Letter from America

by Paul Maharg on 16/09/2014

I’m in the US, by kind invitation of Roberto Corrada at Sturm College of Law, University of Denver and the IAALS conference, Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers.  More of this in my next posts.  But this post is about something else.  I was sorry to see the Guardian come out for the No campaign in its editorial last Saturday.  In truth, a Yes vote is the only way that Scotland will obtain any measure of political reform and electoral control over its own affairs.  The Guardian’s argument is flawed, and ignores the case behind the Yes campaign’s success to date, achieved in spite of massive negative campaigning from No.  I thought it might have taken a more measured and historical view of the debate, or it might have looked beyond Thursday’s vote to role that Scotland could play in the politics and political culture of rUK.

At least the Guardian focuses on the principles of the debate, and has published articles for and against Yes.  Virtually all the mainstream press support the Better Together campaign, many in carefully-argued articles, some in hostile articles, some clearly anti-Scottish, even sneering.  The Herald and its sister the Sunday Herald are the only exceptions (appropriately enough Glasgow-based Scottish titles — there’s much support in the west for the Yes campaign — more of that below). In almost every editorial the currency situation under Yes is highlighted as a key failure of their campaign.  But as Joseph Stiglitz points out in the Sunday Herald, Yes’s proposals aren’t so implausible according to other commentators.  My reading on the post-Yes economy has been Scotland’s Future (biassed of course, but you need to read what the Scottish Govt’s position is), occasional articles and the e-book, The Economic Consequences of Scottish Independence.  The last gives what seems to a layperson like me a reasonably clear version of fiscal union and other alternatives, and written by economists and others.  The alternatives are carefully analysed.  Few of them are implausible, some better than others and of course there’s debate as to which is the best option for Scotland.  None of them as far as I can make out see Scotland’s financial / economic future as permanent austerity, or the dire future sketched out by some bankers and financiers (and as tweeters have not been slow to point out, that’s rich coming from bankers). See by comparison the much more positive interview with Angus Tulloch in the Sunday Herald.

While we’re on the subject, the Sunday Herald produced on 14.9.14 one of the finest editions of any mainstream Sunday newspaper that I’ve read, with great articles by Neal Ascherson, Tom Devine, excellent reporting and comment by Ian McWhirter — see discussion on The Drum on their editorial stance — alone, of all the Sundays or dailies, they support Yes.  Last year, SH produced a graphical layout that showed the extent of Coalition UK’s indifference to Scottish affairs.  Under ‘The leaders write’, both Cameron and Salmond were asked to produce an article to length, and Downing St Press Office could couldn’t even be bothered to fill it up, showing how much Coalition UK had to say on the matter.  So the SH just went ahead with blanks.


The Guardian’s stance, and every other newspaper except the Sunday Herald, considers then simply elides the Scottish viewpoint, as if Scottish identity (which Tom Devine rights says is on the increase and has been for well over half a century) didn’t exist and doesn’t count.  Oh you feel Scottish do you — well, can’t you get over it in the interests of the UK’s wider interests?  But identity isn’t just a feeling: it’s socially embodied, imbricated in the economy, culture, property, languages, class relationships, regional relationships, history, art, finances and much much else.  It’s how we are — and that we includes the substantial proportion of us that want to vote No.  The Guardian, and all other newspapers seem to do the metropolitan trick of acknowledging it, then missing how fundamental a  social issue this is (fundamental enough for many No voters to be upset that the Yes campaign have so successfully occupied the high ground on identity).

The media that does represent this identity is the social digital media.  See for instance David Hayman, The Pitiless Storm, last speech, on YouTube.  Or Jean Freeman, Women for Independence, taking apart Andrew Neil, who runs out of time when he realises he’s met his match.  Compare her precise, compelling analysis to Miliband’s vapid bluster in the first minute or so of this extract.  Or look at the misrepresentation by the BBC of The Big Big Debate — 8,000 16 & 17 year olds, in Glasgow’s SSEC, facing Patrick Harvie, Nicola Sturgeon, and Ruth Davidson and George Galloway.  This turned out to be a classic of media manipulation exposed, something the Yes campaign have pointed out, with evidence (on Twitter and elsewhere), but which the BBC refuse to acknowledge.  See this on Reddit, and it was also reported in The Guardian blog, 3.43 BST, Friday 12 Sept.  Or the massive length of comments listings to blogs and online articles.  Several commentators have noted the asymmetry of Yes online presence to No, set against the polling results, something that still needs analysis and interpretation.


