Will the latest banking scandal have any impact on Scotland’s independence debate? Will a referendum on Britain’s continuing EU membership sway votes in 2014?
On the face of it these issues seem un-connected. The Barclays scandal looks fiscal (even criminal) in origin -- Scotland’s independence referendum looks constitutional. But drill down and both contain unresolved questions about values, morality and the kind of society we want to inhabit.
Britain’s political parties– the SNP included -- have swithered for decades between get-rich-quick American casino-style capitalism and get-bogged-down-slowly European redistributive democracy. Under Tory and Labour governments, Britain has tried to have the best of both worlds -- and failed.
The American model of freedom for the individual and the European model of equality for all create very different societies but without macro-economic powers Scottish Governments have been spared the need to choose. The growing tide of English hostility to Europe may soon change all that.
I chaired a debate recently organised by the Economic Development Association of Scotland in which a panel of six economists and business owners (including three Professors) was asked to answer one question – would an independent Scotland be viable or vulnerable. All agreed an independent Scotland would be more viable than vulnerable -- for one reason. Scotland would be more likely to establish a sensible relationship with Europe and thus avoid the biggest threat to the Scottish economy – the hysterical anti-Europeanism of present (and possibly future) UK governments. The great and good further predicted that David Cameron’s long-running attempt to contain his own party’s anti-European faction would soon fail, prompting an “in/out” referendum on EU membership.
Later today former Defence Secretary Liam Fox is expected to call for an immediate renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU and -- if there’s European opposition -- a referendum on EU membership with the British government recommending complete withdrawal.
David Cameron tried to head off this Europhobe attack in the Sunday Telegraph stating that changes within the EU would need the “full-hearted support of the British people” and adding: “For me the two words 'Europe’ and 'referendum’ can go together.” It’s a snappy soundbite – but Dr Fox’s expected rejoinder will be even snappier: “For me, life outside the EU holds no terror.
” Now it would be wrong to say the European project has been an unmitigated success or that Euro-scepticism is a purely English phenomenon. After all Dr Fox is himself a Scot. In the latest BBC Scotland TV Independence debate on Friday night, nationalist audience members voiced anti-European sentiments. One even called for a two question referendum – the first on continued membership of the British state and the second on continued membership of the European Union.
Clearly there’s as much chance of that as there is of a yes vote – currently. But the fates of Scotland and the EU are linked.
The values that underpin Scottish society are generally more collective, interventionist, welfare oriented and European – whilst the values underpinning modern English society have become more individual, libertarian, market-oriented and American. These are of course broad brush strokes.
But we are currently witnessing the collapse of de-regulated Britain. All we can anticipate is a welter of sticking plaster solutions when we need fundamental change. Radical change requires firmly held, widely shared moral beliefs so that any new reforming government is empowered to avoid shortcuts and dispense with stop-gap solutions. Britain needs a New Deal. But only the Scottish part of British society may be capable of seriously considering or delivering it.
According to writer Andrew Rawnsley, the banking crisis could only happen in a City where cheating and deception have become institutionalised. Amend that sentence and you stumble across a larger truth.
The banking crisis could only happen in a country where cheating and deception have become institutionalised – and could only be tolerated by voters because they privately harbour hopes of rising to the same heady, rule-breaking heights themselves one day. This is the corrupting power of the American Dream and a large chunk of England has been thoroughly seduced.
With foundation schools, three-star hospitals, private finance initiatives for almost all capital projects, elected mayors and the imminent opening of the Coke/Samsung/BP/Lloyds TSB Olympic Games, England looks and feels increasingly like the 51st State of America. Look south and you see the relentless rise and rise of a “winner takes all” society where vigour-dampening concepts like fairness or equality are kept out of the mainstream agenda to maintain the illusion that anyone can rise to the top by looks, talent or hard graft.
This Only Way is Essex kind of society produces happiness that’s as dearly bought and illusory as the control felt by a top executive in his Porsche sitting immobilised by a traffic jam. The happiest, healthiest and most prosperous societies in the Western world are the most equal. Scots have a tiny chance of working towards that ideal. It’s not clear English society has a hope in hell.
Scandals centring on pivotal parts of domestic life have been coming thick and fast for years now – fiddled MPs expenses, violent English riots, News of the World bribery and phone hacking, and now corrupt practices within Barclays and probably other banks. How many other key areas of public life will discover “unacceptably low standards” or “a few rotten apples in the barrel” before the slumbering majority of the British public demands more than tinkering change?
Instead the “popular” English solution to this crisis of un-regulated Anglo-American-style capitalism may well be to leave Europe pronto because “they” are inefficient, corrupt and bureaucratic whilst we are (fundamentally) fine.
Every nation must maintain a balance between freedom and equality. But the UK is currently out of balance -- successive Westminster governments have consistently chosen measures promoting American-style “get rich quick” freedom for the few over a European-style collective goal of equality for the many.
Put up or shut up. It’s time for Scots to decide which path we want to follow – not just in brave words but in bold deeds. Are we in Europe or out of it? Do we want the (slim) chance to get individually rich or can we set aside personal greed to create a more equal society?
“The best of both worlds” is an alluring slogan – it’s also patently fraudulent. Perhaps the Euro-sceptic Liam Fox will help erstwhile fellow Scots towards a big decision.