There is something quite surreal about the prospect of a vote, by those who happen to reside in Scotland at the moment, on whether or not the 300-year-old Union of Great Britain should continue. Despite the opinion polls, I have a sneaky feeling that it will be a fairly clear ‘No’ vote. Because of the emotive nationalism, my sense is that people are reluctant to tell anyone that they are planning to vote ‘No’, and so the pollster results are skewed towards ‘Yes.’
But whatever the result, there are going to be some serious recriminations about the way the whole process has been conducted. It is breathtaking to consider the misjudgements, incompetence and constitutional wrecking that has marked the whole process. These are the most obvious blunders:
- Cameron insisting that the vote was a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’, out of hubristic confidence that Scots would not dare to vote ‘yes’, instead of including a third option.
- Allowing the ‘better together’ position to be called ‘No.’ Not surprisingly, this looks rather negative, as does any campaign to maintain the status quo. If there had been any thought at all about this, the vote would have been cast as between ‘yes to independence’ versus ‘yes to union’—or, better still, ‘yes to union’ versus ‘no to union.’
- Putting that third option (the so-called ‘devo max’) option on the table the week before the vote, which looks to everyone like a cross between a panic measure and a bribe.
- The sloppy definition of who can vote, so that residents in Scotland with no long-term stake can vote, whereas those who have a long Scottish heritage but happen to have moved to England or another country cannot.
- The notion of making constitutional change on a mere 50% of those voting. Even a debating society has a 2/3 threshold for constitutional change—and if there is less than 100% turnout, this change could happen with a minority of the electorate voting for it, let alone a minority of all Scots.
- The idea that one part of the United Kingdom can vote itself independent regardless of the will of the rest of the Union. Scotland comprises 8% of the UK population—so why couldn’t other areas with 8% also decide to secede? At what percentage does the other half have a say?
What is also striking is the fact that some really key questions have not been answered which have a significant bearing on whether independence will ‘work’. What currency will Scotland use? It is hard to seeing rUK allowing Scotland to use the pound—which then raises the question of international credit. A newly independent Scotland won’t be granted a AAA credit rating, which means that servicing its portion of the national debt will be more expensive. Can it join the EU? This is unlikely to happen soon, but when it does it will probably be on condition that Scotland joins the Euro, and if so it would, in many regards, have less financial autonomy in relation to Brussels than it now has from London. And it might well have to join the Schengen agreement on borderless movement of people—so the recent joke Scottish Border Patrol someone set up will become a reality. I wonder what economic impact that will have on the North East? And yet they too have no say on this.
At present the divide for them is merely a jagged line on a map, which they cross with great regularity almost as if it were not there. Health, education, work, shopping, veterinary care – these are just some of the things for which people hop over the boundary in an area where many people regard themselves as “Borderers” first – English or Scots second. And with talk of border controls, new currency and tax systems, and even a different time zone should Scotland opt to go it alone, it’s easy to see why a yes vote could be huge for those Borderers.
But it is not really the case that answers have not been offered—the questions have been debated, and quite fully. The BBC Daily Question has explored most of the key issues from both sides of the debate, and many are finely poised. I was surprised to learn that the average tax paid per person in Scotland is more or less exactly the same as that paid in the UK as a whole. Public spending, governed in part by the Barnett Formula, is higher in Scotland than in England (though not as high as in Northern Ireland) but the gap is made up for by oil revenues. Another key question is whether food prices would go up. All other things being equal, this is likely, since distribution costs are higher—but ‘all other things’ are not likely to remain equal, and changes in the tax regime could protect lower costs. The economic arguments have put the ‘No’ campaign in a double bind: mention them and it looks patronising (‘We are helping you out’); say nothing and you omit what could be a key part of your argument.
Will the NHS still function in Scotland? Because of devolution, it did not follow the marketisation that Andrew Landsley imposed in England, and waiting lists have not met the targets set. Scotland has big health challenges, constantly topping the chart for obesity and coming at the bottom of league tables for life expectancy. (A man born today in certain areas of Glasgow has a life expectancy in the 50s.) But in Scotland the health service has not faced the same ‘battle for its heart and soul’ that has happened in England, and perhaps it has found a better way of working. Perhaps.
No, the issue is that, on many of these things, we simply don’t know, and can’t know, since there are so many uncertainties. The world as it is today feels a very uncertain place to be a small country—and yet many Scots appear to want to take the risk.
It has been quite difficult to find any theological basis on which to form a view on this. (I don’t think the fact that ‘Alec Salmond’ is an anagram of ‘Call as demon’ really counts here…especially when I have misspelled Alex!) There is a nice piece making a plea for continued Union on Fulcrum by David Barclay. The core is his argument is that, since Christ has united people, we should see to stay together wherever possible.
Some see difference as an opportunity for division, for choice and separateness – a chance to fragment into smaller and smaller groups to try and maximise our happiness. But the Bible offers a different perspective. Ephesians 2:13-14 says “now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility”. As those who have gone from being foreigners and strangers to being brought into the family of God, we should seek as far as is practically possible to break down barriers and extend the boundaries of our communities.
But I am not sure the logic of this works. Surely we should seek unity with those in other countries, not seek simply to eliminate country borders? This argument would, in fact, support the creation of a European super-state, and there are some good theological arguments against that. The main objection to larger and larger unions is the loss of contact between those governing and those being governed—often expressed as the ‘democratic deficit.’ And in fact it is this which is driving the determination for Scottish independence. As the Scottish Government’s own White Paper has put it:
Devolution has shown the strengths of having different political systems in Scotland and the rest of the UK for both countries. Since 1999 many areas of Scottish life, including health, justice and education, have to all intents and purposes been independent.
The Scottish approach to these issues – for example, banning smoking in public places, protecting free education and pushing for a minimum price for alcohol – has challenged the rest of the UK to consider different approaches to address challenges common to both countries. We have also been able to consider the Westminster approach to policy issues, sometimes rejecting those that are not suitable for Scotland or that have no support here.
With a Cabinet drawn from the social elite, politicians being ‘forced’ to accept an 11% pay rise at the same time they reject a 1% rise for NHS staff, and a general sense of the political class being out of touch with ordinary voters, the Scottish referendum is highlighting something felt across the country. In fact, as Johann Hari pointed out during the debate on proportional representation, our electoral system constantly fails to reflect the wishes of most people.
In Britain today, we have a centre-left majority who want this to be a country with European-level taxes, European-standard public services and European-level equality. We have had this for a very long time. Even at the height of Thatcherism, 56 per cent of people voted for parties committed to higher taxes and higher spending. But the centre-left vote is split between several parties – while the right-wing vote clusters around the Conservatives. So under FPTP they get to rule and dominate out of all proportion to their actual support, and drag most of us in a direction we don’t want to go.
And this distance between the desire of the governed and the will of the governing is just what Samuel warned the people of Israel about when they wanted to change their system of Government and have their own king like the other nations:
This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattled and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the LORD will not answer you in that day. (1 Sam 8.11–18)
Perhaps Thursday’s vote, whatever the outcome, will be a wake-up call for the whole nation to rethink what it wants from its Government.
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