Probing the dark side of the Scottish moon

Alex Bell says we have a few months before delivering a verdict on this week’s White Paper on Scotland’s future

The White Paper tries to answer the exam question from hell – what’s the future going to be like? The Scottish Government’s document attempts both to be smart while showing off all its revision. There’s plenty for those who crave detail, but perhaps not enough to convince sceptics that this is the right question to be asking at this time.

We have a long time to judge the paper, and the snap views of now are jumbled with prejudice and baggage. The best thing we can do as a nation is treat this like a book club – read it and gather again in a few weeks with our notes. In effect, that is what the referendum campaign has become – a 10-month critique of 650 pages.

The Government had to offer a prospectus but has dreaded the moment for two years, knowing fine well that to capture the state of a nation and its future is like trying to pin a live butterfly to a board. To succeed you must kill the beauty of the idea. The dynamism of a people and the variables of fate, the most crucial elements that make a state rise or fall, are absent.

What we do have is a map of the visible moon – the dark side owned by Whitehall remains out of sight. There can be no costs, or practical sense of what will be negotiated, while London refuses to reveal its hand and that will always mean the White Paper is incomplete.

The commitment to early years is on the money – it’s the only way we can tackle our chronic inequality in a sustainable way. What is strange is that the pledge for more child care isn’t accompanied by changes to tax and welfare which would present a ‘whole state’ solution to the problem. It’s as if the range of state levers has overwhelmed the authors.

This applies to other pledges on offer – they are stand-alone vote winners, but not integrated into an over-arching vision. The advantages of an intimate state aren’t exploited here – but that may yet come. We expect next Easter for the unionists parties to show their positions on devo-plus, and that may present an opportunity for the Scottish Government to develop these ideas.

Will it all work? Of course – it’s all a matter of confidence. As the UK repeatedly demonstrates, you can run a state with corrupt banks, unfit-for-purpose departments and rampant tax evasion and not lose much sleep. Indeed, you can argue that with quantative easing the UK is verging on a confidence trick, printing money to prop up historic debt. It’s not the coherence of detail or vision that matters, it’s conviction. That’s the one thing the White Paper wants to inspire.

Back in the 1970s Jim Fairlie described independence as a ‘revolution by coffee mornings’, meaning radicalism was disguised by bourgeois concerns. This offer suggests the bourgeois has trumped the revolutionary – independence is not a moment to begin again but a chance to modify the existing society over time. As the Yes campaign wins supporters one by one, at the modern equivalent of coffee mornings, it may yet be enough – more ‘mild disruption in a cappuccino’.

The launch day has also teased out London’s strategy to attack the currency union, seen as the SNP’s weak spot. For what it’s worth, I don’t buy this threat. The UK can’t afford a second of doubt on its national debt. After a Yes vote, deals will be done in the blink of an eye to keep the markets from ravaging through the future of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and an independent Scotland. This appears like a popular referendum, but global capitalism will have more sway than any politician.


Alex Bell is an honorary fellow at Edinburgh University and former head of policy to Alex Salmond. This article appears on the

13 thoughts on “Probing the dark side of the Scottish moon

  1. The UK tactics are to deny access to as much financial data to the Independance campaign as possible while demanding the details from the Yes campaign that they won’t give them, The data being actual data from the Treasury or data following negotiations.

    But this is the way the UK works anyway. We’re all “mushrooms in the dark”. How is it that the opposition comes to power without knowing what state the Books are in?

    Isn’t the state of the State’s bank account, spending and debts something that should be open access to all, particularly our elected representatives? Nobody would buy a small business without the full facts but we go into Westminter elections without any of the opposition parties, or us, knowing what the actual state of the finances is.

  2. If the Scots vote ‘no’ next year, who’s to say that in five years time they can’t have another vote? And then another one some five years on. It’s just daft. And yet it would be entirely undemocratic for anyone to suggest that another vote couldn’t take place for the next fifty years or so.

    Stalemate for ever and a day. Only in Scotland (and Wales). What a way to live!

  3. Yvonne,

    The Swiss have referenda all the time which reflects a more healthy democracy than the UK.
    Let people have what they want and what they vote for. What’s the problem? The Scots may tire like the Quebeckers but let them to b free to decide

  4. William, the Swiss have more guns per head than almost any other country in the world. Democratic it may well be, civilized it most certainly is not!

