Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Scotland and Quebec - A Reply to a Scottish Nationalist

There are reefs to negotiate before you reach the promised land. In many ways, your opinions remind me of the intelligent and impassioned material published on and from Quebec during the 1980s and 1990s - when I lived in Canada. Both the arguments and the fervour are remarkably similar, though thankfully yours lack the edge of anglophobic bitterness evident in some Quebecois writings of the time.
Familiar, too, are Alex Salmond’s demands for more money from central government (see here and here).
Maurice Duplessis was the first Quebec premier to demand “notre butin” (our booty) from the Canadian federal government; a cry that was taken up by several of his successors - not least Jacques Parizeau - the Quebec Premier who very nearly won the 1995 independence referendum. In demanding extra cash, Salmond employs the same arguments as those used by Parizeau, including the apparently powerful one of “it’s our money in the first place”. Those demands can, however, be a two-edged sword, because in the population at large they can create an awareness not necessarily of simple dependence of the smaller entity on the larger but of a strong symbiosis between the two. Whatever the arguments in favour of Scottish independence, it would be idle to pretend that Scotland derives no advantages at all from the present dispensation. Far better to look at the weaknesses of the independence case and to deal with them than to pretend they aren’t there.
One disagreeable interjection in the 1995 Parti Quebecois referendum campaign was Parizeau’s comment that if electors voted - however narrowly - for secession they would be “like lobsters thrown into boiling water” - in other words, there would be no going back: Quebec’s destiny would be in his and the Party’s hands. Some said he was intoxicated - not by alcohol but by the prospect of victory and national power. The comment undoubtedly cost him precious votes.
In those years, Quebec was far nearer to Independence than Scotland has ever been (since the Union, of course). Yet, in the end, voters didn’t buy it. Parizeau blamed the loss of the 1995 vote firmly on the “ethnic” population - a racist comment that he later regretted. Racism, however, was never entirely absent from the drinking water in those years. The phrase “Quebecois de vieille souche” (Quebecker of French ancestry - which, amongst other things, also meant “white”) was no longer widely used - but for many the term “Quebecois” had precisely the same meaning. Ironically, Quebec’s immigrant population had grown as part of a policy designed to enhance the Province’s economic strength. I don’t know what percentage of Scotland’s current population consists of immigrants or people whose roots lie in other parts of the UK - but you will doubtless have a good feel for their presence in the Scottish mosaic. Are they significant? Are their concerns being addressed or are they marginalized in this debate? If the referendum fails will they be blamed?
The 1995 Quebec referendum could have gone either way. Almost immediately afterwards, however, Quebeckers’s appetite for independence began to wilt at the edges. In the recent Canadian federal election, the Bloc Quebecois (the federal arm of the Party) was massacred - winning only 4 seats - down from 48 before the election. The jubilation at that result - right across Canada, including Quebec - is enormous. Canadians may have decided after all that they are stronger together than apart. Unity can be an ideal too, and championed with no less fervour than you display in advocating independence.
As a Canadian, I feel relief that Quebec independence is, at least for the time being, in the long grass (it could, of course, find its way back in the future). As a Brit - that’s how I always describe myself - I would be sorry to see Scotland’s departure from the Union because I believe it would weaken all four of its members. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect the independence movement. If Scotland becomes convinced that it should secede, then undoubtedly it has a right to so (though I hate to think how the terms of separation would be negotiated).
Over the life of this new Scottish parliament, we can expect a huge effort to persuade the people that independence is in their best interests. How much persuasion is legitimate? When does persuasion start leaning too heavily on hyperbole?
Apart from Canada, I have also worked and lived for extended periods in the so-called developing world - notably in Latin America and Africa. I wonder if those who desire to break up countries like Canada and the UK know how privileged we are to belong in such a society, how benign are our conditions of life, how extraordinary our opportunities for personal fulfilment, how exceptional our tolerance of “others”, how remarkable our freedoms?
UK politics infuriates me. Much of it is trivial, tribal, centred on picayune squabbling and point scoring. I find the sight of adults baying at each other across the parliamentary benches nauseating. The fact that huge amounts of time and effort - and acres of newsprint - have been devoted to the expenses scandal but almost none to the free-market ideology that lies behind the international financial crisis strikes me as perverse. Still, what we have here is far better than in too many other places in the world.
Like you, Gerry, I would like to see the golden city on a hill that you describe for Scotland. There is nothing in your vision that doesn’t equally apply to all four countries of the Union. I believe that we have a much greater chance of achieving that vision together than any of us do apart.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Thursday, May 5, 2011 - UK

The only minority administration I have lived under was of 1985-87 in Ontario, Canada. David Peterson’s Liberals headed the government with some help from the left-of-centre New Democratic Party (there was no formal coalition). It remains the best government of which I have personal experience. In the 1987 election, Ontario’s Liberals won a substantial majority, dined out on the proceeds and eventually lost public support.

