After days of wrangling, Scotland is to have a still undefined referendum in 2014 on whether to quit the United Kingdom. The arguments are now well underway. So far, two contributions stand out.
Exhibit A: the New Year’s message from Alex Salmond, first minister and SNP leader, which called on the people of Scotland to live up to their country’s international reputation and history as a land of technological and scientific innovation and take control of their own destiny.
Exhibit B: Thursday’s warning from the chancellor, George Osborne, that Scotland would be far worse off economically outside the UK. Here’s the killer quote:
“The SNP is going to have to explain what its plans are for the currency of Scotland.”
Today, his Labour predecessor, Alistair Darling, has gone even further:
In an interview with the Observer, Darling says that if the Scots vote to leave the 300-year-old union and then keep sterling, adopt their own currency, or join the euro, the country will be plunged into unparalleled economic uncertainty.
“The downsides are immense, the risks are amazing, the uncertainties I just don’t think are worth gambling on, Darling said. “There are times when you should gamble and there are times when you shouldn’t.”
There you have it: two contrasting narratives. Alex Salmond traces Scotland’s journey from James Watt and John Logie Baird to an exciting future. It’s easy to understand, upbeat, inclusive (“a fairer as well as a more prosperous future”). Salmond’s story has a happy ending. He tells a story of hope.
George Osborne and Alistair Darling are also starting to tell a story (a counter-story, to be precise), but it’s all very jagged and unsettling. The ending is uncertain and more than a little worrying. Theirs is a story based on fear.
Even though we don’t know what question will finally appear on the ballot paper, Salmond’s narrative looks and sounds as if it will prevail. His passes all the tests of a compelling narrative: it’s simple, emotive and rooted firmly in history and tradition. He addresses head on questions of belonging and identity. As Peter Oborne wrote on Wednesday:
Alex Salmond, that most brilliant and attractive of modern British politicians, is capable of superbly articulating the sense of nobility, romance, mission and fierce patriotism felt by many SNP supporters. Nationalism and the cry for liberty can be an intoxicating cocktail, even at the start of the 21st century. So far his opponents have produced nothing to rival it.
But the Osborne / Darling story also sounds straightforward. Scary campaigns about money can be very powerful. So too can negative narratives. Remember last year’s no to AV referendum campaign?
Now for the really interesting part. When you unpack them, neither of these storylines is really that simple. They will not stay frozen in suspended animation. Both sides will launch counter-stories and try to move on to the other’s space. Salmond, a former high flying civil servant and RBS economist, can be a forceful advocate on financial issues like, for instance, North Sea oil revenues. But, as this week’s interview with The Economist shows, some of his stories, most notably on Scotland’s future currency, can stretch the bounds of plausibility. In reality, the economic arguments are far from straightforward and both sides may decide to soft-pedal them.
The pro-union lobby could launch its own emotion-laden appeals and raise questions of identity and national purpose, based on the shared history and achievements of the all countries of the United Kingdom; “we’re stronger together and weaker apart”. On Friday, the education secretary, Michael Gove, made a start when he asked Scotland to think if it wants to keep the pound, the NHS, some welfare benefits and to separate the British Army. But this all based on fear, not the naural foundation for a romantic narrative.
As Peter Oborne has argued, with some force, unionists (preferably Scottish) should be able to make a positive case for Britishness. I agree with him that:
Scotland has scores of gifted politicians – among them Brown, Darling, Reid, Gove, Forsyth, Rifkind, Campbell and Kennedy – who can surely make the case that it is a better and more meaningful place as part of the United Kingdom. This is not, at root, an argument about economics. It is about identity.
If ever there was a situation where some epic political storytelling is needed, this is it. Let’s see who can come up with a compelling narrative to answer the most vexed of questions in UK politics. What does it mean to be British in the twenty first century? If anyone can bring this off, they should take their place in the pantheon of great communicators.