“A crisis lets us see into the nature of things,” wrote Bernard Levins. That’s true and the panic in the London establishment over the Scottish vote has given us a real insight.
Politicians help to create popular attitudes and then pander to them but they can’t depend on people thinking as they’re expected to. Things have a nasty habit of spinning out of control.
David Cameron approved the Scottish referendum and its wording was drafted at his behest. Cameron’s approach reflected the psychology of the English.
First, we need to understand how English people think. The word ‘xenophobic,’ meaning a dislike of foreigners, is too strong but there is an unthinking and widespread assumption of superiority.
Two little expressions are revealing. When English people refer to places outside England they often say, ‘out there’ or ‘over there’ and when they’re ‘there’ they say ‘out here’ or ‘over here’. It’s always to point out some alleged deficiency. ‘There’ is never as good as England.
Likewise, whether realistic or not there’s always an expectation of success in sport. There’s also that popular desire to police the rest of the world.
There’s almost pity for people in ‘Euroland’. Last week when the shock came that the Scots might actually vote for independence, commentators spoke of ‘Britain’s place in the world’ being at risk.
Up until last week the Westminster establishment had complacently assumed that only a tiny minority would vote ‘Yes’. The UK was considered too wonderful for anything else.
That’s why David Cameron vetoed any possibility of a third choice on the ballot paper; the option of giving Edinburgh more power. It had to be all or nothing. When faced with a stark choice, he assumed the Scots would back down on independence.
Well, that idea has backfired spectacularly. With opinion polls showing it’s too close to call it was time for some desperate carrot dangling. The stick of threatening currency turmoil had failed so now it was, suddenly, all talk of greater powers in return for a ‘No’ vote. Talk about crisis management!
The Westminster establishment has so much to lose. The Labour Party would find it virtually impossible to get elected in London without Scottish Labour MPs. So, you might think the Tories would be happy. Not so.
Even though their electoral chances would improve they have to think of Britain’s “place in the world”. They have to think of the effect on the armed forces. A Tory Prime Minister who presided over a sharp decline in Britain’s perceived status wouldn’t be lightly forgiven.
Their problem is that Westminster is so unpopular with the Scots that David Cameron and Ed Milliband have to be careful. If they’re too heavy the Scots are quite likely to do the opposite. Even Chancellor George Osborne who had been quick wave the stick, quickly dangled the carrot. Or to mix my metaphors, the unruly Scottish children are now being promised sweets if they’re good.
What a crisis! They couldn’t call Ghost Busters so they had to call Gordon Brown. Remember him? He’d gone missing after the last election.
Now it was time to re-invent him as a statesman to hold out the carrot of Westminster’s generosity.
Will the Scots respond better to the carrot than the stick? We’ll see.