by Kevin Meagher
If the Scottish referendum on independence is ‘lost’ in September it may be a tad late to reflect that apocalyptic warnings of Caledonia dystopia didn’t exactly help win the case.
Claims in February that Scotland wouldn’t be able to keep the pound – a “masterstroke” concocted by the three main Westminster parties’ frontbenches – were silly enough, leaving the electorate unmoved while playing into the SNP’s hands, showing-up the Westminster elite up as a cosy club.
Last week, however, the ‘hyper’ was well and truly put into ‘hyperbole’ when Ed Miliband floated the idea of border checkpoints if Scots opt for independence. The supplementary question are obvious enough.
Will these checkpoints come with watch towers and Alsatians? Will we see miles of unfurled razorwire stretched across the countryside, just like in The Great Escape?
Hell, why not just rebuild Hadrian’s Wall.
Why can’t we treat the Scots as rational adults?
“Sorry you’re thinking of going. We’ll miss you. There’s nothing at all wrong in embracing your nationhood, but there are a few serious practical downsides. We’ll respect your wishes, but, out of friendship, we want to discuss these and try to persuade you to stay.”
Surely that’s better than threatening them with Checkpoint Charlie?
Alas, too many Westminster politicians, schooled in that ghastly student union habit of painting debates into tiny corners in order to make broader points, think this is how you shape public opinion.
It works like this: First, take a remote, almost theoretical variable. Next, try and normalise it by introducing it into the centre of the discussion. Then, keep a straight face as you keep banging on about it, while refusing to engage with bigger, more important issues. Through the sheer force of ridiculousness and chutzpah, you might prevail.
It’s a tactic that is destroying political debate, leaving our politicians, shaped in the same dreary debating societies at Russell Group universities, sounding more and more like beleaguered supply teachers, resorting to shrill threats as they try to keep control of a gang of marauding 15 year-olds.
But it’s not just Scotland where verbal hysteria is the tactic of choice. It’s much worse when it comes to Europe.
David Cameron’s quixotic decision to talk down the candidacy of “arch federalist” Jean-Claude Juncker for the presidency of the EU Commission, (only for him to cruise to victory last week), leaves Britain looking bellicose and inept. In previous generations, Cameron would have been forced to resign for such egregious statecraft.
Why didn’t he play the ball instead of the man? Cameron should have set out a clear agenda for reform and challenged Juncker and any other likely candidate for the job to subscribe to it. It might just have positioned him as the guy making the running on EU reform and he could have even made himself look statesmanlike in the process.
Instead, he has spent the weekend barking at the moon, complaining that Juncker’s appointment was “a bad day for Europe”. That is, of course, moot; although it has been a dreadful week for David Cameron!
Meanwhile, his health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, yesterday scolded the “cowardice” of other EU leaders who were lukewarm about Juncker but didn’t actually oppose him. He claimed other countries “weren’t prepared to stand up in public and say the things they’d said in private”. As a result, they were going to have to work “a lot harder to persuade the British people that Europe can be trusted with a proper reform agenda.”
What next? Are we going have William Hague threatening to “pop a cap” in Juncker’s ass?
There is probably a mathematical ratio for the relationship between the highly-strung rhetoric our politicians are increasingly reaching for and the actual power they have in setting the agenda these days. The greater the hyperbole, the bigger the claim, the starker the warning, the less control they actually have.
But as we used to say at my inner-city comp when a fight was breaking out: If you can’t back it up, don’t talk it up.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut