Jean Barr – A Beautiful Question?

The question we are asked to answer is a beautiful one, says AL Kennedy on Radio 4, on the morning before the Referendum. This is because, she says, the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” is a philosophical, moral question.

Yes, perhaps, but usually moral questions are not expected to be answered by ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but to invite sustained reflection and nuanced discourse. Is this what we have had in recent weeks and months? I do not think so.

Cameron left the drafting of the referendum question and determining the timetable to Salmond and Salmond believed an extended referendum campaign would be cathartic. It would clear the air and foster consensus. Instead, says Linda Colley, it has played into nationalism, historically one of the most inflammatory of human passions. Whilst few yes voters would see themselves as nationalists, in the yes campaign Scottish exceptionalism is never far away. Especially influential here is Scots’ belief in themselves as much more left-wing and egalitarian than they actually are. As demonstrated by numerous polls and research projects this perception far outstrips reality: Scots may be a little more left wing than people in England but not much. Yet the perception remains an important tenet of Scottish national identity. Where then do these yes voters stand on Salmond’s declared intent not to reintroduce a 50% top rate of income tax, as Labour proposes?

By refusing to include a devo max option on the ballot paper Cameron denied Scots their preferred option. Many Scottish voters feel that they have no alternative but to vote yes because only the SNP and independence campaigners seem to offer hope of real change and empowerment. However, another unintended consequence of the omission has been to catalyze a debate on democratic renewal and constitutional change throughout the UK. That, too, would not have happened had there been a devo max option on the ballot paper from the outset. The campaign has offered an opportunity to rethink Britain. There are signs that this is beginning to happen. What arises out of this civil movement could conceivably be a federally and regionally devolved UK, no longer dominated by the City of London or Westminster.

Salmond’s mantra that the referendum is only a matter for the ‘people of Scotland’ (the ‘sovereign’ people) is simply nonsense. A Scottish exit from Britain makes Tory governments more likely for the foreseeable future in the rest of the UK. Do we really not care about this? Should we start competing with the North of England to bring jobs here by lowering corporation tax, as Salmond intends? Scottish independence could have a huge impact on the North of England. Does that not matter? I feel as much solidarity with people south of the border as north and I am deeply uncomfortable voting on the basis of what is best for Scotland alone – whatever the yes campaigners say about an independent Scotland acting as a beacon of hope for a fairer more just society in England too! Struggling against structural inequality has to be done together not separately.

I am voting no for a further reason. I see stretching before me many years of SNP rule. The SNP is not a social justice party. It is a party whose raison d’etre is independence. In the absence of a credible and re-invigorated Labour Party in Scotland (and after all it was its complacency, failure of imagination and hubris that created the vacuum filled by the SNP) a one-party state is, as Walter Humes has argued, a real possibility. Heaven forfend.

Jean Barr is an Emeritus Professor of Glasgow University, formerly Professor of Adult and Continuing Education there.



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