Memo to George Osborne: England’s bullying of Scots will drive us into the Yes camp
The Observer, By Kevin McKenna
The Observer’s Scotland columnist believes that the threats over sterling may end up shattering the union.
Almost 95 years ago to the day after another rightwing coalition government sent English tanks on to the streets of Glasgow, the current heir to the Osborne baronetcy is using force once more to bend a nation to his will.
The tanks that appeared on the streets around Glasgow’s municipal buildings on 31 January 1919 represented an overreaction to skirmishes about low pay and rent strikes by a government terrified it had a Bolshevist uprising on its hands. George Osborne’s attempt last Thursday to dictate currency law to Scotland was no less clumsy, even if the military hardware was missing. England’s Tories are panicking again as the prospect of losing a quarter of their kingdom and with it their seat on the UN Security Council looms.
In the context of the Scottish independence referendum, it remains to be seen if the chancellor’s currency intervention proves decisive. Will the sight of a Tory chancellor telling Scotland: "Vote no or you lose the pound" drive the waverers into the Yes camp? Or will nervous young families and first-time house-buyers, terrified of compromising their children’s futures, reluctantly and sullenly vote no?
The most striking image of last Thursday was the sight of Osborne, surrounded by fluffers, scurrying into a people carrier as he tried to escape the clutches of Scottish Television’s chief political reporter, Bernard Ponsonby. He had taken only three questions from handpicked journalists. "Chancellor, how much is this decision today going to cost businesses in England?" asked Ponsonby. What indeed? And why did he fail even to consult the independent fiscal commission working group, whose detailed analysis concluded that a sterling currency union was in the best interests of both Scotland and the rest of the UK in the event of a yes vote?
When Mark Carney addressed banking leaders in Edinburgh about currency union two weeks ago, he held a full, no-holds-barred press conference afterwards. The governor of the Bank of England had reasonably warned of the difficulties and risks that currency union could bring, yet he conceded that this was for the Scots to assess themselves. "It certainly is not," was the chancellor’s response.
Is a UK chancellor of the exchequer seriously asking us to believe that he is contemplating damaging the entire UK economy following a yes vote? Does he think English company bosses will accept the millions of pounds of extra costs that tariffs would entail, not to mention the downward tilt in the balance of payments without oil receipts?
There are about 400,000 English people resident in Scotland who will be livid that a UK government has just made it harder for them to travel back and forth to see their families, and all because of a fit of pique that, in a democratic vote, the Scots voted to run their own affairs. Scotland is England’s second biggest trading partner.
Scottish oil revenues, businesses, institutions and ordinary workers have worked hard for sterling and contributed to its strength. Now they are being told that no part of it ever belonged to them. Sterling’s historical strength has also been built on the sacrifice of many Scots in the UK’s military adventures over the years, many of them fuelled merely by our aristocracy’s desire to fill their boots by annexing another third world economy.
The Edinburgh agreement signed by David Cameron and Alex Salmond in 2012 bound each side to work together in the best interests of the people of the UK, no matter what result the referendum produced. Osborne’s intervention has blown a hole in that nice wee concordat.
The following day, what seemed simply to be a flash of the old nasty party became something a little more sinister. A report in the Glasgow Herald quoted a senior ministerial source at Westminster hinting that the coalition government simply wouldn’t accept the result of the referendum if the Scots made unreasonable demands following a yes vote. The threat was clear: "Don’t even think about refusing to pay your share of the national debt in retaliation for us denying you a sterling zone." It is the gunboat diplomacy with which desiccated old Tories once used to intimidate the fuzzy wuzzies.
There has been an exhaustive, 15-year democratic process to get us to this place, starting with the vote in favour of a devolved parliament. That gave the SNP a platform to become a party of government in a devolved Scotland. Following four years of relatively stable management, they were returned with an overall majority at Holyrood, which gave them a mandate to hold a referendum.
Westminster was happy to indulge all the Scots who participated in this process as long as we never eroded the hegemony of Britain’s political elite. The vote on 18 September now threatens that establishment and its power. Worse, it could make others in the UK truculent too.
And so in a choreographed, political power-play unprecedented in modern UK political history, the three main unionist parties, supported by Ukip, have come together and slapped Scotland down. "If you vote yes then we will do our best to ensure that you are ruined before you start," they have said. The published advice from the civil service via the pen of Sir Nicholas MacPherson, Etonian and Balliol fellow, also seemed contrary to civil service impartiality. Was he aware that his advice would be used in this way?
For people such as me, born and raised in a Labour and trade union household that cherished the shared values we held in common with our English neighbours, the choice of whether to vote for independence or to remain in the union ought to have been an easy one. Great Britain, for all its inequalities and petty vindictiveness, was still rock’n’roll to the bagpipe’n’fiddles of a nationalist-led Scotland. But it has been evident for some time now that England and I were beginning to view things – important things, fundamental things – differently.
Now, though, it has become clear how much the British establishment really valued us: we were simply there to make up the numbers and to help reinforce the powerbase of the tiny, cross-party London elite who run the country for themselves. Wales, Northern Ireland, the north and the Midlands should all wake up too and smell the coffee.
One by one, the lights have gone out all over the England I once loved and with them all my reasons for wanting to remain in the union.