I must say at the outset that I support Scottish independence. I will continue to campaign for it. However, as the indyref2 campaign continues its ‘phoney war’ phase, I would like to indulge myself with a little overthinking.
Here I take my inspiration from something that Margo MacDonald said: ‘I’m no so much ‘Aye’, more ‘Aye, but…’ ‘No matter how certain we think we are of our opinions, I feel it’s never harmful to engage in a little constructive self-criticism, to look at arguments from all sides, to be intellectually rigorous. If, at the end of the day we reach the same conclusion – Independence – then good. If our case is good we will only have strengthened it. But it’s always useful to ask awkward questions.
So what do we mean by independence? Do we all mean the same thing? Are there options for Scotland’s relationship with the United Kingdom? Might the majority of Scots be satisfied by some arrangement in which Scotland retains some sort of relationship with the other British nations? (I am studiously avoiding the term ‘United Kingdom’ for this entity. It’s a minefield. Will Scotland be a Kingdom? Can we even talk about that?).
I am no great fan of unanimity. I see merits in the various arguments for independence – but some more than others. But I reserve the right not to see eye to eye with all independence supporters. But clearly we’re all more-or-less on the same side, so let’s start on common ground.
It seems sensible to me that a nation with its own traditions, culture and history should have a politics to match. Self-governance sits naturally on the Scottish nation. This is, essentially, the small-n civic nationalist case.
Aye, but. The same can be said about anywhere. There similar cases for an independent (or devolved) England (and Wales and a united Ireland). Is there perhaps a danger of a ‘Wha’s like us’ form of nationalism in which is assumed that Scotland will succeed simply because it is governed by Scots. Is England currently making a success of being governed by the English? My own support for government of Scotland by Scots remains contingent on its being the kind of equitable, open and inviting nation I would like to see – and which in some measure we already hold ourselves to.
But self-governance is important nonetheless. It allows us to shape our politics in the direction we desire. Clear differences have emerged between the political will in Scotland and in England.
Yet It’s undeniable that Scotland also shares much in common with England. I am a Scot of English upbringing myself with no great attachment to the country of my birth – and certainly not to manufactured notions of Englishness/Britishness. My native Liverpool is often compared to my adopted Glasgow. And I won’t have to tell you that we have much in common with friends and relatives down south.
However, Scotland is also different from the lower part of the United Kingdom in other ways. Its character is shaped by its geography, its history, its institutions and its economic fortunes. Its problems are distinctly Scottish. Those best placed to understand them are Scots. Indeed, the disjoint between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom is palpable in its government, body politic and media.
This sense of difference is heightened by the manifest lack of will from Westminster to look after – or even to understand – Scottish needs. An island economy based around sucking money and talent down to London and the South East and upwards into banks serves Scotland – and much of England – poorly. Brexit has only highlighted the precarity of the financialised model – and was arguably precipitated by ‘left behind’ voters in the deindustrialised regions.
So it makes no sense for Scotland to be governed from Westminster. Scots can look after Scots best. The difference is already showing in the greater trust that Scots place in their political institutions.
Aye, but. How far do we want to take it? Can Edinburgh understand and address the problems of Stornaway, Kirkwall, Lerwick, Govanhill? Independence would bring decision making and power closer to home. But is a centralised, top-down form of parliamentary democracy along the Westminster ‘Mother of Parliaments’ model fit for purpose, given the diversity of local needs?
If an argument for Independence is getting shut of Westminster – why not get shut of Holyrood? Lesley Riddoch famously rails against the UK’s remote, top down structures in which too many people are represented by too few people. In Scotland each council serves an average population of 170k compared with a European average of 14k and a German average of 7k. If each council had power (and money) of its own, they could work on their own needs independently of central government.
Why not go further? There are other ways of organising ourselves. The contemporary cause célèbre is Rojava which appears to be making a success, under extremely adverse conditions, of a model in which power is delegated upwards, with individual cantons municipalities cooperating on matters such as education and defence. There is a local precedent here in John Maclean’s suggestion Scottish democracy might loosely follow the pattern of historic clans.
