the campaign trail: Scotland’s oil will keep flowing. Yes. Scotland’s GDP will keep growing. Yes. Scotland’s old, sick and young will be well provided for. Yes. What if the banks go south, Scotland will keep the pound. Yes. Scotland will keep higher education free. Yes. (except maybe for the English). Yes. Scotland with 100% control of health, education, law, transport and (well, see Scottish Parliament website for the rest) is already a better place. But it can be so much better as a self-determining nation. Hallelujah.
I have a message for the Scots: Be afraid, be very afraid. The risks of going it alone are huge. You may think that Scotland can become another Canada, but it’s all too likely that it would end up becoming Spain without the sunshine. Paul Krugman, New York Times
No room for doubt, no time for questions about how Scotland will pay for all this milk and honey and how long it might take. The fire of optimism inspires misty eyed romance in all kinds of people, including (to my regret) those I greatly respect. At a Fringe event I heard a gentle poet explaining his love for Scotland. A well travelled, thoughtful man, he described his epiphany on the wind-blasted moors of the Borders. What a miserable place, he had thought, but this is what made me, this is where I belong. Fair enough. But he then made an odd leap, reading his poem about Scotland’s chance to create its own history instead of following in the slipstream of another nation.
Was that the slipstream that carried Scots to carve out the Ulster plantations in 1609 under a Scottish king on the English throne? The slipstream that bore young Scots West to earn a fortune on slavery plantations in the Caribbean, and East to build the British Empire in India? The slipstream that flooded the whole of Britain and much of the rest of the world with Scottish politicians, trade unionists, engineers, soldiers, artists, explorers, musicians, missionaries, cartographers, comedians. Some slipstream.
Perhaps a poet has a licence to play with history. What explanation is there for Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winning economist? There was an unmistakably romantic look in his eye when he spoke of Scotland’s vision for a more equal society. He was clearly flustered when a woman in the audience pointed out that free tuition for higher education was a form of middle class welfarism (I borrow the term from the Guardian’s Peter Hetherington). It had produced no increase in students from poorer backgrounds and, indeed, came at the cost of 130,000 further education college places and cuts to school budgets: less not more equality. But how should the US economist know such facts? As a member of the Fiscal Commission on the Council of Economic Advisors he hears what the Scottish Government chooses to tell him and they possibly didn’t draw his attention to the further education budget.
Keep the pound? Scots, What the Heck? Not everyone is convinced. Paul Krugman another Nobel Prize winning economist in the New York Times, makes it quite clear – something the Scottish media have largely failed to do – that currency union is not fiscal independence.
This morning, after another sleepless night, I read in the Financial Times (The World is saying No to Scottish Independence) Philip Stephen’s eloquent and astute analysis of Alex Salmond’s skilful manipulation of a mood of discontent. In an age of globalisation many people seek comfort in nationalism. Salmond is to Scotland what Farage is to England, a guileful politician playing populist mood music. From a distance, says Stephens, the rest of the world watches with dismay. They ask just one question. WHY?
“The truth is,” writes Stephens, “that it is hard to imagine a moment during the past 300 years when it would have been more foolish for the nations of Britain to separate. Prosperity and security in an age of great power competition belongs to those comfortable with multiple identities – the ones who bind themselves together in shared endeavour.”
Cry the divided country. In a state of over-optimistic excitement, Scotland risks making an irreversible decision based on the fever of the moment, not facts.