By Kumar David –
Separatism anywhere in the world is closely watched in Lanka for obvious reasons; past madness, future prospects and international trends. Though opinion polls up to the last day said the race was neck-and-neck Ladbrokes was offering odds of 3 to 1 against a Yes-vote (pro-separation) but only 0.25 to 1 against the No’s. That is you could bet Rs1 on No, and if you won, you got only 25 cents plus your Rs1 back, but you forfeited your rupee if you lost. You could pocket three bucks (if you won) by putting your rupee on Yes. The bookies applied impeccable logic to conclude that the No’s were ahead, despite opinion polls calling it a dead-heat. It is the ‘shy voter’ they said. The Yes camp was on tartan steroids and sniffing Hail Caledonia poppies. The bucket-shops explained that the 15% so-called undecided voters in the middle were ‘shy voters’ who didn’t want their neighbours to know that they are cautious, conservative, playing safe, and most in the end would vote No.
We Lankans get the point in a jiffy; which politician in the South dares say “Give the Tamils devolution, or investigate military and regime leaders for war crimes”, despite what they know in private? Not the Left, nor the Right, nor the Liberals in the middle; only a reckless handful of Nimalkas! I am straying from my topic which is that the No vote is likely to prevail but only by a small margin; and that’s my question. Why a small margin when the case against separation is stark? Such circumstances are of relevance to Lanka, albeit tangentially, and what I say in this essay is of even greater import if the Yes camp prevails.
The death wish
Former British Prime Minister James Callaghan said “Scots voting for independence is like a Turkey voting for Christmas”. On every material count an independent Scotland will be the loser, but what about the emotional high that comes from sniffing the heady rush of nationalism? Aye there’s when reason is banished and the rarefied air of identity politics starves the mind of the sober oxygen of calculation. We Lankans have seen this nation drain its cup of hemlock to the dregs and Lethe-wards sink. There are moments in history when identity can give a people strength and resolve, but worldwide, for decades it has invariably been an irrational force unhinging the mind. The tragedy is that were genuine causes which if fixed in time would have circumvented the madness. For proof think Tigers, think ISIL, or the Palestinians driven to mutiny and rage by predatory Israel.
None of this justifies the excessive nationalism of Scottish independence because Scotland is a beneficiary of the Union. Yes, Scottish pride is a cup that justifiably runneth over; Robert Burns and Walter Scott, David Livingstone and Alexander Selkirk, Adam Smith and David Hume, James Clerk Maxwell and Alexander Fleming, Macbeth and Robert Bruce, James Connolly and Ramsay MacDonald, the marvellous list goes on and on. Nearer home, Thomas Maitland of Lovina Aponsu notoriety and Thomas Lipton the trader who put Ceylon tea on the map were Scotsmen. But facts, like condoms, are boring; the thrill is in direct action the colourful Yes-camp effuses. Here are the facts:-
Basics: Population, area and GDP of Scotland are; 5.3 million (64 million), 78,000 sq km (244,000 sq km) and $250 billion ($2.85trillion), respectively. In brackets are the whole UK, that is Great Britain and Northern Ireland numbers. Scotland’s population is 8.3% of the UK’s and its GDP is 8.8%, but its land area is 32% of the terrain of the present UK. Since 2010 Scotland has had its own parliament Holyrood with powers enough to make Wigneswaran drool. Though the Act of Union of 1707 unified the English and Scottish Parliaments, de facto Britain was unified in 1603 (Union of the Crowns) when James VI of Scotland succeeded Queen Elizabeth as James I of England.
Currency:There is no way sterling can remain the currency of an independent Scotland. Monetary policy and interest rates will be set by the Bank of England; Scotland’s influence will be nought. Scotland runs a big fiscal deficit; England will rightly refuse to finance it any longer. Will it join the Euro? No it will not be accepted pronto. Will it issue its own currency? Yes, it may have to – the Caledonian Shackle (pun intended). It is impossible for a Caledonian shekel to mimic recognition of the Hong Kong or Singapore dollars, backed as they are by mountains of global currency and gold reserves. Or like bankrupt Zimbabwe, Scotland may have to use the dollar (or the Euro) passively.
