Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham.
In 64 BC, Quintus Tullius Cicero helped his big brother win election to the consulship. In ‘Commentariolum Petitionis’, he advised Marcus to campaign on hope rather than detail, and to remember that breaking outlandish promises loses you less support than you gain by making them.
Alex Salmond is clearly the consummate classicist. Up against sensible but boring Darling, it’s always the wordy Salmond who gets the hooty cheers.
But the real problem is that both #indyref sides are relying on rhetoric, and this is obscuring the bigger picture. To strive for independence by breaking away from an historic union isn’t inherently bad. But neither is it an act of national betrayal to resist risky change. The effects of Scottish independence are unknown. What we do know is that its nascence would bring further unsurity to an already unsure time. And that it would affect everyone who shares this island – probably nowhere more so than my home region: the North East.
The UK is greater than the sum of its parts, or its present inhabitants or governance. And the same goes for the regions within its constituent countries. Some of these geographical areas, at times, struggle more than others, but it’s unfair to claim that Scotland is doing so disproportionately at the moment. With its small and above averagely-aged population, it does unfairly well out of the Barnett formula, can ’afford’ to fund university education fully, and thanks to devolution can (not that Salmond admits it) decide its own spending in areas such as healthcare.
And it does all this with a strong sterling behind it. The North East is almost as far from Westminster, but has no added perks. England as a whole would be strong enough to cope with the fallout of Scotland abandoning the union, but would the North East?
We are in the midst of a delicate recovery here: unemployment fell again this quarter, with 10,000 fewer North-Easterners out of work, and we’re celebrating a current employment rate of 70 per cent. But much of the reason this growth is so impressive owes to its starting point: serious deprivation.
Not that that is a reason to rubbish it – but might Scottish independence restrict, or even reverse this amelioration? Surely, the most positive answer is that we don’t know. This returns us to dangerously uncertain ground, for economic strength hinges upon confidence.
Currency problems, differing tax schemes, and even the cost of foreign postage would undeniably cause problems for businesses just south of the border. These consequences could also wreck cross-border partnerships and alliances. The strong Northern universities and research outlets would be strangled by added bureaucracy and fees – not least because we still don’t have any assurances that an independent Scotland would remain part of the EU.
Regardless of independence’s success in Scotland, North-East business would surely suffer, or, at the very least, need to adapt substantially.
If, somehow, Salmond’s socialist paradise were to succeed, the incentives a strong Scotland could give its own businesses would price its non-Scottish neighbours out. And if Scotland crashed, much of the North East could go with it. But Salmond’s snickering at Darling’s currency obsession says it all: for him, it is not about money. It’s about the Roberts Bruce and Burns. It’s about offering you a chance to make history.
And it’s about pretty pictures of true Scots, and the language of mandate and sovereignty.
Nationalism isn’t wrong. Indeed, except to the anarchist, it’s attractive to be able to trade (some) freedom in order to gain security from a state.
But too often we forget that all national boundaries are man-made – not just those which prove controversial, like those of Israel. Geography helps with boundary delineation, of course, particularly in the case of islands like ours. But more so does history, tradition, and a shared system of value and law. This is why – regardless of its success in the US – I fear federalisation’s European foetus. But, without the allure of security, nationalism can seem empty, suspicious, or worse. Following the twentieth century, it does seem incredible that so little has been made of Salmond’s brand of national socialism.
Some people think that Conservatives oppose all change. Instead, as the nomenclature suggests, it’s more about conservation: protection from unnecessary and dangerous change for its own sake.
And the North East has shown itself to be open to necessary change. We are moving, as a country, away from traditional industries, towards those of information and innovation, and tax incentives for enterprise have proved popular up here: we’ve gained over 13,000 new North-East businesses since 2010. And Scotland could learn from this, for both Salmond and Darling rely upon the solution of money throwing. Salmond knows he’ll get devo-max-with-added-sugar if the referendum is lost. If he wins, after an inevitable period of economic stricture, a stronger, tighter country will need to emerge, but, as I’ve said before, it won’t be able to fund socialism.
Regardless of the previous day’s events, we will all wake on the morning of 19 September feeling uncertain. Before then, we need to remember Barack Obama and the Liberal Democrats, who continue to use inspiring four-letter words like hope and change (Salmondesque arithmetic) even while they crumble. Yes, Scottish independence would be immensely sad – particularly for the cousins left behind in the North East – but it’s about more than rhetoric. It’s about risk. A win for the vacuity of superficial promise would herald a protracted time of great uncertaiinty for us all. And, if it were to happen, even Cicero wouldn’t have been able to talk his way out of it.