I lost all confidence in the Westminster system, to be honest, around the mid-eighties.  Nothing will change under the present political system which (Gramsci, key aspect of hegemonic behaviour, etc) uses the trappings and levers of power to cover its own lack of power.  Westminster can’t even reform the House of Lords properly, let alone its core constitutional crises such as PR or its non-existent constitution.  What dismays me about leftist journals and newspapers like Renewal and The Guardian (much though I love so much of the Graudinag, especially its standards of investigative journalism — and praise where it’s due, its Live Referendum Blog has been outstanding) is that they refuse to see in its historical and cultural dimensions the genuine anger, dismay, frustration of ordinary people in Scotland at the opportunist class-based party-political processes in the UK, the self-centredness of the political establishment when it comes to reform of itself.  Sure, the Yes campaign is using that anger as a vehicle for their ends.  But it’s not cynical: Yes is responding to the anger with a proposal for fundamental democratic reform within the entire Scottish system of government that will enable more not less democratic control over finance, policy and democratic engagement.  The anger has always been there, inarticulate, unfocussed, frustrated, the Left (ever since Thatcher really) paralysed, often lost for ideas or ideals, or too perplexed to do much about it (except wring their hands, or try to defend themselves against Tory accusations that Labour started this with devolution [see first para of Major’s rant in the Times last week – paywall…] or sit at home and console themselves writing modish articles containing words like chaviste, as here).  And sure, you could argue that lots of English voters feel similarly disenfranchised and frustrated (the Guardian’s point) — but the size of the democratic deficit works overwhelmingly in their favour, 90:10, and their sense of their national identity and future direction is different.  Their route to fundamental reform is different and will involve different levers, including the acknowledgement by London of different regional identities — but only if the regions exert enough pressure.

IMG_2263That anger, not nationalism per se, fuels the Yes campaign.  The Proclaimers’ song, Letter from America, gave powerful expression to it: Lochaber no more, Sutherland no more … Bathgate no more, Linwood no more.  The Yes vote is a protest vote that is about more fundamental, experiential and principled things than consumerist economics.  For their part, the No campaign, left right and centre, have got it completely wrong — they say, look at how poorer you could be under Independence, you’re signing up for a currency you don’t know anything about, your financial infrastructure will collapse, your food and drink and mortgages will be dearer.   The appeal to self-interest on the basis of speculation is blatant.  All the time they let half-truths and lies circulate — about 11,000 RBS job losses with the move to London, when it fact all that moves is an address.  But this doesn’t matter beside the principle of self-determination that many people, poor, the unemployed, those subject the most to Coalition austerity, are desperate to hear, having been ignored, made invisible, condescended to most of their lives, and then, most breathtaking of all, wooed every five years or so for their Westminster vote.  My co-author, Emma Nicol from Strathclyde University, joined a volunteer group of self-organised individuals in north Glasgow to canvass in Possil, one of the poorest areas of Glasgow.  In her words, ‘the typical result of a night’s work is a dozen Yesses, 1 or 2 Noes and half a dozen don’t knows. It is encouraging. A comment we often hear from people in Possil is well, it cannae be any worse.’


These words mean relatively little in a Westminster election process, and particularly in Scotland where as 10% or less of the total UK electorate you’ll rarely get what you vote for, not just at the ballot box, but in policy formation and attention to Scottish affairs at any time.  From the point of view of democratic health, though, they should be chilling words for any politician to hear.  In the Referendum, they’re crucial, as Yes campaign managers know.  But the No campaign ignored them, as they’ve always done, gambling that the middle classes, the conservative older voters, the yellow-dog Labour voters, would outpoll these voices and if they were at all in doubt they could be cowed by uncertainty about personal finance into voting No by a campaign that organises the supermarkets to issue statements that prices will go up, when at least one, Tesco, says that this is simply not the case (what Darling with a revealing metaphor calls ‘shelling’ the Yes position — any wonder their campaign is so dismal).

