The amazing time travelling Alex Salmond.
Show Hide image

A shameless, self-interested plea to Scottish voters

Don't let go of the balloon.

Ian McEwan's 1997 novel Enduring Love begins with a hot air balloon that gets out of control. Half a dozen people cling on to its ropes, hoping to use their combined weight to drag it back to the ground; but gradually, it begins to lift and one by one, each fearing the danger of hanging on too long, they let go. The last to do so falls a very long way.

I've not really expressed any opinion on the Scottish independence vote before now. I'm entirely English; most of my time in Scotland has been spent in Edinburgh in August, making me the very worst kind of Englishman; and, more to the point, nobody cares what I think. The whole thing feels like it's nothing to do with me.

But recently I've realised two things. One is that most English people were acting like it wasn't anything to do with them either, treating the referendum as simply a quarrel in a far-away country.

This is silly: it is, after all, our country that could conceivably get dismembered. More than that, though, it's insulting. By declining to offer a UK-wide broadcast of the first debate between Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond, ITV managed to imply that the whole affair was nothing more than a matter of local politics. (In 2012, ITV1 did manage to broadcast the London mayoral debate, albeit only on its HD channel.) If I lived in Scotland, I suspect this would have pushed me to jump ship and take my chances with Salmond all by itself.

The other thing I've realised is that, actually, I do care what happens on 18 September. I care very much. I desperately want Scotland to vote no, not because of any misty-eyed attachment to nation or flag, but because of real, boring, practical reasons. The independence lot are letting go of the balloon.

There's an argument I keep hearing from Yessers, that's become ever louder the longer the campaign has gone on: vote yes, and never have a Tory government again. Vote yes and be free of those bastards. Even if the idea that an independent Scotland would never again elect a right-wing government looks ever so slightly delusional, I can sort of see how it might be seductive to those of a certain viewpoint. 

And yet, from a purely selfish point of view, it pisses me right off. It feels – this may be irrational of me, but it's the right word nonetheless – like a betrayal. 

Because there are those – there are many – in the rest of the UK who are not nuts about the modern Conservative party either. I like the NHS, and the BBC, and the welfare state, and not picking fights with our closest trading partners just to prove how hard we are. I'd like to keep those things. And until the Conservative party recovers from the psychotic episode it’s been going through for most of the last 30 years, I don't think I can trust it to protect them.

Scottish independence would make Tory majorities in the rest of the UK a damn sight more likely. It would gut the Labour party, and take out a big source of its talent over the last few decades. It’d deprive us of a helpful reminder that there are alternatives to the lingering post-Thatcher consensus, and they can work even within the UK. It’d move the whole centre of gravity of British politics three notches further to the right.

I'm sure it'll be lovely in the socialist paradise north of the border (actually I'm not, I think it'll be a disaster, but that's a whole different thing). Those of us still down here, though, will get totally and utterly screwed.

I'm aware that this must sound massively selfish – it is utterly selfish. But so, frankly, is the Scottish left's plan to cut and run, and to hell with the neighbours. So, with apologies for all the other shitty things the English have done down the years, just this once I reckon I'm on safe ground.

Here, then, is my shamelessly self-interested plea to Scotland: don't do it. Vote no. With you here, it's easier to win the argument for social democratic policies. With you here, it's easier to persuade Westminster that not all financial or political power can or should reside in London. Stick around, and we'll work out how to push more power out of the capital – not just to Edinburgh, but to Cardiff and Manchester and Birmingham and Leeds. Please, don't go.

Because, we are stronger together than we are apart. And every time someone lets go of the balloon things get a little bit worse for those of us who are still hanging on.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Getty
Show Hide image

Northern Ireland's election: Will Arlene Foster pay the price for a domestic scandal?

The wind is in Sinn Féin's sails. But both parties have to work together after the poll. 

Will voters use the forthcoming elections to the Northern Ireland assembly to punish ministerial incompetence?

After all, these elections are all about the Democratic Unionists’ Arlene Foster and her disastrous mishandling of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, the energy subsidy she previously introduced as enterprise minister without putting cost controls in place, thus racking-up a £500m liability for the Northern Ireland Executive.

Her refusal to stand aside as First Minister and allow an independent investigation triggered a sequence of events that collapsed the power-sharing executive that runs Northern Ireland, necessitating this poll.

The electorate offers its verdict on Thursday.

So far, there has been a predictable rhythm to the campaign. Cautious and insular, the parties have all been here before and know how to harvest their vote. Elections in Northern Ireland are effectively a race to see who can shore up their core the most, (made harder by the overall reduction in seats from 108 to 90 across 18 multi-member constituencies).

Foster knows she is fighting for her political life. Her woeful handling of the RHI scandal, exposed her severe limitations as a politician. Brittle and stubborn, she further damaged her reputation at the DUP’s manifesto launch by refusing to take any questions from journalists on the basis she had "man flu".

Her pitch was a sectarian "Project Fear" warning that Sinn Fein might overtake the DUP as the largest party and push for an early referendum on Irish unity. Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams joked after the launch on Twitter: "Just for the record, I didn't give Arlene the flu." 

Foster’s campaign might be ugly, but in Northern Ireland’s hyper-tribal polity, it could prove effective. If the DUP suffers a reversal, however, her colleagues may yet think twice about re-nominating her for First Minister/deputy First Minister.

Meanwhile, as Sinn Féin’s new "leader in the North" Michelle O’Neill finds herself in exactly the same situation as Foster was 12 months ago at the last assembly elections - taking over from a male predecessor who had been a mainstay of the political process for years.

O’Neill is so far proving formidable. She benefits from the fact the wind is blowing in Sinn Féin’s sails. After all, the reasons for this election - the DUP’s incompetence - will play well among republicans and nationalists. 

Sinn Féin’s pitch is therefore about ensuring "equality, respect and integrity", with O’Neill claiming this is "the most important election since the Good Friday Agreement". The Shinners are pushing for the strongest possible mandate in what O’Neill describes as the "short, sharp negotiation" that will take place after the elections. She says she doesn’t want a new agreement, "just the implementation of previous ones".

In terms of the other parties, Mike Nesbitt, a former television journalist turned leader of the Ulster Unionists, deserves credit for trying to appeal beyond the tribe. He has offered his second preference vote to the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party. Tactically, he has to try something to dislodge the UUP from the political sediment.

Both the UUP and SDLP are essentially fighting for relevance in these elections. They constantly claim the electorate has had enough of the SF-DUP duopoly and wants change, it’s just that the voters never vote for it. 

Following Thursday’s results comes the hard bargaining, if the parties are to get power-sharing up and running again and avoid a period of direct rule from the Northern Ireland Office. Both Foster and O’Neill need to be seen to strike a hard bargain. Foster will be desperate to claim she is still in control of events. O’Neill, the newcomer, will want to show she is no pushover.

If she is smart, Foster will  push for an early restoration of the executive and try to put this mess behind her. If, on the other hand, there is a lengthy delay, the election could become a running sore. After all, as the DUP may yet have to be reminded, power-sharing lies at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.