As to where we would devolve power upwards to – the concept of a nation state is somewhat chimerical. Scotland’s borders have historically been fluid, its borders fixed in mediaeval times. If we look around Europe – many nations were only created in modern times, and some are challenged by independence movements.
At the same time it is apparent to all – with the possible exception of 52% of the UK – that the idea of a sovereign state is not so simple. There are various arrangements – The European Union, the Nordic Council, the Irish North/South Ministerial Council – which (to provocatively use Gordon Brown’s phrase) ‘pool and share’ responsibilities. Although the choice currently appears to be between two Unions – the EU and the UK – It would be unthinkable, and nobody is proposing, that an independent Scotland would not retain similar arrangements with the rest of the UK. Indeed, Scotland’s fate will inevitably be tied in large part to its nearest neighbour and dominant trading partner. To spell it out – if England does badly, Scotland does badly.
Brexit has highlighted the question of borders, with much nonsense coming from Westminster (e.g. the possibility of border controls between the south and north of Ireland). The whole concept of borders is a relatively modern one, born out of bureaucratic expediency. And beginning to look meaningless to anyone who has driven across Europe. The concept is making an unfortunate comeback – it is now more difficult to cross the Øresund/Öresund bridge from Denmark to Sweden – especially if one has dark skin. But even there, the irrationality of borders is recognised in proposals to bring the Swedish city of Malmö within a Greater Copenhagen municipality.
Or maybe Lerwick would want to deal directly with Bergen on some matters? Or there is the Berwick question. Does it make sense to Scots there to get their local services from Edinburgh or the roughly equidistant Newcastle?
None of the above challenges the notion of an independent Scotland as a viable entity. Indeed we need independence so that we can choose who to cooperate with – with other EU nations, for example. Aye, but…Very Sovereign Scots will recognise that in our post-sovereign world we will always enter into arrangements, loose or formal, with other nations. This will inevitably include cross-border arrangements with England. It’s just a matter of thinking about what we want to pool and share.
For some, independence is a panacea. Everything will be sorted out once Scots are in power and we are free from Westminster power. One hopes so. The disasters of Tory and New Labour economic mismanagement do not need spelled out here.
Aye, but…it could all co very wrong, couldn’t it? My favourite jokes from Slovenian comic Slavoj Žižek’s stand-up routine concerns a Russian Jewish man who travels to Moscow for his exit visa to Israel. The party official grills him over his reasons for wanting to leave the glorious workers’ paradise that is the Soviet Union.
‘Well, comrade. It’s not that I’m not a true Communist. But I fear that Communism may fall, the Soviet Union may fall into barbarism, and things won’t be safe for people like me.’
‘Comrade! Comrade! What are you talking about? The Soviet Union will never fall!’
‘That’s the other thing I am afraid of.’
Clearly we need to exit from a country whose free-falling economy has been based around financialisation, its balance of payments propped up by oil – which is no longer the cash cow that it was. For some, the quick fix route to Independence appears to use Brexit to create a safe haven for finance and to keep using oil (some hope!) to pay our bills. I have even heard it say that the income from fracking will come in useful. Comrades! Comrades! Capitalism will never fall – but if we get it wrong, Scotland will impose on itself the same economic model that has caused our forty year decline.
I’m sure we won’t be that stupid. The Scottish Government is broadly social democratic. But they do like to do the easy things, don’t they? Their route to universal childcare is privatisation. It’s flagship policies like free prescriptions and higher education, which in fact originated from SSP policies, are welcome – if unambitious (I respectfully point out that I already had these half my life). But these things – and the genuinely admirable stances on immigration and refugees differentiate from Westminster.
Aye, but…there is a spectre that is haunting England, it is the spectre of Jeremy Corbyn. Or, rather – with Corbyn beleaguered by an elected party that refuses to be led – there is a phenomenon in England and Wales, typified by the twice election of Corbyn, whereby ordinary people are becoming engaged in left politics. I have middle aged mortgage holding friends in Hertfordshire who have joined Labour to vote for him – which suggests to me that the movement may not be limited to a few (or 500,000) Trots.