IMG_2233Look at the scrambling political panic this last week.  Because in spite of ‘shelling’, the Yes vote held up, and increased.  And yet the Better Together campaign still don’t get it, and the careless quality of their campaign output reveals their careless attitude until the last week, comfortable in what was a 22 point lead in the polls.  Compare their last couple of TV broadcasts with the Yes campaign’s — see Patronising Lady as it’s become known (sexist as well), which is just cringe-worthy.  It’s analysed over at Bella Caledonia, and generally on social media.[1] Or have a look at the bleakness of this one (trying the mood music approach and ending up funereal, mourning, a mangled Sunday Post version of the Union). Compare those videos to the hope and future focus of this Yes campaign video.  Beautifully lit and shot, worth watching sequence by sequence to appreciate the narrative skill and the way it inspires.  And it refers to ancient images of Scotland — the rose, Scotland as a woman in stages of life, young girl, independent women, at home and in business, in older ages.[2]   Or see the clever Generation Yes video piece — a form of video concrete poetry, a form whose provenance can be traced back to the Renaissance at least — cf George Herbert’s shape poems.  Compare Commonweal, National Collective, Radical Independence, replete with exciting political ideas on democracy, with anything the unionist side is putting forward.  Real idealism: alternative visions for what our democracy can be in Scotland.  The No campaign offers nothing but panicked versions of the same old.  Earlier last week there was general derision for the Three Amigos as the Herald put it, hastening up to Scotland to offer new old versions of devo-max, long after after Cameron had dismissed that option from the ballot paper, and after thousands have already cast their (postal) vote.

Personally, I think that if there’s a yes vote, the first few years will not be pretty.  Maybe even the first decade, until the nation stabilises in the global capital grid.   Is that fundamental uncertainty worth risking?  Depends what your ideals are, what you have to lose.  But I can see no alternative in the current UK setup.  Scotland’s current defence of NHS standards by viring budgets can only stretch as far as the funds given by Westminster; the NHS privatisation agenda will almost certainly be imposed on Scotland; the Barnett Formula will be reviewed, which means reviewed downwards, the new powers mean little in terms of sovereignty, more austerity, more cuts, no political change to a Westminster system utterly desperate to prop itself up in the face of radical change, in a London-centric economy gearing up to drain ever more capital and talent from the rest of the country.


I think it was Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, arguing against the union and for the independence of the Scottish Parliament. who suggested that Scotland’s sovereignty would only be properly established by a radical reform of political institutions in Scotland, upon which there could be the possibility of a more equal form of union with England, possibly co-federal union. His position, over 300 years old and still powerfully relevant today, shows up the compromise of the current devo-max and devo-plus options.  They might have been made to work.  In fact it might have been what Salmond would have preferred to the independence option.  But Cameron dismissed that, bullying the Scots into a referendum choice that forced them into accepting status quo or the armageddon of independence, a ploy the Tories use when dealing with pesky upstart ‘regions’, whether it’s Wales, Cornwall or NE England.  In truth the proposals now on the table are ragged, ill-thought out, desperate stop-gaps; and if the Guardian wanted an example why Westminster will never reform itself, this is a good instance.  And for a better example, see the Tory backbenchers already leading a revolt against the measures, before we even know fully what’s on offer, or the outcome of the referendum.  It’s back to 1979, Alec Douglas-Hume and Tory broken promises.

I was at the Yes rally in Glasgow last Saturday, 13.9.14, lots of folk filling Buchanan St and Sauchiehall St, crowds of Yes voters out, great band, speeches, carnival — photos in this posting (and in the one above, note the support from Bristol Green Party — the Yes campaign, ironically, can be a true Coalition UK).  ‘Politics can never be like this all the time’ the Guardian editorial reminds us, rather archly.  As if we need reminding that the orgasmic moment of revolutionary transformation ever really existed.  People are not fools: they know more about history than this statement implies, and they know about the struggles that lie ahead in the future.  But we want change.  So, Guardian, tell me, do we throw away our complex Scots identities, thole gross democratic deficit for another couple of generations, maybe another 300 years in the cause of your Leftist solidarity, while Westminster prevaricates, to its own advantage and the advantage of the London-centred elites it so powerfully represents, as Coalition UK has superbly demonstrated?  I’ve got one life: if not us, who; if not now, when.  All the best on the day, Scotland.

  1. [1]See especially some great new media journalism from the USA on this at Reddit  with links to satirical versions of the Patronising Lady.
  2. [2]Though I can’t leave it without comparing it to the excellent work of Kirsten Stirling, also summarised on Bella Caledonia here, whose book details are here.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Paul Maharg September 17, 2014 at 01:18

Quick update — some surprise expressed about my comments on some mainstream press. Cue Daily Mail reporting Cameron’s speech. The Scottish version headline: ‘Cameron: Don’t rip our family apart’. English version: ‘Why don’t we tell the Scots to shove off’. See http://newsnetscotland.com/index.php/scottish-opinion/9745-daily-blackmail-cranks-into-overdrive for more gory detail…


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