“People in Scotland don't have to wait a year to kick out the Tory govt [sic]. They can do it in September.”
Those were the words of a cheery Scottish nationalist that appeared in my Twitter feed recently. And the Yes to independence camp has good reason to be in a buoyant mood. The gap between those planning to vote no in this year’s independence referendum and those intending to vote yes is rapidly closing, and as a consequence those in favour of a split are increasingly looking forward to September 18, as the date they will finally rid themselves of Tory rule.
Every time a posh city boy is trotted out on the BBC to push the message that independence will be bad for the economy the narrative is driven home: the British establishment is overwhelmingly opposed to the break-up of the United Kingdom, therefore socialists and liberals should be for it. Or so the logic goes.
Alex Salmond also cultivates the image of an amiable progressive version of Nigel Farage. The scrapping of up front tuition fees and the abolition of prescription charges have certainly helped to reinforce the message that, given the chance come September, Salmond and the SNP will build Scandinavian-style social democracy using the profits from North Sea oil. A good number of people on the left appear also to have accepted the argument that, while independence may not provide a one-way ticket to a socialist paradise, it will at least put Scotland firmly on the road to the type of social democracy that remains untainted by the sordid compromises of Blairism.
Despite my own misgivings about the break-up of the United Kingdom, I can understand at least some of its appeal to the Scottish left. Successive Tory governments have hacked away at Scotland’s social fabric, and cabinet papers released this year revealed that ministers in the Thatcher government wanted to make even bigger cuts to the Scottish budget at a time when the country was in the midst of a devastating recession. Tory ministers don’t like Scotland, and Scotland doesn’t like Tory ministers. Nor, to their credit, do Scots have much time for the toxic politics of Ukip. A visit by Nigel Farage last year to Edinburgh resulted in the Ukip leader barricaded himself in a pub to escape protesters demonstrating against his party’s xenophobic posturing on immigration. English lefties fear that an independent Scotland will mean perpetual Tory rule. For Scots, however, independence means a break with unelected shire toffs; despite electing just one Tory MP in 2010 Scotland still languishes under a Tory-led coalition.
If I said a part of me did not fear that an independent Scotland would result in conservative domination in Westminster I would be lying. I want to work with Scots to kick out the coalition so that England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland can move away from the Thatcherite model of cuts and privatisation together. That said, there is a very good reason the Scottish left ought to think twice before throwing their lot in with Alex Salmond this September: they will be voting for exactly the sort of politics they want to be rid of. Indeed, despite the left-wing affectations, Alex Salmond is Thatcherite in tooth and claw.
If you think I’m exaggerating, look at a few of the things Salmond has actually done in Scotland, as opposed to the things he’s simply said).
It is widely accepted that the impact of Thatcherism on Scotland was catastrophic. Four years into Margaret Thatcher’s first Tory government one in six workers in Scotland were on the dole, 1.5 million under-25s were unemployed and traditional industries were run into the ground. The only things which seemed to thrive in Scotland in the 1980s were drugs, as was chronicled by the iconic film Trainspotting. According to Salmond, however, Scotland “didn't mind the economic side” of the Thatcher governments and only disapproved of the “social” implications of her policies – comments seemingly ignorant of the fact that the two are quite obviously linked.
It isn’t only the past where Salmond is disconcertingly sanguine about Tory philosophy, either. Rather than open up clear water between his own party and brutal Osbornomics, Salmond has slashed away at corporation tax and mooted his own welfare cap. Those who believe that independence will mark the beginning of a transition to Scandanavian-style social democracy ought also to remember that Salmond’s economic sympathies lie firmly with Ireland, the ultra-low tax regime lionised by George Osborne as a “shining example of the art of the possible in economic policy-making”. As should be blindingly obvious to anyone on the left, you don’t get a Nordic welfare state with Irish levels of taxation.
Perhaps more damning is the international company the SNP leader keeps. Despite positioning himself as a champion of equality, in a recent interview with GQ magazine Salmond gushed over the Russian leader Vladimir Putin for “restoring a substantial part of Russian pride”. The fact that Salmond’s comments came before the Russian annexation of Crimea hardly makes them much better; they still occurred after the detention of Pussy Riot and the reinvention of Putin as the upholder of “traditional” values - see gay baiting and locking up dissenters. It isn’t hard to see why the Russian leader would want to see the break-up of the UK – a weakened Western alliance for starters – but more depressing is the way the SNP appears to dance to the former KGB man’s tune, with senior members of the party clocking up what seems like countless hours on state propaganda outlet RT (formerly Russia Today). Speaking of soft-peddling dictatorship, in 2012 Salmond also appeared to dodge a visit to Scotland by the Dalai Lama which would have kept the peace with his friends in the Chinese government. Is this the sort of socialist internationalism my Scottish comrades are hoping for?
For all its faults, at least the British Labour Party is finally moving to a place where genuinely social democratic policies are getting a hearing. Contrary to popular opinion, in voting for Alex Salmond’s vision of independence this September Scottish lefties will actually be voting to go back to the future; they will be stamping their approval on Thatcherite economics and Chavista foreign policy - hardly an attractive combination. And unless you’re into bargain basement levels of corporation tax, welfare caps and Putin, none of it is in the slightest bit left wing.