Lesley Riddoch: Yes vote needs to deliver on Union

THE Yes campaign must aim to deliver an improvement on a Union that does not work, writes Lesley Riddoch
London 2012 may have been a Team GB success story, but Brits play less sport. Picture: GettyLondon 2012 may have been a Team GB success story, but Brits play less sport. Picture: Getty
London 2012 may have been a Team GB success story, but Brits play less sport. Picture: Getty

Another weekend, another speech from a Prime Minister who says he plans to leave the independence referendum to Scots. So far, so ironic.

The regularity of these pronouncements suggests David Cameron has a penchant for the Sunday press, or no time during the week. Either way we learned yesterday that the PM thinks D-Day – on which a Scottish soldier piped British troops ashore in France – is proof of our successful shared history along with Dolly the Sheep, British Olympic success and the NHS.

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In reality, of course, this tells us nothing new. The wooden predictability of Better Together speeches makes the Bible sound improvised. Positive contributions lean heavily on the unsubstantiated assertion that the UK is the most successful political union in history – a claim that could easily be demolished by Canada, Australia and the USA in their modern inceptions, even if these federations are not strictly speaking “unions”. Indeed, Britain was so unsuccessful as a model of political union, that its former colonies consciously and immediately dumped its top-down, centralised system of government.

In Germany, a union of powerful, tax-raising regions was imposed after the Second World War by the British to protect the world against another abuse of centralised power. Shame we didn’t take a dose of our own medicine. Today three of Britain’s four constituent nations have strong secessionist movements and the nearest ex-colony – the Republic of Ireland – has no plans to rejoin.

Meanwhile the NHS is doing so well south of the Border that a new political party has been set up to save it.

The National Health Action Party was founded in 2012 by English health professionals who believe the “coalition government’s Health & Social Care Bill will destroy the NHS as an effective, efficient health system fair to all citizens and patients.”

Dolly the Sheep and recent Olympic success did indeed occur during Scotland’s time as a member of the UK – it ain’t been all bad. But away from these elite achievements, the average Briton is less fit, plays less sport and enjoys lower feelings of wellbeing than citizens in most small, independent northern neighbours. Dolly is also just the latest spectacular invention to benefit wider humanity and a small number of investors during Scotland’s time in the Union. But three centuries of steam engines, telephones, TV and anaesthetics have not transformed Scotland into the vibrant, prosperous place our inventiveness deserves. Can the UK tackle that?

Meanwhile, negative Better Together speeches now consist of three refrains on a loop. Scotland can’t have the pound, can’t join the EU and can’t become Nordic. All are unknowable right now – and the first two are simply not believed by a majority of Scots. But it’s true that proposed tax rates in Scotland can’t fund the high quality Nordic-style public services which are used by all citizens regardless of income. On the other hand it’s also true that Nordic societies have had a century’s headstart on Scots developing that most important prerequisite for higher public spending – the world’s highest levels of trust. Citizens believe their politicians will not use taxes to fund nuclear weapons systems, expensive illegal wars or vanity projects like the cut-price sale of state assets.

None of the new Conservative-led Nordic governments have dismantled their much admired welfare models or equalising tax rates. There is consensus on that much at least. Until a British government can build such high levels of trust, better services funded by higher levels of taxation will remain a pipedream.

Scotland alone in the UK has the chance of reaching that goal.

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Never mind oil, gas, whisky or land; people are the key asset of any nation. But human energy cannot be harnessed without trust and rUK has flared off almost all of that precious commodity.

According to Will Hutton, Ukip is benefiting from a broken system in which rule-breaking Cabinet Ministers like Maria Miller are not sacked and “business pays itself ever more extravagantly as the necessary ‘incentive’, but delivers a first-order financial crisis and five years of austerity, with more to come. Inequality has risen everywhere, for no perceptible wider gain. The language of public purpose, justice, social solidarity and nobility of collective action has disappeared. Democracy has become synonymous with not doing transformative things [unless] they shrink the state and/or enlarge the wealth of the already very rich”.

Meanwhile, Bill Jamieson in Scotland on Sunday believes London has already effectively separated itself from the rest of the UK. “In the prime market… London prices have risen by 30.6 per cent since the peak in 2007. In Scotland, prices are down by 23 per cent. The gap between prices in London and the rest of the UK is now… the greatest since data was first collected in the late 1970s.”

This flagrant inequality constitutes a national breach of trust. So the Yes campaign cannot succeed by delivering predictable ripostes to Better Together efforts. It must break out of this disappointing stalemate and build on recent opinion poll swings by reaching higher ground.

Today, Alex Salmond can do just that with a high-profile speech in New York. He’s expected to say: “You can aspire to be a great nation without desiring to be a great power. To adapt an expression much used by President Clinton, [Scotland] will use the power of our example, not the example of our power. Independence doesn’t guarantee we will become the Scotland we seek. But it gives us the powers we need in order to do so.”

Such a statesmanlike approach would be politically astute after recent Labour attacks on the SNP’s progressive credentials and the suggestion UK ministers secretly expect to trade a shared currency so Trident can remain on the Clyde.

“No nukes” is an attractive part of the independence platform for elusive women voters, judging from a weekend anti-Trident rally with an all-female speaking line-up including Nicola Sturgeon.

So from now on, autopilots aren’t good enough, reheated speeches are off the menu and Alex Salmond today must deliver an alternative vision for Scotland. Matching the lacklustre performance of Better Together is a luxury the Yes campaign cannot afford.