Friday, 19 September 2014


Parnell came down the road, he said to a cheering man:
"Ireland shall get her freedom and you still break stone."

William Butler Yeats, 'Parnell'

So, the United Kingdom endures, although it nearly didn't. Independence is one of those strange and fickle things. It's seductive, because you can hold up a blank sheet of paper, and like one of those vacuous motivational posters or an aspirational advert, you can say: "your dreams here", "just imagine", "be all you can be", "just do it" etc etc. That way you can be all things to all people, and handwave away the potential problems as "not being positive enough". But it also dodges some of the harsher realities of life post-independence, which Yeats alludes to in the above poem. Charles Stuart Parnell was the charismatic Irish independence campaigner who nearly achieved Home Rule for Ireland in the 1880s - perhaps the Alex Salmond of his day, or at least the Donald Dewar. But when Irish independence was finally achieved, in 1922 (25 years after Parnell's death), it proved to be a traumatic and dislocating time; civil war was followed by partition, the great depression and a trade war with the UK in the early 30s. Yeats wrote his little two-line poem in 1937, and it's portrayed as a warning from the past about the disillusionment that inevitably follows independence; Parnell is cautioning a road mender breaking stones by the side of the road that he'll still be doing his poorly paid and back-breaking job whatever happens to the country's governance. This was the flip side that the Yes campaign in Scotland tried to brush aside in favour of the promise of the clean sheet of paper; no, not a civil war, but that you'll still get a government that you disagree fundamentally with 50% of the time, that EU accession would likely have been protracted and painful, that taxes would probably have to go up or benefits be cut in order to shore up Scottish monetary reserves - an independant Scotland, as the Irish Free State did in the early 20s before it introduced its own (Sterling-pegged) currency in 1926, would probably be using Sterling but without a formal monetary union, at the mercy of Bank of England rate setting. This was not just "fearmongering" but real and very serious issues that it suited the Yes campaign not to engage with.

It puts me in mind of UKIP, which likes to wave a similar magic wand over UK membership (or otherwise) of the EU. It was quite amusing to see Nigel Farage making all of the arguments in favour of the Scots staying in the Union that he uses against the UK doing so in Europe. Like the SNP, UKIP has some good points to make about democratic deficit. But like the SNP, it doesn't really have any answers beyond walking away and hoping for the best. A lot of the Scottish Yes vote came, I suspect, not from a romantic yearning about "A Nation Once More" and the re-creation of a state that was abolished by mutual consent (for all of the 'Parcel of Rogues' grumbling) in 1707, but from a Scottish, largely socialist disillusionment with the neoliberalism that has become the default option for successive British governments, both Labour and Conservative. And UKIP likewise depends on a southern English neoliberalism at odds with the generally centre-left welfare-ist and 'green' tone of European politics. They're assisted by the fact that the three main British political parties certainly haven't engaged their own core voters - the Tories have a leader who understands that elections are won on the centre ground, but who is thereby far too liberal for the tastes of most of his party, the Liberals have discovered that the kind of coalition politics they have been pushing for for decades actually involves messy compromises in real life and occasionally having to backtrack on campaign promises, and Labour have somehow managed to pick the blandest leader I can ever recall in an attempt to paper over the Blairite-Brownite cracks.The contrast between Milliband's panicked exit from a scrum of Yes supporters and Brown's defiant speech in favour of the union last week was a very striking one. God knows Brown has his myriad faults, but he wasn't the strange personality vacuum that is Ed Milliband.

So now where? Probably the optimal solution for the UK, as it is for Europe, is more devolution of powers from the centre. The telling difference, I suppose, is that the UK seems up for a more federal constitution at the moment, but in spite of the warning shots delivered by the past round of European elections and the chaos caused by the euro's straightjacket on Mediterranean economies, I'm not sure that Brussels is just yet. The next election, and the next parliament, promises to be a very interesting one.

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