One hopes that Scotland’s SNP with Alex Salmond does not follow a similar pattern. Minority government has worked well for Scotland. It remains to be seen whether the SNP will be able to maintain its discipline and the allegiance of the electorate now that it fully controls the legislative agenda.

In its leader, of course, the SNP has the most charismatic politician not just in Scotland but in the whole of the United Kingdom. An important part of Salmond’s armory is that he - and the party he leads - offer a strong vision of where they are heading and what they stand for. Unlike the hapless LibDems, they have shown themselves unwilling to compromise on their fundamental platform. When, for example, Salmond stated that there would be no student fees in Scotland, he stuck to it. Margaret Thatcher had a similar reputation for “not turning”. The electorate responds favourably to politicians who mean what they say.

Although I would prefer Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom, were I living in Scotland I would certainly have voted for the SNP not just because of the clarity and strength of its campaign, but also in the light of its record in office, and the fact that its position on issues such as student fees, the NHS, Iraq, and climate change reflect my own more than that of any of the three major UK parties. I admit to feeling a little envious of the Scots that they have a party so willing to stick to principles that the LibDems and the Labour Party, in particular, have been so ready to traduce for short-term political advantage.

The Tories will be quietly congratulating themselves on Thursday’s results; possibly even salivating over the prospect of an eternity of Tory governments once the constituency boundaries have been re-drawn. Scottish independence,moreover, could cement Tory hegemony in England for the foreseeable future, which is why I wouldn’t take Cameron’s vow to fight for the UK entirely at its face value. If he “loses” Scotland, he will gain England as compensation and, for the time being, Wales and Northern Ireland also; though if that happens Wales may also start to think the unthinkable.

The LibDems have evidently preferred power to principle. Their justification for compromise on fundamentals has been that they have joined with the Tories “in the national as to clean up the financial mess left by the Labour Party”. This mantra - repeated already so often that it has ceased to have any resonance or meaning - is neither credible nor adequate as an excuse for the transformation of the LibDems under Clegg into servants of an extreme right-wing Tory Party that is openly committed to the wholesale privatisation of the public realm.

Thursday’s election has made clear the extent to which the LibDems have forfeited public trust. They will likely not regain it while Clegg remains leader. They have been thoroughly outmanoeuvred by Cameron and Co. - not least least on electoral reform. AV - on which much of the party’s hopes came to rest - was never a LibDem proposal. It was, as Clegg himself admitted, “a miserable little compromise”, satisfying to no one and vulnerable, therefore, to attack from both left and right of the political spectrum (though it is questionable whether the old Labour hacks who supported the “No” campaign represent anything that could be remotely described as “left”). Miserable little compromises are not the stuff of which successful leaders are made. The contrast with Alex Salmond is stark. This electoral disaster for the LibDems begs the same old question that has haunted them since their launch in 1988: What on earth does the Party stand for?

What of the Labour Party? Under Blair and Brown, it turned to the extreme right as an apostle of neo-liberalism, thereby (among other things) granting the banks free reign to impoverish us, making ruinous PFI deals with the private sector, and placidly presiding over the continued evisceration of our manufacturing industry; and it turned to the far left by passing anti-terrorism legislation so draconian and all-encompassing that almost anything more dramatic than breathing could (and still can) result in arrest. Much of the good that the last Labour Government may have done in restoring our NHS and investing in education has been clouded by its anti-libertarian record, its foolish engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its subservience to the interests of capital. Leaving the issue of authoritarianism to one side, we might well ask if any significant difference exists between the Labour and Conservative Parties on any of the fundamental issues that matter to the electorate. If, as I suspect, the answer is ‘No’, we are left with the same question we have posed with respect to the LibDems: what on earth is Labour for? Ed Miliband has so far failed to offer a credible reply. For the moment the Party offers no sign of the vision and drive so evident in Alex Salmond’s SNP. Unless Labour rediscovers its raison-d’être, those who continue to believe in its founding principles, as I do, had better start looking round for an alternative party.