It certainly was yesterday, with Michael Gove among the people campaigning against Scottish independence in London. It might be an example of where the Unionists have misunderstood both the opposition and their own campaign.
The ‘No’ campaign is a campaign against nationalism. It’s a campaign against quite a dated idea of nationalism. One of the successes of Scotland is that they have built a civic nationalism, so ethnic minorities aren’t excluded from being Scottish in the way that they seem to be excluded (or avoiding) being English in England. No doubt there are some Anglophobes voting to get rid of the English, but that’s nowhere near enough to account for the popularity of the Yes side. What independence offers is John Major’s catchphrase subsidiarity. It moves decision making down locally from a distant government to administration that has to sit in the mess it makes. Defence and foreign policy could be made at the UK level, but given we work within the EU and NATO there is something to be said for cutting out Westminster as the middle-man.
If the UK government had offered Devo-max, then there’s little doubt that would have won the referendum. The inability of Westminster to see it is problem in the UK that causing it so much trouble. Another problem No has is that it campaigns against itself. The form of nationalism they’re against is, in a different colour, the form of nationalism they cling to.
It’s difficult calling reasonable people British nationalists, because the phrase is so closely associated with being a member of the BNP (a fascist party, for non-UK people). However, when Cameron made his plea for the union, wrapped in the flag at the velodrome, he was being a nationalist. When Ed Miliband briefly flirted with the idea of posting border guards at Hadrian’s Wall, it was the act of a nationalist. That rally in London yesterday with Clegg and Gove? It’s nationalist.
Not only that, but it’s the dated form of nationalism that the SNP and Plaid Cymru have been moving from. The SNP and PC both want to manage most policy locally. Defence and foreign policy might be more difficult, but these are negotiated with the EU and NATO. Westminster isn’t going to unilaterally solve problems like Ukraine. So if economy and justice can be managed locally, Westminster looks like an unnecessary middleman. It’s an internationalist nationalism that makes Unionist appeals to people living on the same island look a bit tired and parochial.
However, the Unionists haven’t considered taking the independence movement seriously till very recently, because they thought it impossible. If they weren’t reacting to the Yes campaign then what were they geared to fight?
I’m wondering if the refusal to offer serious powers on the ballot wasn’t about Scotland, but about the other devolved powers. More power to Scotland, and to the Welsh Assembly, would inevitably lead to renewed calls for devolution in England. What powers would the London Assembly, and other regional assemblies, have? Whatever was ceded to Scotland could be demanded by London, and the greater the independence for London, the more difficult life becomes for the national government in Westminster. I don’t think there’s a conscious anti-regions campaign in Westminster, but a long held desire to accumulate power in the centre. It wasn’t enough for Westminster to win the vote, they wanted to concede as little as possible.
This is not a plan.
Even now, working out the relationship between England and the UK is being left to the fringe. The Barnett Formula the three leaders have pledged to uphold was a quick fix in for 1979. Scottish and Welsh devolved chambers came in 1999. There’s still no reform of the House of Lords beyond the 1999 bodge. For all the complaints that Salmond has no plan B, no leader of the big three parties has a Plan A for the Union if they win.
Win or lose, the Unionists need rethink how democracy works in the ®UK and that will mean moving outside central London.