14 March 2013
As a supporter of Scottish independence and critic of the Better Together campaign, I was genuinely intrigued by the headline which accompanied Douglas Alexander’s piece: 'What should happen in 2014 if Scotland votes No?' (12 March).
While my Yes vote is assured, I am of course still interested in the fate of our country should it decide to stay in the UK. Better Together and Westminster have been highly evasive about alternatives to independence, despite the neutral Electoral Commission insisting that they reveal plans for Scotland. Here, finally, are those plans.
Alarm bells should be ringing on Douglas Alexander's first paragraph, when he brackets 'entrepreneurs' alongside 'the marginalised, the poor and the young' as 'the voices of those left behind…without access to the political elite…too rarely on my television or radio'. Does Douglas Alexander actually believe that entrepreneurs (a euphemism for 'capitalists') are absent from the corridors of power? Is he aware that they own the media? To posit them alongside the poor as excluded from political discourse says a great deal about the kind of government we could expect if Labour were back in charge.
So to his issue with the constitutional debate, which he claims has come at the expense of 'social, political, cultural and economic change'. It is obvious to anyone who has taken even a passing interest in independence that what it proposes is profound and massive change, which is why Douglas Alexander has to pretend otherwise. A national oil fund, the redistribution of wealth, the removal of nuclear submarines from our water, a solving of the housing crisis, the safety of Scottish troops, a new constitution, Scottish broadcasting: all irrelevant to him. He is a proponent not of change, but of inertia.
This is no more obvious than in his 'vision' for Scotland within the UK. Enhanced devolution, perhaps? A greater share of oil revenue? No, what we can expect is a 'National Convention'. What does it involve? Well, it will take the form of 'dialogue and discussion'. Douglas Alexander points towards Australia, which in 2008 'brought together 1,000 leading Australians' (presumably bringing those much-excluded entrepreneurs in from the cold) 'to debate and develop long-term options for the nation'. All well and good, except that Australia has the sovereign power to turn those options into reality. Scotland does not. Without them, Douglas Alexander's National Convention is a talking shop, no more, no less. This is Better Together's 'plan' for Scotland. This is our incentive to vote No.
Westminster won't devolve further power in the result of a No vote, for the simple reason that it won't have to. Cameron fought to remove devo-max from the ballot for a reason. At the moment, the threat of independence is the only bargaining chip Scotland possesses, the only thing which prevents, for example, a lowering of our block grant. If we vote No, London will hear only this: Do whatever the hell you like to Scotland, because we don't care enough about ourselves to stop you. Westminster promised treats if we voted against devolution in 1979. What happened? Thatcherism.
The Tories, with UKIP breathing down their neck, are lurching further to the right, the hardliners Boris Johnson, Theresa May, Liam Fox and Michael Gove jostling for position. Cameron's referendum on an EU exit is a sop to UKIP and means Scotland has less chance of staying in the EU if it votes against independence rather than for it. The Tories won't even have to win a majority in the next parliament, with the coalition support of both UKIP and the Lib Dems virtually guaranteed.
Labour? Ed Miliband makes constant appeals to the 'squeezed middle', carefully packaged Tory language which courts Daily Mail readers. In this context, Douglas Alexander's reference to 'excluded' entrepreneurs makes more sense. See if you can spot any references to the working-class or the trade unions which still loyally vote Labour. Shadow chancellor Ed Balls has already pledged to be 'ruthless' about public service cuts when in power, while Labour MP Helen Goodman has recently argued for the necessity of the punitive 'bedroom tax'.
So this, should Scotland vote No, is the dazzling array of choices available at the next election. The idea that, post-2014, Scottish MSPs currently fighting tooth and nail against independence will suddenly unite with the SNP against their own parties in Westminster, to demand greater powers for Scotland, is preposterous. Should Westminster decide to reverse devolution – the Barnett Formula and the West Lothian Question have long-vexed right-wingers – we will be utterly powerless to stop them.
Never mind, at least we'll have Douglas Alexander's National Convention, where we can chat about it. On the other hand, we could vote Yes, and actually have the kind of country we want.
Here's a thought, Douglas. Instead of 'dialogue and discussion' on Scotland's future, could we have policy? Instead of woolly talk about 'a way of doing politics differently' could we actually do politics differently? Instead of a National Convention, could we have a nation?
Alan Bissett is a novelist and playwright, who was Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Writer of the Year 2011