Tuesday 25 February 2014

Does the UK government want Scots to vote yes?

It really is rather peculiar.  So peculiar that historians may comment on it in years to come if the vote is unexpected, but the campaign by the UK government to keep Scotland in the union is really so badly judged, so unimaginative and ill-considered, that I begin to suspect some kind of conspiracy.

I don't really.  I don't believe in conspiracies.  Regular readers of this blog (if there are any) will also know that I am not as determinedly against Scottish independence as I should be.

I believe nations should be smaller, and that we would all be better and more peacefully governed if they were.  Despite the fear of the electoral consequences, and despite the horror of nationalism - even Scottish nationalism - I believe smaller nations is a Liberal idea, and one that would have been recognised by William Ewart Gladstone himself.

But I understand the case against independence too.  What I don't understand is why is it being put across is such a bizarrely corrosive way.

Exhibit #1.  The UK government spokespeople have been using their habitual tone of voice for squelching regional aspirations and plans - you know the kind of thing; patronising, negative, superior and miserably depressing about everything.  Sorry, your dreams are just uneconomic - that's all there is to it.  Go off and bother some other government department.  It might have been calculated to encourage the case for independence.

Exhibit #2.  They put up George Osborne, of all people, to explain to the Scots that they will not be allowed to share the pound if they vote 'incorrectly'.  Of all the people designed to cause irritation north of the border, could they possibly have found anybody better?

Exhibit #3.  This is the topical one.  Of all the issues to fight on, the management of Britain's North Sea Oil seems the least likely to imply a persuasive case for union.

The very fact that David Cameron has decided to raise this issue at all is some measure of the denial in the UK establishment about how badly North Sea Oil has been handled over the past generation.

While Norway saved the profits from the oil windfall, for investment in their own people, successive UK governments organised things with their usual dull short-termism, just adding the revenues to the bottom line until it was all used up.  Consequently we never used the proceeds to re-equip UK manufacturing.  We never used the proceeds to provide us with modern, renewable energy.

North Sea Oil pushed up the value of the pound, throttling what remained of the old UK manufacturing base - and we never used the proceeds to invest for the future.  It allowed us to cling too long to fossil fuels - and we never used the proceeds to gear up for the future.

When I tried to come up with a list of the ten most disastrous political decisions since 1945, for some reason which I can't now remember, I put the failure to invest the proceeds of North Sea Oil at the top of the list.

Fortune magazine wrote about the Norwegian oil fund - now the biggest sovereign wealth fund in the world - a few weeks back and revealed political divisions about exactly how it should be used.  But let's face it, that would be a good problem to have.

Thanks to the miserable short-term thinking of our governments, we will not be agonising about how to spend the equivalent of Norway's $830 billion.

So ask yourself: why does David Cameron bring it up?  Is it because he doesn't know any better?

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