Why are our pro-union politicians so useless?

Why are our pro-union politicians so useless?

by Victor Clements
article from Tuesday 7, July, 2020

THIS QUESTION occurred to me while attending the excellent These Islands conference way back in March before the Coronavirus pandemic befell us all.

We all know that the pro-independence campaign lost the 2014 vote because it could not put together the economic case, and for most people, nothing else mattered. As someone who did a lot of canvassing at the time, I sensed there were two reasons for voting No. One was for a whole package of issues loosely relating to the economy, the second was that many people simply did not like or trust Alex Salmond. Everything else, including EU membership, was a long way behind. 

The second issue should have been resolved by now for a number of reasons, but it appears it may not have been, and we may well have to indulge this man again. The economic issue has not been addressed either, with the best the SNP can do being a report that says ‘Well, things will be tough, but we are sure it will be OK’. This is the standard of argument we are up against, and yet, somehow, we cannot seem to beat it.

Conference organizer and founder of These Islands Kevin Hague set out his analysis of the UK economy going back for 50 years, and set out in words that anyone could understand how tax revenues were re-distributed across the different countries and regions depending on their current needs and contributions.

In the 1970’s, the Scottish economy was weak in relation to the UK, and we received a lot more money than we contributed. The nationalists said that this was a reason for Independence. We could manage our own economy better.

In the 1980s, Scotland contributed a lot more than we got back in taxes, largely because this was the period of peak oil flow. The nationalists said that this was a reason for Independence. We put in more than we took out.

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, Scotland’s contribution was very similar to the UK average. The Nationalists said this was a reason for independence. We could hold our own.

Since 2014, Scotland is again in a weak position compared to the UK, and the situation is getting worse. The nationalists say this is a reason for independence again. We could manage our own economy better.

All the above is actually a reason for maintaining the union, because no matter what our position is relative to the UK, taxes are redistributed to ensure common levels of welfare and spending across the whole. If someone has most of their eggs in one basket, this will not work against them should something go wrong, as it has done with the oil situation, the golden cow around which the entire one page 2014 economic case was made.

The Kevin Hague argument was persuasive, the data was not challenged. We should no longer be having this discussion, but we are. Why is that? Why is it that, given all the evidence, we cannot win this argument?

There was very little discussion around the Hague presentation. Did those present believe it? Did they understand it? Were they capable of understanding it? Could they make the argument again themselves if they had to? 

I asked a question to the panel as to why we could not win this argument. No-one answered it, and this was noted by many in the room. I asked one of the panel afterwards, a journalist, and it was clear he did not understand. I asked two more times before the penny dropped, and I had the answer which I had to deduce for myself.

We cannot win this argument because the politicians that we elect are simply not good enough. 

The journalists and commentators who are loosely described as “pro-union” are too intrigued by the argument. They seem to be happy enough just to keep it going. The problem is with us, not with them. No-one likes conflict or arguments to persist for too long because that is damaging. There comes a point where you have to put an argument to bed, but we have been incapable of doing that.

When the vote was confirmed in 2014, I went to bed for a couple of hours, went out for a cooked breakfast, and then went back to work so that I could catch up with the week I had taken off. There was no celebration. There was no intent to go back to this again. Like many others, I naively believed the argument was won, and that politicians and commentators would now move the agenda on. That did not happen. We had our first clue a few hours after the vote when Alex Salmond said, “The campaign would go on, and the dream would never die...”, despite saying he would respect the vote a few hours earlier.

Overtly or covertly, the campaign has been taking place every day for the six years since. If Brexit had not given it a focus, it would have been something else. The pro-UK politicians have had any number of opportunities to set a different narrative, but no matter how many banjos they have been handed, they simply cannot hit the barn door. 

The problem is most certainly on our side.

The Conservatives seem happy just to maintain the argument. Despite being in government at a UK level and now having a stronger presence in Scotland, they haven’t actually put forward any policies or initiatives that might strengthen the union.

The Labour Party, the party that should understand the rationale for having a union better than anyone, seems to be unsure of even this much anymore. Of all the issues that affect the world at the moment and all the things they could be campaigning on, they seem more prepared to take on the agenda and mantle of their opponents, as if that will help them. It won’t. The Labour Party has collectively lost its confidence completely.

The Liberal Democrats have fatally undermined themselves by not accepting a democratic decision made at a UK level. I note them now saying democracy at Westminster does not work. Dearie me, why not just hand those who want to break up the UK what they want and be done with it? There are times you need to bite your lip and persevere if things are not going your way, and this is one of those times. Saying you want to change the democratic system each time you lose a vote does not look good.

I am not one of those people who say all the pro-UK parties should collaborate more and work together. Entrenching the nationalist vs unionist split in Scottish politics will only create a rut that we can never get out of.

What we need is for the Conservative party to put forward free trading arguments that make them look like the Conservative Party. We need the Labour Party to put forward policies around collective actions that make them look like the Labour Party. And we need the Liberal Democrats to argue for the safeguarding of individual freedoms and look like a Liberal party.

We need to stop buying in to the agenda set by the SNP. Even when we are arguing against them, we are still on their agenda. We need to move the argument on to different ground. If you think of successful Scottish battles in the past, the smaller side can only win if they can choose the field. The argument has to be moved on to a different place, but we need politicians who are good enough to do that.

Many of the current crop don’t seem to know what they think. They cant articulate what they think. Many have never done anything in the communities which they hope to serve, and when asked to serve, they disappear into the crowd at Holyrood and you never hear of them again.

And we must not throw away the good cards that we do have. Pro-Independence commentator Gerry Hassan was asked to contribute to the These Islands conference to give an alternative opinion. He forwarded that any future Independence referendum should not be fought on economic issues, and incredibly, several of the politicians present politely agreed with him! Why would anyone surrender their strongest ground like that? How much confidence in yourself must you have lost to allow your opponents to completely determine the order of play and the parameters of the entire argument? Why are our so called pro-union politicians so useless?

Over the past year or so, many pro-union activists have come to the conclusion that none of the above are worth voting for, either on this issue, or indeed any other issue. But, with the world the way it is and the problems that are now going to arise from it, is it too much to ask that someone builds an agenda around making sure we are fed properly and with a health system that can withstand the inevitable comeback of pandemic disease in the future. That is all that people really want.

Is anyone out there good enough to do this?

Victor Clements lives in Aberfeldy in Highland Perthshire and runs a woodland advisory business.

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