A short while ago VICE got a call from the Cabinet Office telling us they’d seen our article about a stupid video by “Let’s Stay Together”, the government’s campaign to stop Scotland leaving the UK. They were under the impression that we had taken an editorial stance staunchly in favour of independence, rather than simply against early 2000s English celebrities with crap opinions getting involved in important debates.
They said if we wanted to discuss the "real issues" (which we already have, but whatever), rather than just laugh at Tony Robinson, they could help us out by giving me an interview with Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who – as the Cabinet's foremost Scot – is heading up the government's Let’s Stay Together Campaign.
The prospect of an interview with Danny Alexander was a daunting one. Recently interviewed by the Guardian, he was asked whether he was charismatic, and he said, "I don't know. I'm afraid I'm not very good at these sorts of questions. I think I'm … erm, er… I think I'm confident in myself. Er … I work hard. Hmm. Whether that amounts to charisma or not I think is for other people to judge." The same newspaper described another interview it conducted with him as “stupifyingly humourless”.
Despite not being an Obama on the podium, Danny A has occupied one of the top spots in government since 2010, spending that time being an architect of austerity; “the economic plan is as much mine as George Osborne’s”, he has said. Clearly he’s not there to make the cuts seem palatable, but he must be there for something – and presumably that something is sheer, unwavering competence.
I faced the prospect of interviewing a politician from whom I’d be unlikely to get any good anecdotes or stirring rhetoric, and I probably wasn’t going to be able to trip him up either. Still, I couldn't resist the chance to hear what makes the UK so worth sticking to from a member of government, so I called him up for a chat.
True to my expectations it was on the more fact-based questions that Danny thrived. He tried an emotional gambit – his anti-Braveheart rallying cry. “When I was growing up as a school boy in Lochaber, which is in the north of Scotland… every day I would travel forward and back in a school bus and on the way past a memorial where the commando soldiers from Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland came to train in the Second World War before going off to fight in many places and make the ultimate sacrifice and to liberate Europe. And the epitaph on that statue is ‘United We Conquer’. And the meaning is a very, very emotionally powerful thing in terms of the UK.”
I couldn’t help but think this was exactly the kind of childhood tale that one of Danny’s press people would think up after a day researching his childhood, deployed in a competent but conviction-less manner. It was conveniently nationalistic and nostalgic in all the correct ways, but the fact it was given as an answer to whether the economy was his key motivation for saving the union only gave me the impression that it was learned by rote, calculated to fend off accusations of being a passionless bureaucrat.
But is there anything wrong with focusing on the prosaic? Romantic notions of British nationalism are no more or less fatuous than Scottish ones. Many of those who vote Yes will do so because of stuff like education, jobs, healthcare or because they hate the Tories, rather than because they really, really care about the angle of the cross on their flag.
So it makes sense for Danny to wheel out pragmatic arguments to counter those levelled at him and his campaign. While his British nationalist pride didn't seem all that heartfelt (in any case, he says, “I fundamentally believe that liberalism is about breaking down barriers between people and nationalism is about building them up”) I totally believed him when he said he’s “actually very proud of the way that, as a government, we have done the most detailed research programme that’s ever been undertaken into Scotland’s place in the UK.”
He added: “I’ve been very pleased that the basic economic analysis that we have done underpins a case for the UK about trade and jobs, oil revenues and public spending – that all of those arguments have been supported and amplified by highly reputable independent bodies, like the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, and many, many others. I’ve made sure that when we’ve done these research papers that we’ve really tried to discuss these with academics and so on to make sure they’re as robust as possible. The opposite is true on the other side.”
That was the unsurprising basic thrust of his argument – that if you take all the romance out of it, Scotland is simply better off as part of the UK.
(Photo by Liam Turbett)
I spoke to Danny on the phone as he was driven to Inverness from Glasgow, where he’d just been visiting a BAE Systems shipyard where three Royal Navy ships are soon to be built, protecting 800 jobs that wouldn't exist in an independent Scotland. He tried to use the ships as a clumsy analogy for Scotland. “I was just at a shipyard announcing an order for new vessels, and one of these vessels has a crew of a few hundred people and detailed planning that has gone into before you’ve even started building one of these things, let alone launch it. The SNP are proposing to launch a new state – a sort of people carrier for 5 million people, if you like – and they haven’t done the basics. They don’t know what currency we’d be using, they can’t answer basic questions that a lot of businesses and people are asking them… and I think that scares a lot of people, actually.”