Economic transfers: The UK Exchequer spends about 1300 pounds more per person in Scotland than in England. The Scottish fiscal deficit is 13% while the UK as a whole is 7%. It is morally justified that the Central Government spends on social services and development in less developed parts of a country. The Lankan Government transfers resources, over and above what the region generates, to support the people of Bintenne. If Bintenne breaks away and becomes a separate state, that will stop. An independent Scotland’s loss in fiscal grants and capital transfers from state and business will be very large. Even if 90% of North Sea oil revenue is allocated to Scotland it will not bring the deficit below 9%.
North Sea Oil:This is the Midas-Touch which Yes campaigners imagine will settle Scotland’s woes. It is an illusion; oil revenues are long past their peak. It is estimated that potential North Sea oil revenues will decline from $12 billion in 2013 to $4.5 billion by 2018. The reason oil revenues will fall is two fold; (a) depletion of these oil fields and (b) falling global oil prices as American shale, other sources of oil supply, and alternative primary energy sources come on line. Declining oil revenues have to be shared between Scotland and the rest of the UK; hence this will not, by a long chalk, be the magic bullet to overcome Scotland’s economic impasse. Manufacturing, cash crop agriculture, financial services and of course the export of mega litres of the Golden Water of Life will have to underpin the economy.
Scottish capitalism on the ropes: Scotland will be a small bourgeois state with a strong working class tradition adrift on European seas. Right now the Labour Party has 41 seats and the Tories just one in Scotland. It is as much the home of British working class politics as England’s industrial regions. A peculiar reasoning that energises the Yes campaign is “No more Troy rule”, meaning Scotland has rejected bloody-minded Tories time and again, but the English majority elects these sons of bachelors in hordes and the Scots have to suffer them in Westminster, the seat of power. The parallel with Sri Lanka is stark. The Tamils abhor the Sinhala State which holds them in thrall, come Gotabaya it is more menacing they say. As long as they remain in Lanka there is no escape from Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony some Tamils reckon. There is validity in this reasoning but inadequate to justify an Eelam bid. This approach was tried and proved futile; there are more productive strategies.
For the Scots too the devil is in the details. What is it specifically that Scots abhor? They are not victims of military occupation and humiliation; or systematic sabotage of Holyrood; or ubiquitous repression by a corrupt, debased and authoritarian regime. But there are two justified concerns in Scotland. Will the Tories, the dying embers of Thatcherite neo-liberalism, dismantle the National Health Service (NHS) that they have already damaged so much and will they do away with free university education in Scotland? Secondly, will the Tories pull the UK out of the European Union (EU) in the referendum Cameron has promised if he is returned to office for another term? These are valid and substantial concerns. But by leaving the Union Scotland will not be better placed to protect NHS and in all likelihood will lose it more quickly because it will be fiscally poorer. It is true that a Scotland in the Union may be dragged out of the EU by an alliance of traditional classes in England and the far-right UKIP (UK Independence Party). But it is better to stay and fight, as securing EU membership for an Independent Scotland will be a negotiating grind with no prospect of success before the end of 2025.
The civilised way
Above all, the processes and ethics of this Referendum have been exemplary. The conduct of the public and politicians of all shades has been a lesson in adult behaviour for politically and racially less civilised nations. They did not send tanks and jackboots up North declaring Scots wanted to divide the country; well, pretty much 50% of them do! All the big guns and party leaders went north, talking, listening, persuading, arguing and cross-fertilising; they promised much. Imagine any of our leaders interacting at depth with the masses of the “other” community! (Mrs B never once visited Jaffna as prime minister I have been told; is that a measure of her contempt?) Why dammit, we cannot hold a potty provincial election in a remote region without murder and mayhem! The campaign in Scotland is a model of democracy in action. Don’t dismiss it as bourgeoisie democracy; it is a case study for socialist democracy which its apostles seek one day.
Whatever the outcome the next stage must be as mature and flawless as it has been up to now.
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae fareweel, alas, forever!
Deep in heart-warming tears I pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee!
Robert Burns is Scotland’s much loved ‘national poet’; but I detect menacing ambiguity in the final line if the Ayes have it. Is there concealed therein a frightful premonition of things to come, two hundred and eighteen years after his death? Hail Caledonia! May you not Wail!
*This piece had to be completed on Thursday during voting time. Subsequently the results have vindicated the standpoint of the analysis. I will return to the theme again next week.