Perplexingly, in Scotland we appear to be unengaged with this. When ‘Labour’ is mentioned, we think ‘Kezia’. Our politics has diverged from England’s and we understand as little about what is going on down there than they do up here. So when I’m told ‘He’s unelectable’ – I wonder where folk are getting their information from? Surely we’re reading Bella Caledonia or CommonSpace et al precisely because we don’t trust mainstream sources?
Yes – I confess my own doubts about Corbyn’s survivability. But something – a movement – is going on. So is it beyond the bounds of possibility that a small-c conservative Social Democratic Scotland will be bordered by a nation with actual, radical, progressive, socialist policies? Already the Labour party are openly talking about things like Citizens Income, National Investment Banking, mass public house building which in Scotland is still the stuff of the think tank fringe.
There is also a discrepancy in the lack of public discussion of ongoing structural weaknesses in the economy – the continuing ‘long depression’; the in-work poverty crisis and the looming unemployment threat due to automation. These things can’t be shelved much longer. They’ll become Scotland’s problems. Where are our proposals for addressing them?
Another joke. A hunter is on safari with a tracker. They come across a cheetah in a clearing. Th tracker quietly bends down, opens his pack. Pulls out a pair of running shoes and starts putting them on.
‘That’s ridiculous,’ says the hunter, ‘You’ll never outrun a cheetah.’
‘I don’t have to’ says the tracker, ‘I only have to outrun you’.
Such is the state of Scottish Labour that voters are unlikely to return. But the Corbyn promise means that a Social Democracy-lite, better-than-the-Tories Independence may not be good enough. At very least – the Independence movement will need to up ts game.
Or – the stuff of conspiracy theories? – do the SNP need to force a second referendum in the shorter term to stave off the threat of a socialist movement in England that has got its act together? And could Labour’s current reluctance to enter into a progressive pact be because their leadership do not regard the SNP as a sufficiently progressive party? Labour, too, has its weak points – e.g. Trident – but it’s a thought.
But what might Labour offer as an alternative? There is talk in Labour of Confederalism. Not Federalism where power and money are passed down from the centre, but a looser arrangement in which the British nations would rule themselves but cooperate with one another. I’d want to see detailed plans – and I doubt they’ll emerge in time – but that arrangement would appeal to many, surely?
Independence still seems most sensible and likely to me and I shall continue to campaign for it. Aye, but…as we launch ourselves into campaigning, now is a good time to pause, lift our heads out the water, take a breath and look around.
‘Independence’ means different things to different people. That’s fine – that’s democracy – but it’s a good time to take a fresh look at how we want to govern ourselves. This needn’t and shouldn’t wait until Independence. It requires us to challenge local assumptions and think about how things are done elsewhere. We need to go beyond Yes.
Postcript: I wrote this piece before two significant events; the approval by Holyrood of a second independence referendum – followed by silence from Westminster – and the announcement of a UK general election. The election is thus far playing out as two separate contests. In England and Wales the battleground is anti-austerity, with much at stake for the future of the UK and of the Labour Party. But in Scotland, while anti-austerity is still to the fore, there is a sense that it is the constitution that matters – a two stage plan that will deliver a mandate for indyref2 followed by breakaway from Westminster rule. Given the weakness of Labour at time of writing, perhaps Scots are wise to make their own plans.
But a victory for socialists anywhere is a victory for socialists everywhere. The disengagement of Scots from Labour’s new mass movement is historically anomalous: there is no reason to doubt the presence of left sentiment in Scotland.The challenge that the independence movement must face is to look away from its immediate, constitutional goal and remind itself of the greater, underlying purpose.
The current election contest gives an opportunity to talk about policy. Looking beyond Yes, is there space within Scottish politics to put forward the sort of radical policies that will deliver a better future? Or is this election simply about out-running Westminster?
My thanks to Penny Cole and Graeme Arnott for the discussions that contributed to this article.