While the Yes campaign is looking forward to Scotland as some kind of adjunct of Scandinavia, a social democracy funded by North Sea oil, it seemed like Danny was more concerned about it becoming the Greece of the north – poorly run by people who care more about not being attached to England than inhabiting a country that functions properly.
The thing is, Britain is completely dysfunctional. I put it to Danny that the referendum presented Scots with a chance to make a break from the British economy – one which has recovered from recession off the back of personal debt, falling wages for insecure jobs and a London-based housing bubble that, if it burst, would bring the Scottish economy crashing down with it. He didn’t agree with my pessimistic description of the economy.
“If you look at the economic recovery and you look at the industries that are growing and employ a lot of people in Scotland – whether it’s financial, energy, oil and gas, renewables, ship building – those are all industries that grow and benefit enormously in Scotland because we’re in the UK. And that would be seriously threatened if we took the decision to erect a new international border on this very small island of ours. That’s why I don’t, in any way, resile any of the promises I’ve made about the economic damage that I believe will be done to Scotland with independence… being part of the UK is also one of the foundations of our economic success and, you know, we’ve learned what happens when the foundations of an economy get shaken.”
Unfortunately for Danny, this idea of Britain having an economy making a healthy recovery just won’t ring true to people in, say, the East End of Glasgow – people who are having their housing benefit cut off, or who grew up with parents who never went to work because they couldn’t get a job. A quarter of boys growing up in Glasgow won't see their 65th birthday. This is called the "Glasgow effect", and in recent years it caused the city to be unfavourably compared to Iraq, North Korea and Gaza. You can see that as an anomaly, or simply indicative of a particularly deprived part of Britain – the most extreme example of an area in what Adam Ramsay called "a very sick country indeed".
Members of the Radical Independence Campaign
As Adam (borrowing from authors and co-founders of Radical Independence Campaign, James Foley and Pete Ramand) pointed out, Britain is near the bottom of the pile for any number of social indicators. Inequality, long hours, low wages, housing, train fairs and fuel poverty – you name it, Britain is subject to it. Our children are depressed, and the elderly are either paying for their pension by screwing the young or are impoverished themselves.
“There are enormous social challenges to be dealt with across the whole of the United Kingdom," Danny admitted, "including child poverty, including low wages which we have to deal with, which are deep-rooted problems that take a long time to sort out. Far from having more resources to deal with some of the issues that you’re talking about, actually people in an independent Scotland would be faced with a pretty grim set of choices: between higher taxes or sharp reductions in public expenditure.”
I think answers like this are why the Yes campaign is gaining traction, because the No campaign has to try to convince people that they're not already being presented with a grim set of choices by a Westminster government they mostly didn't vote for. They're arguing that living in an unhappy country is the best people can hope for.
Despite Danny insisting that “the work of the current government is helping to improve and deal with a lot of those issues”, this government’s economic policies have increased child poverty. Wages as a share of GDP have fallen for 30 years, but on Danny’s watch they’ve undergone the longest squeeze since the 1870s. Britain is a country run by millionaires, with an economy dictated by oligarchs, where working for less money than you need so you’re not officially in poverty – and hoping you can cling on to that job – is very normal.
If the Let's Stay Together campaign was to say, “Sure, Britain sucks, but an independent Scotland would be much worse,” it would be a plausible argument, but a bit too depressing to base a referendum campaign on. More importantly, it’s an argument that just can’t be made by a government minister; Danny is in that tricky place of talking up the UK as a fantastic place to be, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Frankly, half the time I want to leave the UK and move somewhere less stressful, impoverished, depressed and unhealthy. According to Yes campaigners, Scottish people have the opportunity to do just that without even leaving their homes. But really, why would politicians in Holyrood be any better than the ones in London? Is Alex Salmond really going to create a fairer economy by lowering corporation tax, or should Scots remain part of the world's "biggest, most developed tax haven"? Does this article mean that the NHS would not, in fact, be safer from privatisation in a new Scottish state than it is at the moment?
There are plenty of unanswered questions, and many reasons to believe that Scotland may well not be any better off on its own. The problem is, while the grass might not be greener on the other side, the last person anyone wants to hear that from is the guy pissing all over your lawn.
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