Saturday, April 14, 2012

To split or not to split

I do hope that the debate on the future of the Union becomes a bit more constructive and even tempered - on both sides - than it has sometimes been recently in the run up to the Scottish referendum on Independence.

Both my parents had ancestors on both sides of the border between England and Scotland, and I think of myself as British rather than English. I am proud of both my English and Scots ancestors and would greatly regret the breakup of the UK.

But if a significant part of any of the nations within the United Kingdom wishes to break away, the decision must be made through the ballot box.

Whether the eventual vote is a "Yes" or "No" it is vital that the debate and the final vote are seen on both sides, particularly by whoever loses, as fair.

If Scotland does break away, we need to ensure that the divorce is amicable because an acrimonious split and a poor starting relationship between the two (or more) countries which replaced the UK would have the potential to do great damage to England and Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland). If Scotland votes "No" to independence it is important that the continuing union is not poisoned by cries of foul play from those who had voted unsuccessfully to leave.

Which is why the acrimony over the past few days inspired by the cover of "The Economist" is a bad sign.

Yesterday's issue of "The Economist" magazine published a leader and two further articles about the Scottish economy and the economic case for and against Scots Independence. The articles were interesting and deserved serious consideration by both sides of the debate, but it was the cover illustration and a picture of First Minister Alec Salmond which accompanied the main analysis piece which has provoked the sound and fury.

"The Economist" magazine, which was founded by a Scotsman more than a century ago, has a tradition of deliberately provocative covers which usually turn out to relate to much more balanced articles. Yesterday's front page cover has had the Nats spitting blood and Salmond completely losing it.

The controversial cover, with the headline "It'll cost you" consists of a map of Scotland labelled "Skintland" and various cities and geographical features similarly renamed - Edinburgh becomes "Edinborrow (twinned with Athens)," Inverness becomes "Inamess," the Highlands become "Highinterestlands" and the Grampians become the "Grumpians." A picture inside the magazine depicts Alex Salmond costumed as a king from the middle ages, against the background of a highlands castle, but with one hand black, apparently from oil, and a petrol pump dripping oil in the other.

You can read the main article on "The Economist" magazine's website here, complete with the picture of Alex Salmond, and an item about the resulting row on the Mail's website, including the controversial cover picture and an abridged version of the Economist's leader article here.

The First Minister, whatever your view of his beliefs, is usually an extremely canny media operator. So I was astonished to read that he reacted by warning the magazine that they would "rue the day" they published this piece. The exact quote, according to the Guardian, was

"They shall rue the day they thought they'd have a joke at Scotland's expense."

Personally I don't think the Economist cover image was particularly funny or clever, although the actual articles, which were much more nuanced, were excellent.

As someone who thinks of myself as British but is part English and part Scot, my reaction to the front cover was "Uh Oh." If they had kept their tempers the nationalists might well have been able to turn the front cover image back against unionism, which is what they are obviously trying to do.

But Salmond's response has made the story about him - in context it sounds like a bit of an over-reaction, out of context the words "rue the day" come close to sounding nasty.

What the First Minister appears to be saying is that the article represents the views of a certain strata of the London intelligentsia who have a "sneering" view of everywhere north of Watford and will be sorry if their arrogance drives Scotland into voting for Independence.

He's dead wrong, not because that stratum of the London elite doesn't exist - they certainly do, and their arrogance is every bit as annoying to many parts of England, such as Cumbria, as to Scots - but because that kind of person would not give a damn if Scotland chooses to walk away. The real Unionists do care about the whole of the United Kingdom and care if Scotland leaves precisely because we do value Scotland - and Wales, and Ireland.

And it would be a tragedy if the debate were framed around insults and spoof maps instead of the real issues of economic gains and losses, and all the knotty legal and practical problems which will have to be addressed if Scotland votes to leave.

One such issue that particlarly occurs to be, perhaps because of where I am sitting while I write this article, is the issues of power supply in general and nuclear power in particular. I live about twelve miles from the main United Kingdom stockpiles of nuclear by-products, including a hundred tons of plutonium and many tons of lower level nuclear by-products. A significant proportion of the nuclear waste at Sellafield and the Low Level respository near Drigg came from nuclear plants in Scotland.

When Sellafield stores or reprocesses nuclear waste from foreign countries, these countries pay the British nuclear industry far from inconsiderable sums of money, and the contracts provide for the eventual return of the nuclear material.

If Scotland becomes a foreign country, are they going to take back their nuclear waste, or are they going to pay the nuclear industry here in Cumbria the going international rate to deal with it, or a mix of both?

If the people of Scotland are to be presented with realistic proposals for independence so that they can make an informed choice, the advocates of independence will need to have answers to many such questions.

1 comment:

Tim said...

Alex Salmond wants "an independant Scotland within Europe" - this tells you all you need to know. Some politicians have been accused of being two faced - this man has more faces that the town hall clock and none of them are particularly beguiling.