Sunday Herald. August 31, 2014.
Until last week, there was a very good chance you had never heard of Douglas Carswell, the man chosen by voters in Clacton as the Tory to convey their views to Westminster. This is less because he's a retiring sort than because busy folk retire, at speed, when he gives them the benefit of what he calls thinking.
Carswell is – or was, until last Thursday morning – a certain kind of Conservative. He's a fan of the unnervingly inept Russian-American cod-philosophical novelist Ayn Rand. There's nothing about the European Union he likes. He does like to doubt that humankind has anything to do with climate change. He is also wildly popular with Spectator readers. The full card, in short.
As a politician, Carswell doesn't matter much. In some parts of these islands you can wonder why things grew so dull in Clacton that he wound up with a 12,000-plus majority, but such is democracy, Essex-style. Until last week, his colourful career was going nowhere. So Carswell joined Ukip, announced he was resigning his seat, said rude things about David Cameron, and tried to catch a political wave.
Why, pragmatically, not? Nigel Farage, the caudillo of suburban English outrage, reckons that Thanet South might be just the seat from which he can fight them – you name them, he'll repel them – on the beaches. Boris Johnson, still collecting a salary as Mayor of London, has nominated Uxbridge and South Ruislip as his favourite Tory rotten borough. Better for Carswell to be a Ukip coup, surely, than to fade away, dismissed as yet another bonkers back-bencher?
It's not quite so simple. Carswell and Johnson are not yet in the mainstream of Conservative opinion in England, but they feel their hour approaching. In the party the Clacton chap has just quit, you no longer get far, or anywhere, by seeming soft on the EU, immigrants, the welfare state, or any whisper of resistance against austerity. Farage, his Cheshire cat impersonation more obvious by the day, awaits his moment.
The deep fractures within Cameron's party are obvious now. In Scotland, the implicit contract offered by Better Together and its “best of both worlds” emollience comes apart at the sticky seams. Vote No for a Westminster hostage to Ukip? Vote No for BoJo as your prime minister next time around?
Labour's appeal to solidarity in these circumstances is puerile. We have a single Tory MP and a statistically marginal Ukip vote. In Clacton, Carswell has his legions of voters ready to make a gift of the town to Farage. The polls say close to half of the punters in England sailed to starboard long ago, to the Conservatives or to Ukip. When I vote Yes it will not be to leave anyone. It will be in recognition of the fact – fine, democratic, none of my business – that the majority in England left me long ago.
So the question becomes simple: Better Together with what and whom, exactly? The evidently popular pitch of Carswell and Farage? A Tory Party keen to strip me of my European citizenship? A Labour Party with its very own benefits cap and an immigration policy to suit any Ukip-inclined voter? Things have gone beyond the old games of right and so-called left. The divergence is real and profound.
I could write the “Ah, but” messages now. “The myth of progressive Scotland”; “The pretence of social democracy”; “The barely-marginal polling differences”: heard them, seen them, read them. They overlook the actual facts of how Scotland chooses to vote. When last I heard, those were the only tests to matter. The dismissals also overlook the important message of Carswell, Farage and their piece of puppet theatre.
If Scotland votes No on September 18 it will not have the slightest effect on what is happening within right-wing England, whether in the country or in Westminster. The No vote will be welcomed and the voters thereafter ignored while the plot to take the UK out of the EU continues. If Scotland votes No, Labour will meanwhile vent a huge sigh of relief and go back to pretending that Ed Miliband is a prime minister in waiting.
Better Together with what? Better to resume Scotland's usual role as a region dutifully making up the numbers? Patently, that arrangement has some appeal for those whose careers depend on it. Perhaps, for you hear it often enough, Scotland's poor odds in the Westminster game could be depicted as just another little wrinkle in the rules. You win some, you lose some, and you end up with another Tory-led coalition. This is, remarkably, what “better” means in some versions of a democratic choice.
The argument misses the point: why would you bother? Given the choice between a bad draw and a good draw, how would you play your cards? Carswell, the thinker of right-wing thoughts, is reported to be popular in Clacton. My response is simple enough: left him be popular with his intellectual bucket and spade. Let the nice folk of Essex acclaim him. But if there's a means by which I can keep his kind away from me and mine, I'll take it.
There are more useful ways to approach the issue. Last week, for one celebrated example, the Unionist campaign produced a TV film for the benefit of Scottish viewers. Specifically, the “target audience” comprised women. Many others exposed to the thing have made their comments. For reasons political, biological and born of daily experience, most were more eloquent than I can manage.
Still, once my astonishment subsided, I thought, “This is really, truly, how you regard 52% of the people you want to convince?” The precis remains straightforward. To the women of Scotland, the risible little movie said: “You're too thick to understand politics, so don't bother. Just vote No”. So the question returns: better together with the people who thought that piece of careless, arrogant work would do, that it would work?
After 307 years of political, social and economic Union, the broadcast would count as a nadir. After that grand span of time it's still only a matter of feeding pabulum to the carefully-rehearsed proles while telling them not to worry their silly heads about “him on the telly”? If you can't afford pabulum, said the film, give your family our patented cereal instead. And be content.
Why has this referendum arisen? Why – as an audience member wanted to know during the last Salmond-Darling debate – don't we know we're better together? If the Union was the great, historic success claimed by its proponents, there wouldn't be a bunch of Scots staging a democratic insurgency. If the United Kingdom is the triumph claimed by Cameron while he serenaded the CBI last week, there would be no argument.
Assimilation failed. We did not go quietly. We failed to disappear. Carswell and Farage, Johnson and Cameron and Miliband look, sound and act like voices from another place and time. Nothing they advocate has won the consent of people here. But should we vote No in September, they take charge again. Business, as they regard it, as usual.
You might call that the wrong result. I would also call it bizarre.