As the £27 million Olympic extravaganza unfolded before his eyes, with Sir Chris Hoy parading the Union flag aloft, with the spotlight and loud applause falling on Team GB as they entered the arena, did Alex Salmond experience a cold dread creep up his spine? That’s how he should have felt according to the Better Together No campaign. It is convinced the Olympic opening ceremony sealed the fate of independence.
Douglas Alexander MP, Labour shadow foreign secretary, took the bronze medal for hyperbole: “Friday’s ceremony did something completely different – by attempting to capture and define the essence of Britishness it reminded millions of us what we so cherish . . . a modern Britishness that is confident, generous, warm, inclusive and funny.”
The No side tweeters joined in. With only 140 characters to work with, they can be forgiven for being more prosaic. “Right, well, that’s the campaign to save the Union sorted. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that Britain?” wrote one. “After last night and the genuine pride people felt across the UK, why would you want to throw it all away with independence?” was another assertion.
Let me rain on the No campaign’s Olympic parade. During the Olympic circus, we can suspend our anxieties and realities for its duration as we get caught up in its drama, but when the last athlete has breasted the tape, and the magic fades and then dies, the more pertinent issue of the bread – redundancies, jobs, wages, public services, education – stares us in the face. Sentimental twaddle of the kind we have had from Alexander will be worthless. People in Scotland will have to weigh up the issues inherent in the debate between independence and staying part of the Union with England. What matters in the Scottish-English relationship is whether we up here believe, on a cool analysis of the economic facts, it is worth remaining the junior partner in the UK Union.
What is it Alexander would have us “cherish” as part of the “modern Britishness” offered by continuing in the Union? People in parts of Glasgow with a life expectancy lower than some third world countries? As for the Twitter question “who wouldn’t want to be part” of this Britain, I for one want shot of it, and I have sound reason – the economic realities, and their social consequences, about which Alexander and his ilk seem either to be ignorant of, or willfully blind to.
The UK is skint. It has an apparent national debt of over £1 trillion, heading for £1.4tn. Its real debt, however, is £4tn when you take into account the money owed on PFI, and the cost of public service pension provision. It borrows some £126 billion a year, the difference between what it earns and what it spends. It is in a double-dip recession. It put itself so deep in hock to the City slickers, while allowing its industrial base to shrink so low, that it cannot export itself out of recession, even when the pound has been devalued by 30 per cent. . .
In England, the NHS we saw in the Olympic theatre last Friday is being quietly privatised. Public and private sector workers are enduring frozen wages. A bankrupt UK cannot afford a proper army; its proud Royal Navy is the laughing stock of its rivals who look forward with mirth to the day the aircraft carriers come into service without aircraft. The cuts experienced in the public services so far are small compared with what is to come – 90 per cent of the cuts will hit after 2014 (conveniently after the referendum). We have a prime minister who has just told us that austerity, a word meaning high unemployment and grim falling living standards, will last at least to 2020, and he is an optimist.
The poverty which engulfs many people, is appalling. The Trussel Trust runs a UK network of free food banks for those who otherwise would starve. There are now more than 200 of these in the UK, ten of them in Scotland. The trust fed 129,000 people last year. A BBC online report on April 28 quotes Captain Stephen Turner of the Hawick Salvation Army saying he was particularly concerned by the number of pensioners coming to them for help. Hannah Lambie- Mumford of Sheffield University, who has examined the food bank development, records stories about the “humiliation” felt by those going to them, having somehow to beg for charity. Broke, starving, humiliated families, is this the modern Britishness that Alexander wishes us to cherish?
England is now a past imperial power on the way down. It is in the G20 relegation zone, with a government that is clueless on how to reverse the decline, because there is no way it can be reversed. This UK of which we are a part can do nothing to save Scotland from the misery of austerity which its imbalanced economy, and its massive debt, make inevitable. The five million Scots cannot save the 52 million in the south from that downward spiral. We can, however, save ourselves.