Recently I’ve seen some quite preposterous commentary on the Scottish independence referendum, which is taking place as I type this. I have heard that the turnout for this has been higher than at any recent general election, which shows what happens when voters think voting will make a difference. Social media seems to favour Yes, but a fairly large proportion of the population do not have access to it, or just don’t use it. Craig Murray, the former ambassador to Uzbekistan, published an article on his blog, based on a conversation he had with a Polish friend who had changed his mind and decided to vote Yes. The article compared Scotland within the UK to Poland under the Warsaw Pact, and the British media now to Poland’s under communism. It’s a quite ridiculous comparison.
The article reads:
He had supported Solidarnosc as a young man, and he had lived through the overwhelming barrage of state media propaganda against it. All the newspapers, radio and TV had broadcast for month after month that if Poland left the Soviet orbit the economy would be destroyed, trading links would be severed, everybody would lose their pensions and housing, they would be invaded, the currency would collapse. Democracy campaigners were branded as right wing nationalist thugs. The people had no access to a fair hearing on the media, and communities had to organise alternatively through social networks.
A few weeks ago he had suddenly realised that precisely the same thing was happening in Scotland that he had witnessed in Soviet controlled Poland. A monolithic and all-pervading media was pumping out the same propaganda on a permanent basis, and even the arguments they were making were precisely the same arguments the Soviets had made. He had suddenly realised that democracy in the UK was an illusion – the apparatchiks of the main political parties and the entire media, both state and private, in fact belonged to and promoted the same ruling establishment. Only the methodologies were different, and raw power slightly better hidden in the UK than in the old Soviet bloc. But the truth was of hard rich men wielding power, in both cases, and keeping the people down.
This is quite a ridiculous comparison between the state-controlled media of a dictatorship and police state with the merely biased corporate and publicly funded media in a democracy. There are good reasons why a commercial media company should oppose the truncation of the country where they are based; it means their reach is likely to be less and selling copies in the newly separated country may well get harder, for example because new taxes make the papers more expensive. This bias is less justifiable coming from the BBC, which is funded by a licence fee which is compulsory for anyone who has a TV set, but it’s still not comparable to a police state’s controlled media. It reflects the prejudices of the people who run it and work for it. However, the major difference with 1980s Poland is that the Internet was available and there was a free social media in Scotland; the corporate media and BBC could not control what was said over Twitter and Facebook, or over mailing lists, forums or blogs. The groups campaigning for independence, which included a major political party, did not face state persecution or harassment. There was a space in which people could organise without fear.
(The rest of this was written after the result was declared.)
Another bizarre comparison that has done the rounds is between the UK and an abusive relationship. This actually had some truth to it in the 18th century and even more recently, where there was no Scottish parliament and the Tories plundered their oil wealth and tested out unpopular policies (such as the Poll Tax) there first. Some political unions really are abusive relationships, and some even started with a forced marriage. This is why a lot of the federations of the old Eastern Bloc broke down as soon as the opportunity arose. In 21st century Britain, Scotland does not get that bad a deal out of the UK. They have a legislature of their own, so they are cushioned to a certain extent from the depredations of the London political and economic élite. If the UK is an abusive relationship for anyone, it is the poor and disabled and they are all over the country, but in England they do not have their own parliament to protect them.
This is probably why the Yes campaign could not persuade the majority of Scots to support it: because they knew that they got a good deal out of the UK and because the fears stoked by the No campaign, much as they may have been motivated by self-interest, were at least partly justifiable: the country would not be able to immediately join the EU, they would have a weak currency and they would be a small, weak country rather than part of a substantial one. Some may have been swayed by last-minute appeals and promises to transfer more powers or to reform the UK’s constitutional structure, although already many Tories are saying they will oppose any such measures and the Prime Minister has already made a speech about listening to “English voices” that object to Scottish MPs voting on English laws. He is clearly referring to Labour governments using Scottish Labour MPs to vote for their policies in matters that only affect England, but his own government uses Lib Dem MPs from north of the border for the same purpose; Labour have a much greater number of MPs in England than the Lib Dems do in total. There has been some talk of devolving power within England, but the most worrying suggestion is devolving it to cities like London. The problem is that London does not have a democratic assembly, so without a radical reform of London local government, this will mean giving more power to the Mayor.
The biggest danger is that a pretext may be found to simply reverse devolution. This could easily happen if the Tories win the next election with a majority, or in coalition with UKIP: they will find a big hole in the finances, or there will be a financial or sex scandal; there may also be a national security crisis, which may lead senior Tories or UKIPpers to claim that devolution had brought the UK to the brink of collapse, and that Britain needs to be strong and that means united. Power-sharing has never been in the Tories’ DNA; their world is the “corridors of power” in Westminster, and their way of administering ‘troublesome’ parts of the UK was through centrally-appointed quangos, not elected assemblies. The Scots do not have the power to stop this if the Tories are determined, and nor are many English very enthusiastic about devolution in England.
The video shows a young woman having a saltire flag torn from her hands by a man holding a Union flag. This was taken in George Square, Glasgow today.
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