    I fear not for Scotland, more for England and Wales. Why should we have to put up with and pay for such shenanigans?

  5. Better Together, UKOK or Project Fear, take your pick, has no answers. Nicola Sturgeon demonstrated that clearly last night on STV’s independence debate, when she left Alastair Campbell, the Coalition’s man in Scotland, floundering and calling on the programme referee to rescue him, after failing to answer any of the questions Nicola put to him. Never have I seen a politician so embarrassingly left jabbering on live television.

    As there’s nothing to offer the Scots, the unionists have only spoiling tactics and fear, which have been amply repeated this past year, until we’re heartily sick of them. Scottish oil they tell us is declining and its price volatile, yet there are massive reserves yet to be exploited, enough at least to last for forty years at least, and the price per barrel can only rise. Scotland must be the only oil rich country in the world to be cursed with its bonanza, if the unionists are right.

    The failings of the UK, on the other hand, are only too apparent, as Alex Bell points out. Sadly, the Scots are going to have to choose between the vision of a future freed from the shackles of a distant Westminster, which has treated so many parts of these islands with contempt for generations, and a grim future of austerity, Tory governments, the retention of Trident, and the likelihood of an early exit from the EU. To help them choose there is a hostile London-centric press and media, which has no concept of balance or democratic principles.


    When was Switzerland last engaged in a war, any war, let alone immoral and illegal ones? Does It have nuclear weapons? Does it have an unelected legislative chamber? It regularly consults every citizen through referenda on important matters, and has a federal structure, in which its cantons are equal. It ranks far higher on per capita GDP ($46k, 8th) than the UK ($37k, 21st), according to the measures of the World Bank, the IMF and the CIA. It doesn’t have the UK’s democratic deficit.

    Scotland will eventually become an independent state, if not in 2016 (though I believe they will vote YES in 2014, as do some of Cameron’s closest advisers). I believe this, not because I have a crystal ball, but because the UK is failing large parts of these islands, tensions have been emerging for some time, even among unionists in Wales. Devolution testifies to the fact. The UK is in decline politically and economically. The British age of 1914-45 has passed. Its demise will be celebrated by all in due course, the Welsh, Scots, Irish, and English. It is only those who had a vested interest in its survival who will mourn its loss and fight to the bitter end, by fair means or foul, to breathe life into it.

  6. Yvonne: Rather than fearing “for England and Wales”, as you put it, why not see a Scottish ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ as opportunities for those two nations to develop, accept their national roles, and take more political responsibility. Working in Bristol this week I’ve been delighted to hear English people saying “England needs a Parliament”, and “England has to get real and start thinking as a political nation”….at last!

  7. Yvonne
    I think it’s a rather large leap from referenda to gun laws. I’m not suggesting the UK has a militia instead of a (huge) army as the UK has at the moment. What I’m saying is that they have direct democracy and the UK can learn from this rather than electing a self-serving political class “elected by 60% or so who vote once every 5 years

  8. It is hard to sustain the proposition that Switzerland is not civilised. According to UN comparison, Swiss crime rates are low – even lower when confined to Swiss citizens – and Switzerland’s intentional homicide rate well below the UK’s. Rape, robbery, and assault are also below UK levels. Universal gun ownership in the Swiss context, far from being scary, is the sign of a government that trusts its own citizens and a society at peace with itself. Swiss public services are efficient, their education system one of the best in the world, and their streets proverbially clean. Their commitment both to free markets and to participation in the democratic process is an example to the rest of the world. Their democracy is practically free from corruption and from the worst excesses of the party system. By practically every indicator, Switzerland is more civilised than us.

    The case for Welsh independence would be unanswerable if it was likely that an independent Wales would be anything like Switzerland. The problem is that all the available evidence, especially since 1999, suggests the direct opposite: an independent Wales is more likely to resemble a more extreme version of the current Wales, with our substandard public services, distrust between rulers and ruled, political apathy, lack of social cohesion, low participation in democracy, corrupt party system, lack of respect for enterprise, filthy streets, and complete surrender to criminal behaviour.

