Alert readers will already know that the closest thing this site has to a position on this week’s EU referendum is that supporters of Scottish independence living in Scotland should vote Remain.
(And even that view is conditional on whether you consider Scottish independence the most important political goal of your life. If it’s more important to you to be out of the EU than out of the UK then clearly you’ll be voting Leave and there’s nothing we could say that would change your mind.)
But what if you happen to be a supporter of Scottish independence who DOESN’T live in Scotland? What then?
Because that, of course, is what I am. And since the EU referendum was announced, I’ve found myself in the unfamiliar position of being a Don’t Know. Several months of campaigning later I’m none the wiser, and time’s running out.
I’ve been pro-EU my whole life, right up until last summer. The aftermath of the Greek election and referendum was a horrible jolt, in which what’s supposedly a benign and democratic entity essentially mounted a coup against a sovereign nation – not using tanks and bombers but banks, under the command of Wolfgang Schauble.
Now, the Greece situation was complex and nuanced and I’m not going to get into all the rights and wrongs of it here, but the sight of a country’s electorate expressing their wishes unambiguously, by a thumping 23-point margin, and then simply having them steamrollered by EU “technocrats”, sent a chill up my spine that’s never gone away.
Throw in the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP), and suddenly the European project looked a lot less like a benevolent shared social democracy and a lot more like a neoliberal straitjacket.
(“Stay and reform it from within!” is every bit as spectacularly idiotic an argument in this referendum as it was in the last one, for mostly the same reasons.)
But all of this is actually somewhat beside the point. Because when it comes down to it I very much doubt that the outcome of the EU referendum will make a great deal of detectable difference to me either way.
Don’t get me wrong – the arguments that it’ll be bad for the UK economy as a whole seem fairly cut-and-dried. But whenever the UK economy grows and share prices rise and everyone in the City of London gleefully gives themselves an even bigger bonus than usual, none of that ever seems to trickle down to me (or anyone I know) in any way that I can identify.
When the UK economy “booms”, what that really means for most normal people is house prices shooting even further out of reach while wages continue to stagnate and inequality increases. George Osborne’s “warning” that a Brexit would see house prices drop 18% sounded like a pretty compelling reason to vote Leave to anyone despairing of ever getting on the housing ladder as the market carries on frantically inflating yet another overheated bubble.
(If you’re a homeowner and you’re voting Remain because of the economy, what you’re actually doing is protecting your own investment at the expense of people less well-off than you. That’s a perfectly rational and reasonable position to take, but it doesn’t qualify you for the moral high ground, so give the righteous angst a rest, eh?)
Similarly, there’s also a perfectly plausible argument that Brexit would lead to higher wages at the lower end of the scale, with decreased availability of labour through tighter immigration controls leading to a higher premium on said labour, that being the nature of markets. If you’re in more demand as a worker, you can charge more for your services.
(There are good counter-arguments to that too – mainly that stagnating wages are far more a deliberate ideological choice of right-wing governments than an economic consequence, and they can still force wages down with punitive welfare measures.)
The point is, I have no trouble in understanding why Brexit would be bad for the profits of tax-dodging multinational corporations and shareholders. It’s a lot less clear why and how it would hurt the vast bulk of normal people.
(It’s rather like the oil-price argument in Scotland. A high oil price is obviously good for business and the government, which takes in more corporate taxes. But when it plummets, most people – excluding those who lose jobs in the oil industry, obviously – actually benefit significantly from lower fuel costs, and the net effect is a large transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor and a reduction in inequality, something even the most socialist governments struggle to achieve.)
But we’re still bodyswerving the elephant in the room, which is that this site’s chief concern is Scottish independence, and that the result of the referendum could have a major impact on that goal.
If the UK votes Leave and Scotland votes Remain, the democratic case for a second indyref is more or less irresistible – the 2014 No vote was explicitly premised on a guarantee of continued EU membership otherwise imperilled by independence.
But do we want that? On the one hand, the polls on independence have barely shifted in the last 21 months. On the other hand, a majority of polls DO show a (narrow) Yes majority in the specific context of a vote to leave the EU.
A significant number of Unionist commentators and newspapers have publicly said that they’d very seriously reconsider their position on independence were the UK to vote Leave. Business is overwhelmingly in favour of the EU.
Media coverage in Indyref 2 would therefore almost certainly be – at the very worst – considerably more fair and balanced than it was the first time round. Couple that with the fact that Yes would be notionally starting with a lead rather than 30 points behind and suddenly the 6% switch required to win looks temptingly achievable.
