Visiting Greece on holiday, a few things of relevance to the Scotttish independence referendum came to mind. One was the catastrophic outcome of a currency union outwith a political and fiscal union. Another has been the way in which a very diverse country sees itself facing its problems (including those of an austerity crisis far worse than that of the UK) by working together and using those qualities which its parts have in common, rather than those that differ. For example, Crete does not think of ceding from Greece, but sends aid to the destitute in Athens.
Scotland in fact has a number of similarities with Greece, not least to having provided one of the great historic empires with technical and administrative expertise: the Greeks were to some extent the Scots of the Ottoman Empire. The greatest manifestation of Greek influence in that Empire was in the Hellenic metropolis of Alexandria, which in turn provided one of the greatest poets in modern Greek literature: Constantinos Cavafy.
Cavafy produced some of the most sensuous gay poetry ever to be published, but his best known works in translation are Ithaca and Waiting for the Barbarians. It is the latter which is most instructive for the referendum.
The citizens in Cavafy’s poem are manipulated by their government by warnings of approaching barbarians, and the SNP hopes referendum voters will do as the Scottish Government tells them – i.e., vote Yes – if they think the alternative is worse.
The evidence of referendums in recent times is that the only way in which a Yes campaign can secure support for change is when they can convince voters that their proposition is the only defence against outside forces which would destroy their way of life.
So the SNP is trying to put the rest of the UK, and especially the Tories, in role of the barbarians.
First, they are set up as alien: indeed, Alex Salmond said as much when he declared that Scotland’s choice to elect a UKIP MEP can only have come about because the (UK’s) BBC put Nigel Farage on the television too much.
Likewise, the UK parliament – which of course includes MPs and parties overwhelmingly supported in Scotland – is portrayed by the SNP and Yes as a rapacious “thieving” “Westmonster” which has “squandered Scotland’s wealth.”
Online and in the Scottish press , we have been told that continuing in the UK will lead to Scotland’s isolation from the EU, more risk of Islamist terrorism, abolition of the Barnett Formula, diminution or destruction of Holyrood’s powers, dismemberment of the Scottish NHS, Scotland forgotten for decades, and even nuclear oblivion.
No doubt at the Yes Scotland rallies they tell each other that a No vote will make the Clyde run blood red and that Fife will be visited by a plague of frogs.
This hysteria can be expected to increase, as the Yes campaign has no more positive cards to play. The expensive taxpayer-funded folly that was the White Paper has now been thoroughly discredited by revelations of the lack of substance to its proposals, as exemplified by the childcare fiasco. Plans for a currency union with the rUK are a non-starter, as no party is going to enter the 2015 General Election with a vote-losing pledge to enter it. The Yes campaign has shot its best bolts – and missed, and all that is left is to try to scare the Scottish voters still more.
As the most current opinion polls appear to show, the Scots are not falling for it: the majority know that, like in Cavafy’s poem, the Barbarians are not real: they are an invented problem which the rulers use to justify their actions as “some kind of solution”.
Instead, the rest of the UK is very much like Scotland. We share this country with our fellow citizens, with whom we have built a society which is the envy of many others around the world. It is secure and comfortable for most, and offers a reasonable level of support to those who are less fortunate, while being broadly acceptable to taxpayers.
At the same time, no-one denies that there is much to be done to battle against inequalities in economic prosperity and prospects, and class disadvantage. However, these are issues of wider social and economic justice that affect the whole UK – and which can and should be addressed by whole UK policies.
There is nothing wrong that cannot be fixed within the current constitutional settlement, part of which is Scotland’s enhanced position of devolved self-government by Holyrood.
And, no matter what the Yes Campaign will say between now and 18th September, there is no threat to Scotland by English barbarians. Any fear that is generated by the Yes campaign is their invention, as they try desperately to turn the ebbing tide of opinion in their direction.