Salmond and Farage: Ostriches against the world

I realised recently that Alex Salmond and Nigel Farage have a great deal in common.

They are both far better politicians than the current crop of ‘major’ party leaders. Though that’s hardly difficult. Ed Miliband has the charisma of a poorly-thought-out scarecrow. Nick Clegg is leader of the Liberal Democrats. And David Cameron, with his big Tory face and Bullingdon Club accent, is hardly well-placed to represent a comparatively impoverished and resentful electorate. Farage and Salmond, by forging political careers in ‘minor’ parties, have largely escaped the sanitising process that is advancement shaped by who you know and selection driven by the forces of (small ‘c’) conservatism that dominate their ‘major’ counterparts. They are interesting. They seem like normal people, even though both are career politicians and Farage is just as rich and well-connected as Cameron.

There is more to it than that, though. For both Salmond and Farage correctly identify irrational fears and prejudices that ‘major’ party leaders elect to ignore, and seek to heighten them. Farage gains more support for his anti-immigrant views the further he moves from centres of immigrant populations. Salmond’s anti-Tory message resonates in a part of the United Kingdom granted disproportionate power to keep the Tories out. Both agree that ‘their’ people are losing out, economically and politically, because of decisions made by ‘foreigners’ elsewhere. Both see the cause of all their nation’s problems in the failures of decision-makers overseas.

For Salmond, Scotland’s only problem is rule by an alien Westminster elite, dominated by ‘English’ people such as Alastair Darling and Gordon Brown. For Farage, Britain’s every ill can be attributed to Brussels-based ‘Eurocrats’; without nationality and without a human face. Both leaders represent a counsel of despair in the face of globalisation and its inevitable dislocations. Both propose an ostrich response. Stick your heads in the ground, they tell their voters. Pull back from international associations. Take care of yourselves. Then everything will be all right.

There are two big problems with this approach.

The first is that everything will not be alright. Scotland has a lot going for it as an independent country. But to succeed it will have first to endure the inevitable economic shock of breaking away from the UK. There will be job losses. There will be capital flight south of the border. There will be serious questions to answer about SNP spending plans since, without clarity over the status of an independent Scottish currency the country will not be able to borrow, and the SNP’s budget only pays for itself if North Sea oil is worth considerably more than it actually is.

In the long run, if Scotland can make itself more efficient (read: slash spending, cut wages and corporation taxes, and reduce public sector employment) it has good prospects. Once the initial shock subsides, the remaining oil will provide investment capital, and Scotland should still benefit from access to EU and (albeit on a more restricted basis than at present) to UK markets. It has considerable human capital and disproportionately strong universities (though again this could be under threat, since English students will presumably no longer be able to get UK student loans to cover tuition fees North of the border, nor will the top research institutions benefit from UK-wide funding opportunities). It will have much in common with Ireland, but the benefit of Irish hindsight to help it avoid Irish-style over-extension (something the movement of most Scottish banks to London will further assist).

Ireland, though, is worse off economically than Scotland currently is within the UK. And an independent Scotland would still be subject to the same international pressures driving many of its present concerns. It may not have to fight any more wars, but it will still face the threat of domestic jihadism. It may not be bound by ‘English’ capitalism, but it will find the international sort looks pretty much the same. It may no longer see North Sea oil revenues flowing South, but it will no longer benefit from the extra £1,400 of public sector spending per head it currently receives from the rest of the UK. For the first five years or so the two cancel each other out, assuming the SNP does not actually try to build up a Norwegian-style oil revenue fund. After that, Scotland will face the same questions over the affordability of universal welfare in the face of a progressively ageing population currently occupying not only the rest of the UK but the rest of the developed world. The same problems will still be there. There will be new ones as well.

Many similar points can be made about Farage’s plan to leave the EU. There is no conceivable scenario under which a British exit would leave the British people better off economically. It is possible that some UKIP donors will benefit, as will the cannier of Mr Farage’s fellow stockbrokers. Most of us will have to deal with the large-scale destruction of Britain’s export services, the influx of around one million Britons currently working elsewhere in the EU, and the perversity of still being bound by EU regulations having surrendered the right to influence their creation. States seeking to trade with the EU, as we presumably would do unless Mr Farage proposes a return to subsistence farming for the majority, have to follow most of the same rules EU members do. Again, pulling out would leave Britain exposed to the international forces Mr Farage does not like, such as the global movement of people, without the cushioning umbrella of a larger, more powerful association to ease the blows. Mr Farage’s best hope is that the damage done by leaving the EU is so great that immigration declines simply because no-one wants to come here any more.

The second problem is that both Salmond and Farage underplay the power their respective target audiences have to influence the decision-making processes they claim are made by a foreign elite. Scotland is a significant player in the United Kingdom. It has disproportionate influence over the composition of the parliament at Westminster – 9% of the MPs to represent 8.3% of the population. London, by comparison, has 11.2% of MPs and 13.1% of the population. It has considerable devolved powers dealing with education, health and social care, sport, housing, law and order, and tourism – with more promised in the event of a ‘no’ vote. The London Assembly is far less powerful. Scotland’s strong sense of national identity gives it a prominent and distinct voice – no-one seriously believes that this identity is under threat from association with the rest of the UK. And the contrast Mr Salmond proposes, between the Scottish and the ‘English’ makes little sense. For one thing, the 2011 census showed just 80% of the population of England and Wales identified as ‘White British’, including people who saw themselves as English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish. Only around 60% saw themselves as primarily English. While the English are the largest single group in the UK, they are far from hegemonic, and they have far less collective power than the Scottish by virtue of their wider distribution and the absence of either an English parliament or a series of comparable regional assemblies.

Britain’s position in the EU is similarly stronger than Mr Farage admits. Lord Hill’s appointment as Financial Services commissioner reflects this. Even Jean-Claude Juncker, a European Commission insider dedicated the European federal project and dismissive of British Euro-scepticism, is willing to offer a substantial olive branch to David Cameron to reflect the fact that, with Germany and France, Britain is one of Europe’s three great powers. That is even after Cameron tried clumsily to block his selection, and then took the insulting step of nominating a commissioner nobody had heard of (most EU states send serving or former senior ministers, even prime ministers. By contrast, seriously, who actually is Lord Hill?).

If Britain took the EU more seriously it would have substantial influence. It would be better placed to shape it along its own preferred, less-integrated lines. Tony Blair realised this, but understood less about the practicalities and was undone by Gordon Brown and hostility over Iraq. Both Scotland in Britain and Britain in the EU enjoy considerable benefits from being part of a bigger ‘club’. In the face of globalisation, economic and political uncertainty, and the rise of new security threats, it makes sense for states to band together with like-minded others. All the trends in recent years have headed that way; witness the expansion of the EU into Eastern Europe that Farage so disparages. The benefits of scale should not be surrendered lightly. Nor should the opportunities for influence that the Scots enjoy in Westminster and the Brits enjoy in Brussels.

Both the SNP and UKIP promise to protect ‘their’ people by hiding them away from the evils of the world. They cannot possibly deliver; the world does not work like that. All they are left with, then, is an offer of diminished influence. For Scotland to lose its say in the governance of the UK. For Britain to surrender, for the first time, its right to influence in Europe.

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