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politics, scotland

“Nobama”, fish suppers and the Tories discover fiscal autonomy.


Suddenly, everyone seems to be talking about politics – in a way I can’t recall happening in a very long time. Certainly, the 1997 referendum campaign was nothing like this. Yes Scotland has been successful in generating real engagement, especially among young people, and there has been a revival in that lost political art: the public meeting. Initiatives such as the Common Weal have got people talking, not just about the constitution, but about the good society.

Metropolitan commentators, such as The Telegraph’s Fraser Nelson, have described the No campaign as  dismal, colourless, negative and crassly economistic, seeking to value the Union at £1400 per head or “10 weeks of fish suppers”. He contrasted this with the Yes campaign’s attempts to inspire Scots with a vision of what their country could be if it had control of its own affairs. Faint praise perhaps, but at least they’re not gloating.

Not only has there been little poetry in the Better Together campaign, there has scarcely been any campaigning – at least on the ground. It has relied on its air superiority to project a negative image of independence through the Scottish and UK media.  The infamous cybernats have been accused of spreading bile and hate.

But there has also been a stream of Unitroll tweets  portraying the SNP as a party that celebrates Nazi-sympathisers and the Yes campaign as useful idiots who’ll be cast aside on 19/09 as Salmond imposes “blood and soil nationalism”.   Alistair Darling even said that Alex Salmond was behaving like Kim Jong-il.  But you’d think that Scottish voters, who have been voting SNP in huge numbers, might be able to tell the difference between Alex Salmond and the North Korean Dictator.

The Scottish Labour Party is already looking beyond September and trying to position itself for the 2016 Scottish parliamentary election. They hope that the portrayal of Alex Salmond as a proto-dictator, thirsty for power, who wants to cut taxes on the rich will stick and persuade Scottish voters to return to their “true” national party. But most natural Labour supporters I know have been repelled by the imagery of the No campaign, even those voting No.

Labour seem to have learned little from the 2011 election disaster and continue to insult the electorate’s intelligence. Their devo-max option was a spatchcocked fiscal compromise designed to appease Labour MPs in Westminster. The 5% tokenism on income tax was combined with a top rate of tax that could go up but not down – an economic idiocy. This was so transparent an attempt to fit Salmond up as a Tartan Tory that even Labour’s own economic advisers seem to have drawn a veil over it.

It was left to the real Scottish Tories to outflank Labour as the devo-max party by offering to devolve all income tax powers to Holyrood. Well, not quite. Under the plan proposed by Lord Strathclyde, the Scottish Parliament would not have the power to alter the tax thresholds. Oh, and inheritance tax and capital gains tax would still be with Westminster, as would petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax, excise duty, VAT and just about everything else. This was still a pocket-money parliament, despite all the rhetoric about making Holyrood responsible for raising the money it spends.

The Tories were also playing politics with fiscal policy, allowing themselves just enough fiscal latitude to go into the next Holyrood election offering to cut taxes in Scotland. The Strathclyde Commission Report was a very thin document, which didn’t even mention the Barnett Formula that currently calculates Scottish public spending and which would have to be radically altered under any serious form of fiscal devolution. Everything was conditional and tentative. The absence of any hint of more powers in the Queen’s Speech outlining the UK Government’s post-referendum intentions was telling.

The Strathclyde report received a largely favourable response from the Scottish press, probably because it made a change being nice to the Tories. The press was looking for something to move on from the Ukip sensation. It got it in the shape of Barack Obama – “Nobama” as he was renamed by the headline writers – making clear his opposition Scottish independence.  I don’t know whether he was, as reported, urged to do this by the UK Government, and I don’t think it will have a great impact on the campaign. But there was a depressing reluctance by the Scottish press to tell the president politely to butt out of a democratic decision that has nothing to do with him.

There is understandable frustration among the Yes camp at the negativity of the media. But Scotland is not a hugely confident nation and there’s no doubt that the negativity gets a response from readers. Perambulating around pre-referendum Scotland I have come across many enthusiastic Yes voters. But I’ve also found a lot of people who still don’t fully understand what independence is or why they should want it. They just don’t believe that Scotland is this wealthy country they keep hearing about and they are inclined to think that self-government is Alex Salmond just getting above himself.

There may also be an element of the anti-politics mood that political pundits have all been talking about in England. There is a mistrust of politicians verging on loathing and I think the Scottish Government has been coming in for some of this. Maybe the Yes campaign has been just a little too responsible for its own good and failed to connect with people’s anger and frustration. Accentuating the positive is all very well, but they sometimes sound like Christian evangelists selling hope to a sceptical electorate.

Still, that’s better than fear and cultural self-loathing. Alex Salmond always said that Scotland would be judged in the way it conducts itself in this campaign, and I would say that so far Scotland has given a good account of itself. I find it hard to believe that all this could just disappear on September 19.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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