The White Paper is being tossed about on the frothing seas of partisanship, lurching to port where George Kerevan hails it “game-changing” then heaving to starboard where Brian Wilson buffets it as “nothing of substance” – 670 pages of it! Meanwhile the decks are awash with streams of “fantasy” and “wish list”, all enough to make you seasick.
So what is it in reality? Well, it’s a tangible sign that independence is becoming entrenched in the popular mind as a conventional and feasible option for running the country. And I think that is the most telling point of all. The release of such a detailed report became an unavoidable item of UK national news – unless you read the Star – in which Scots saw their government and fellow Scots, in a sense themselves, sensibly discussing independence as a rational, everyday political idea on the television news. This is normalisation. For many, mostly beyond the reach of Newsnight and the Politics Show or the comment pages, independence as a concept has retained a White Heather Club quality that allows outsiders to laugh at us as celtic eccentrics. It is not uncommon for the urban working class to offer only sneers at Salmond as some kind of sheep-shagging salesman, as opposed to a true Labour artisan politician, while at the same time welcoming his policies and berating Labour’s failure. If they can’t accept the messenger, they won’t get the message.
The breadth of the media coverage of the White Paper showed a different perspective. It brought the “Big News” from London to our doorstep where Hew Edwards respectfully interviewed Salmond at length. It led the network bulletins. It produced disharmony and acrimony as all normal political issues do. It proved the SNP government’s plans were both serious, as in profound, and important, as in a matter for London to cover on location.
The day after it is spread throughout the press, with its merits and shortcomings dissected with forensic scrutiny and across the land thousands of voters whose cynicism inclines them habitually to dismiss new and challenging ideas, will be made to think. “What do I think about this? I’m not sure about full independence but this looks really serious and makes some points I agree with. I don’t usually bother with the political news but I can’t ignore this, it’s everywhere. Salmond really has an impact, doesn’t he? He does things that get London jumping. And why shouldn’t we use the pound? It isn’t England’s. Who do they think they are…”
This event has moved independence out of the speciality lane in the political supermarket and placed it in household essentials. And it does, at last, provide a searchable source of answers – whether you accept them or not – and it has created another awkward moment for Better Together because they have nothing to offer in reply. From now on, not only are specific “answers” at hand, the White Paper itself IS an answer to the constantly demanding How will this work? How can we afford it? The reply is they’ve produced an entire document in answer. The follow-up challenge of course is: “Where is the Unionist alternative?” And it’s true, to engage in a proper debate, each side is duty bound to produce its case. That has now been done by the Yes side so when do we see the agreed manifesto for Union?
I also think this document and the coverage will force people elsewhere in the UK to come to terms with a simple fact – that Scotland has cards to play. Hitherto, the impression has been apparent from London that they dictate events, they say Yes or No and they hold the assets and can block Scotland’s progress. Yesterday demonstrated that isn’t so. There is a strong economic case for independence, there is a widening gulf in political culture (certainly with London but I doubt if it applies across the rest of the rUK) and grudgingly many will now realise that it does make sense to share some services. I suspect the English view broadly is that independence means going it completely alone and they can imagine that happening but it makes some uncomfortable that the logic is to share a border, a currency, the DVLA etc because that requires a more nuanced mind-set. This is a profound change in the government of Britain, one of the most politically backward of all industrialised states, deeply conservative in its attitudes to democracy and resistant to change and social mobility. For English people in general, devolution was a disturbing concept that hinted at disharmony and a cloaked rejection, so independence is like betrayal. Then to find that, actually the Scots have a good case and it involves still sharing with them will take time to digest and come to terms with. Many won’t. The Little Englanders – Tory Right, UKIP, EDL, Telegraph – will voice their opposition to all association with a new Scottish state which will only serve to incline the fair-minded who take time to rationalise it into accepting a new deal. Indeed, because the Civil Service – and big business – will spell out the advantages to London of continued association and joint working with Edinburgh, senior Unionist politicians may be pushed into giving it a careful endorsement to prepare the ground for post-independent arrangements.
In the next 10 months this document and a wider knowledge of it will come up time and again in public debate across Britain, further normalising the idea of an independent Scotland in the minds of millions. It may even excite the wider British Left in politics and the media who could find something to salute here in a social democratic model rejecting, as they do, the rule of the bankers, the austerity burden on the poor and a London-centric economy. Do they really have such faith in the outdated and fading British state that they believe it trumps all attempts at fair pay, civil rights, equality, and self-determination? After yesterday’s Scottish announcement taking top billing, the first two items on this morning’s BBC news were Cameron’s plans to deny benefits to fellow EU citizens – a racist move also against the rules and principles of the EU – and nine million people are in serious debt in the UK. What a country to be proud of. Would we really want to join in Union if we were asked today? With all its caveats – hydrocarbon exploitation, lower business rates – Scotland’s independence agenda is offering more than Miliband’s Labour for those seeking to transform unequal, geographically-deformed Britain.
Many southern eyes will look north in the next year and some of them will be understanding. Some might even be envious.