Real referendum battle for centre ground, academic insists

Scots do not believe the wilder claims of either side, says Michael Keating

Michael Keating sat in a hall in Stirlingshire, along with other academics, before over 100 people hungry for facts, not propaganda, about Scotland's independence referendum.

Later, and in the days afterwards, people approached them to say thanks “saying that it was great to get honest answers, not to hear things from politicians”. “They are not getting accurate information from either side; the two sides are just going ding-dong,” says the University of Aberdeen academic.

Dismissing the Yes side’s claims that Scots would be £1,000 better-off, or No’s warnings that they would be £1,400 poorer, he declares: “People know that that is nonsense.”

Keating has spent his working life studying, and writing about nationalism: “I have been arguing for 20 years that the notion of independence is an illusion in the modern world.


Sovereignty evaporating

“Sovereignty is disappearing. The State can no longer deliver what it used to; that is why we have the

European Union

; or other international organisations. Politicians have got to get up now and realise that.”

The public is ahead of the political class, he believes, with Scottish voters focusing on issues – welfare, the economy, Trident, inequality – rather than the broad brush strokes of nationalism.

"That is why Scotland is relatively comfortable about the European Union; it doesn't have hang-ups about Europe: not because they like Europe particularly. But they realise that that is the way that the world is, that we have to do some things at different levels," says Keating, sitting in an Edinburgh office housing academics studying the campaign.

“The public are much more mature than politicians, but politicians want to put everything back into these old boxes. They rehearse them in a way that is becoming increasingly meaningless,” he goes on.

Illustrating this, he argues, campaigners on both sides have moved towards the centre ground over the last two years “because they know that is where people are”.

On the economy, however, Keating believes both sides have failed to put forward convincing cases: “The nationalists’ sums don’t add up and the unionists say after a No vote you can’t afford your pensions.”

Strikingly, the No side’s arguments about Scotland’s right to use sterling have not struck home: “They are not worried about that; too complicated. Currency is for wonks.”

The Yes side has promised a fairer, more equal Scotland, though without mention of the higher taxes that will be needed to bring it about: "Do people believe in the great new dawn? I don't think many do, bar a few of the militant nationalists. But a lot of people have been dragged into the Yes camp not because they are nationalists, but because they they are social democrats."

On September 18th, Scots will vote Yes, or No, but hard choices — ones that have been avoided, or postponed for 15 years — will exist the morning after.

Some of the questions — about health spending, welfare, etc — should have been tackled

In the 1990s “there was so much money sloshing about that nobody had to face up to problems”. However, chickens are coming home to roost. The Scottish nationalists have made great play of their claims that the National Health Service can only be safeguarded by a Yes vote.

“However, demand is going up, resources are flat-lining, and that means that we are going to have to grow up politically. The next challenge will not be independence, but the budget,” he argues.

If Scotland stays in the union, he says, devolution of significant new powers will follow – particularly if it is a Conservative government because it makes more sense to do so.

Labour in denial

“The point is they will give tax-raising powers to Scotland, saying “You sort it out, if you want to have free education, then you will pay for it’,“Keating says. Labour, on the other hand, has failed to come to grips with the consequences of devolution and the Scottish parliament that it brought back into life in 1999.

“They are just in denial about the possibility of a Yes vote, but they should own devolution. They brought it about, but they have never seen it as their creation.”

During the campaign, Labour has been racked by division: "Jim Murphy is going one way, Gordon Brown is going the other, barely talking to Alistair Darling. "It isn't about ideology, it is about personality and deep personal hatreds. You saw the back-stabbing against Douglas Alexander (about a much-questioned TV ad). His enemies went for him."

“They are running around like headless chickens, they don’t even know what they will do if it is a No vote,” says Keating, who is amused by Murphy’s claims of intimidation on the campaign trail.

“I was in meetings in the 1970s in Glasgow that were rough stuff, where you were worried about walking home. And that was even without the sectarian stuff,” he says, with a smile.