Sunday 14 September 2014
What a deep sense of foreboding crept up on many of us last week as we contemplated the fearful spectacle of what was going on in Scotland, writes Booker.
Yet again, it brought to mind those most haunting lines in all 20th-century poetry: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”, when “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. At the very last minute, it seemed, we were waking up to the utter shambles that would be unleashed on us all if Scotland did, after all, choose to rip our two countries apart.
It had already been disconcerting enough as that superficial, bad-tempered campaign unfolded to see how the politicians, far from rising to the occasion, were sinking so dismally far below it. Not one seemed capable of facing up to the real implications of this splitting of our nation into two.
In all his bluster and bullying, Alex Salmond has simply not begun to take on board the reality of the position in which an independent Scotland would find itself. Just one instance of this has been his inability to recognise that, by throwing off the yoke of the hated English, Scotland would then have to go cap in hand to apply to subordinate itself again to that other government in Brussels – a condition of which, as a new applicant state, would be its need to sign up to the euro.
Even if Salmond wanted to hold on to the pound, the Governor of the Bank of England has made clear that the new Scottish central bank would have to hold reserves that could be equivalent to all of Scotland’s £100 billion annual GDP. In purely practical terms, in fact, to unravel all the institutional ties that bind our two countries together, such as the BBC or the Royal Mail, would be far more complicated than anyone has yet begun to realise.
Last week an expert on treaty law told me how Scotland would have to renegotiate literally thousands of international agreements. These cover everything from membership of the UN to the thicket of rules governing aviation, which – until Scotland had negotiated a new deal – would prohibit any aircraft from leaving or entering Scottish airspace. Where would Mr Salmond find the thousands of civil servants to carry all this out in just 18 months, let alone the staff for the embassies he would need to open in 192 countries around the world?
What is abundantly clear is that Mr Salmond and his excitable followers are living in a bubble of fantasy that scarcely touches practical reality at any point, for which the perfect metaphor is his belief that Scotland could remain rich for ever on that cupboard full of North Sea oil – only to find that, when the cupboard is open, nothing is left.
But this dream, that with one mighty bound Scotland can be free, is only the latest example of what has become one of the most prominent features of politics in our time: the extent to which politicians can get carried away by fantasies that seem to promise some glorious future, only to find that, once they have taken the great gamble, reality comes crashing in on them, in the shape of everything their blinkered make-believe had overlooked.
We saw it in the EU’s launch of the euro. We saw it in Messrs Bush and Blair’s belief that, by toppling Saddam Hussein, Iraq could move into a happy, democratic future. We are seeing it in the crisis created with Russia by the EU’s vainglorious urge to suck Ukraine into its own empire. We see it in all the disastrous consequences of that collective make-believe over man-made global warming.
Other examples large and small have shaped the politics of our time more than those of any other age in history. At least in this childish dream of Scottish independence there are signs that reality may at last be beginning to break in on the make-believe, before it is too late. But if this week’s vote goes the wrong way, the resulting shambles for both the Scots and the rest of us will be far greater than anyone has yet begun to imagine. Then God help us all.
Saturday 13 September 2014
It has European commissioner for employment. László Andor telling us to “stop moaning about immigration”. He accepts that there are “problems” for countries such as Britain in dealing with a “large, sudden influx of people from other EU countries”, but he urges the British government to invest in new infrastructure rather than looking to tighten immigration controls.
Britain, he says, is happy to exploit the economic benefits of free movement of people within the EU, but it is failing to provide sufficient infrastructure to house them. “The answer to these problems”, he says, “is to invest in new facilities, housing and services, not to turn away people that are working hard and more than paying their share into the UK’s budget”.
Clearly, Andor is not aiming to score any popularity points, and nor does he seem to take into account the effect of increased population on the quality of life. This is an issue that the bean counters do not factor into their calculations, but generally low population density is regarded as a plus factor and higher densities – past a certain level – reduce quality.
Furthermore, Mr Andor does not seem to have worked out precisely how much cash would be required to meet the infrastructure investment he has in mind. We are not, therefore, able to calculate the overall cost-benefit of taking in a “large, sudden influx of people from other EU countries”.
An additional issue in this context is that Andor is suggesting that UK public spending priorities should be determined by EU-mandated “freedom of movement” provisions, rather than those dictated by the electorate of the UK.
Mr Andor’s intervention, therefore, is not going to improve sentiment on EU immigration. In the Commission’s opinion, we must not only accept unregulated, unplanned and unpredictable migration levels, we must also divert public spending to cope with the influx, regardless of our own priorities.
Tactful, this really isn’t, and neither is it realistic. No government can realistically be expected to budget for expenditure which, by definition, is unplanned and unpredictable.
The Commission has a problem here, because immigration is creating intolerable stresses within the UK. The “freedom of movement” policy has the potential to break the grip of the EU in the UK, and the commissioners seem to be completely unaware of how dangerous it is becoming to their own construct – otherwise Mr Andor would not be making such unguarded comments.
What, of course, is going to happen is that the government will ignore the likes of Mr Andor, which means that immigration is going to continue imposing stresses on the existing infrastructure. And with that come political stresses, to which Mr Andor seems to be adding.
Nevertheless, in those stresses may lie the longer term answer if, progressively they make the UK a less attractive place for EU immigrants. If that happens, a balancing dynamic takes effect and immigration reduces automatically. Not only will the UK ignore Mr Andor, therefore, it should do so – at least long enough for us to manage an orderly exit from the EU.
And therein lies the ultimate relief – leaving the EU. The only debate should be over how exactly we manage the process.