  9. It seems to me that the concept of independence has changed enormously. On the one hand, it is possible to become an independent state without an army or currency but on the other hand no free country can really ignore global markets and chart its own course. Also, sovereignty has been reduced by the EU, which I see as a good thing as it mean peace (that is an argument for the EU which is always at the top of continental minds but often doesn’t even register with the eurosceptics).
    So, becoming ‘independent’ is a tepid version of what it was before and less risky. It’s just an extension of decentralization and greater local accountability. It’s a bit like PC’s slogan of Independence in Europe which they have dropped as Euroscepticism grows.

    It also seems that in wealthy societies (despite all the talk of deficits etc we are wealthy compared to the third world), identity politics can thrive. After most of us becoming more uniform in the pursuit of personal and professional advancement we can start to be (and more importantly feel) different again. The resilience of English regional accents which overlay increasingly American syntax and vocabulary (for a linguist) represents a desire to be different and to resist homogenization.

    The unionist camp has three problems from my perspective

    1. The Conservative and Unionist party under Thatcher increased the “them and us” feeling between Scots and English more than anything the SNP did. The SNP are just capitalizing on it.
    2. A likely triumph for Cameron in 2015 will increase the probability of Scotland seceding.
    3. It’s difficult to scaremonger about going it alone when many Conservative MP’s want to do just that by leaving the EU.

    Scotland is small and irrelevant at a global level – like 90 per cent of the world’s independent states. However, the UK or what is left of it is hardly up there in terms of relevance outside these islands. If the UK exits the EU, it will lose power particularly in the Americans’ eyes.

  10. JWR: you may be right that an independent Wales would cut a poor figure compared with Switzerland. Indeed dependent Wales currently cuts a poor figure in that comparison. The interesting question is why. The Welsh breed their share of talented people, as do the Swiss so what are the causes of our failings? And what should Carwyn and his government be doing about them? What would you do in his position? I wish we spent more time debating the interesting questions rather than endlessly playing Punch and Judy about the constitution.

  11. Mr Tredwyn, you are absolutely right: indeed, you ask the only question that really matters in the whole devolution debate.

    This can only be a tentative attempt at beginning to answer, but in order for Wales to survive and thrive as an independent nation-state, three things must happen: –

    First, Wales must become an enterprise culture. As has been argued elsewhere, tax and welfare reform must be part of this, but only part: there has to be a more general change in attitudes to enterprise, starting from the top.

    Second, that enterprise culture needs to be balanced with a genuine sense of community. Even those of us who believe in free markets know that they are not enough on their own. Money is important but there is more to life than the material. The strongest force for social cohesion is shared religious values. Attempts to build on purely civic values have always lacked a credible foundation. This does not mean establishing a theocracy, but government needs to recover its respect for our Christian tradition. The Swiss themselves are not necessarily religious people, but they understand how their Cantons are the political reflections of faith, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic.

    Third, Wales must recover her self-confidence. Generations of unscrupulous politicians have won votes by pandering to a cult of Welsh victimhood – encouraging people to wallow in self-pity and blame everyone but themselves. Encouraging people to take responsibility is not electorally popular, but it is essential if they are stand on their own. A good place to start is to look at the way Welsh history is taught, so that young people cease to think of themselves as eternal victims and start to walk tall in the world as befits the descendants of a proud warrior nation.

    The Swiss achieved all three of these things and there is no reason why Wales could not be independent if we did the same. The problem is that our current leadership class seems to lack the vision and the understanding even to attempt them. It would be great to be proved wrong on that last point.

  12. JWR: To deal with your points in order:

    1) The trouble with a phrase like ‘enterprise culture’ is not just that it sounds as if it emerged from an MBA course (that free-market equivalent of the hippy ashram), but that it has – in the mouths of its utterers – come to symbolise a lot of what has gone wrong with capitalism in our time. It is generally taken to mean ‘let the big corporations (sanitised by the oft-used phrase ‘the business community’) get away with anti-competitive behavour (forming cartels ‘de facto’, if not ‘de jure’) and gouging the ‘customer’, and then bail them out with public money when their own cupidity outstrips their means of covering it up because they are deemed to be ‘too big to fail’. It’s the same trope as when the tabloid press used to describe someone (usually in a court report) as a ‘company director’ – it’s the nearest they could get to calling him a double-dyed crook without falling foul of England’s potty libel laws.

    If by ‘enterprise culture’ you instead mean that we do all that we can to encourage, nurture and support SMEs, then I’m with you. Those are the businesses which really matter, as they are locally-based and, with growth, will employ local people. And they won’t piddle off to Slovakia when the taxpayer’s teat runs dry.

    Unfortunately, governments and quangos in London and Cardiff have concentrated far too heavily for fifty years or more on throwing money at large multinationals to come in with an eye-catching factory or two, where those factories are little more than ‘branch lines’ which will invariably be closed when the bribes (for such they are) run out, leaving behind a worse situation than before. Similarly, the policies of successive London governments of cutting Corporation Tax for the big battalions whilst raising it – or, at best, not lowering it – for SMEs has sent our economy haring off in the wrong direction decade after decade.

    2) “The strongest force for social cohesion is shared religious values.” Yes, I’m sure they’d agree with that in Belfast. This may not, as you claim, necessitate a formal theocracy, but it certainly privileges ‘Christian tradition’; a ‘tradition’ which, I would remind you, has been characterised in Wales up to quite recent times by some of the worst forms of puritanical self-righteousness and near-Paisleyite mirthlessness. The sort which drove the joie de vivre out of our national character and which drove the more innovative and unorthodox (or, if you prefer, ‘enterprising’) out to look for more fertile ground somewhere where they wouldn’t be cut dead in the street for farting on a Sunday.

    And what, then, of those of us who are not ‘Christian’, or even religious; or those of us who may have made ‘lifestyle choices’ which run against whichever part of the Bible someone may selectively quote from at any given moment? Are we to be deemed in some way (spoken or unspoken) to be ‘inferior’? Would we be granted the boon of a Tolerance Act to show how enlightened our ‘Christian’ rulers were?

    The only place for any State or government vis-à-vis religion is to ensure that no one religion or sect gets legal or constitutional privileges over any other, and that people should be allowed to practise their religion (so long as it doesn’t involve an obvious general criminal act) and – equally importantly – to not practise a religion without fear of discrimination in law.

    3) It is rather difficult for a people to recover their self-confidence (assuming, of course, that they had any to start with), when the political, media, cultural and ideological landscape is constantly repeating (either overtly or by insinuation) that those self-same people are too poor, too weak, too small, too stupid to be allowed to take any measure of real control over the direction of their own country, and must forever be tied to dear Mother (or Mother-in-law) England’s pinny and thereby kept in a state of permanent pre-adolescence. This is the very denial of the requisite of taking responsibility which you claim you wish to see.

    I too would like to see changes in how our nation’s history is taught. I would like, for one thing, for it to be taught in every school from the age of about 5 upwards as the dominant part of the history curriculum, not – as it was in my day – bolted on for a few lessons a year, particularly around March 1st. To do less than that is to inculcate in our children from an early age that – compared to all those wonderful world-bestriding imperial Kings, Archbishops and Admirals – their own country doesn’t add up to very much. Again, a disincentive to the trend which you claim to support.

  13. Nigel, speaking as both a graduate of the ‘free market equivalent of the hippy ashram’ and a ‘double-eyed crook,’ as you put it so eloquently, your first point actually has some merit: there is and has to be more to an enterprise culture than sweetheart deals between government and big business. It might surprise you that most of us double-eyed crooks – directors of SMEs – feel the same way. While your tongue is doubtless in your cheek when you use such expressions, the fact that many in Wales really do see businessmen so negatively is itself part of the problem.

    Your second point, with due respect, shows why we need to improve our teaching of history. While the Chapels could indeed be sanctimonious and sometimes hypocritical, they were also the force behind the Welsh commitment to education and our high historical literacy rates, the promoters of our tradition of hospitality and concern for those in need, the repositories of our national culture, and the main focus of communal unity in most areas. It is no coincidence that all these things declined in Wales with the Chapels. Nothing has taken their place. Whatever their faults, there is simply no denying the Chapels did more good than harm. This is, incidentally, the observation of one who has never been a Chapel-goer. Your Belfast reference indicates limited knowledge of the Northern Ireland situation, which, like most so-called ‘religious conflicts,’ is in fact primarily tribal not religious – most religious leaders on both sides being united in constant condemnation of terrorism, sometimes at great personal risk.

    In response to your third point, Wales can stand alongside anyone in terms of great men: we have our share of imperial Kings who deserve to be better known; if we lacked Archbishops for most of our history, we have something better, an aspiring Archbishop called Gerald of Wales; and, as for Admirals, our sea-faring tradition is older than England’s and just as distinguished. All this is waiting to be rediscovered.

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