Most of the calmer voices in the Yes movement have long considered 2021 a more propitious time for a second referendum. But that’s still half a decade of unpredictable events away, and if the UK was still in Europe then few of the fundamentals that led to the No win of 2014 would have changed.
Would it be better from a Yes perspective to take the bird in the hand rather than gamble on the bird in the bush? A post-Brexit indyref would have all the advantages noted above, but we can’t sensibly say where things might stand in 2021. Five years, as they say, is a long time in politics.
(The biggest practical downside of a quick second indyref would likely be that there’s a very real and very powerful resentment among No voters about the prospect of one. The aforementioned factors might outweigh that, or might not. Feelings are still raw.)
So it’s not yet entirely clear whether a Remain vote is preferable on its own merits to a Leave, nor is it clear which of them is the best result from the perspective of Scottish independence. All that leaves to go on are the campaigns. And to tell you the truth, readers, I’m going to have a really hard time voting for either one of them.
Remain’s has been abysmal almost beyond words. Constructed since the beginning entirely from a politician’s perspective rather than the public’s, it’s been a wretchedly faithful and miserable re-run of Project Fear with the volume turned up to 11.
Possibly the nadir was Alistair Darling lining up beside George Osborne to threaten a “punishment budget” that echoed the Unionist parties’ indyref refusal of a currency union, but there have been plenty of other low points to choose from, including the desperate clutching at the awful murder of Jo Cox.
The Leave campaign, on the other hand, has been riddled with all the crude economic lies and hypocrisies of “Better Together”, but with an added side-serving of appalling flat-out racism that makes Scottish Labour’s grotesque pejorative talk of “foreigners” look tame by comparison.
I didn’t want to be on the same team as David Cameron, George Osborne, Alistair Darling and JK sodding Rowling last time and I still don’t. Iain Duncan Smith, George Galloway, Nigel Farage and Katie Hopkins on the other is no sort of alternative.
(Both sides, it should be noted, do have isolated voices of calm reason, like Nicola Sturgeon for Remain and Gisela Stuart for Leave. Every party except UKIP has senior parliamentarians on both sides of the debate. Trade union leaders too are split, as are party memberships.)
I’ve barely had a leaflet, nobody from either side has knocked on my door, and I think I’ve seen a single incidence of street campaigning from each side, both extremely low-key, in either Bath or Bristol – two cities with a combined population of over half a million people, whose votes nobody seems very interested in winning.
Helpful literature has been almost non-existent. The sole honourable exception has been the thoroughly excellent Wee Bleu Book put together by two SNP MEPs, but there’s been no serious attempt to get printed copies of it into people’s hands, and a huge percentage of the electorate is never going to download a PDF, especially if they don’t know it exists – as far as we know the Scottish media hasn’t mentioned it once.
(It’s a bit of a disgrace that the combined might of every mainstream UK political party can’t manage to scare up the money to put a half-decent publication into voters’ hands when a poky little website like this can print 250,000 copies of a 72-page book by itself and distribute it to every corner of the country. The UK government’s pitiful excuse of a pamphlet was a waste of paper.)
The grassroots campaigns, in so far as they’ve existed at all, have been no help either. Irritating, aggressive, self-righteous lectures from Remainers have been every bit as repellent (in the literal sense of the word) as the wild xenophobic rantings of Leavers. Being ordered to vote one way or another by some numbnuts on Facebook on pain of being either a “fascist” or a “traitor” has the effect of driving me – and I suspect most undecideds – the opposite way.
So three days out I still genuinely don’t know how I’ll vote. I’ll go to the polling station – I don’t believe in abstaining – but I haven’t ruled out a spoiled paper like the one below that I dropped into the ballot box in May 2015, unable in any conscience to vote for any of the candidates offered to me.
The UK’s entire political establishment should be ashamed of itself. The biggest decision the UK has made in perhaps its entire democratic history has been tarnished by two abominably dreadful campaigns, rendered into a coin-toss based on impossible guesswork and utter contempt for just about everyone on both sides.
The one upside is that it’s been educational. For all that a campaigner can try to put themselves in the shoes of an undecided voter, nothing compares to actually being one. If and when we get to a second indyref, I’ll have a far better idea than ever before of how you DON’T win people over to your side.
But that’s no help as far as Thursday goes. And right now, the idea of Donald Trump becoming President of the USA in a few months’ time and wiping the entire species off the face of the planet in a nuclear holocaust is starting to feel less like impending doom and more like mankind’s last hope of a saving grace.