History in the Making: The Battle for Scotland’s Future
National Collective, November 20th 2013
The campaign on Scottish independence has reached new levels – a battle of competing specialist documents – firstly, there has been an Institute for Fiscal Studies report, matched by a Scottish Government paper on the economic independence, and next week the much anticipated White Paper on Scottish independence.
The latter is a milestone in the pro-independence debate. Whatever its content, style and persuasiveness things will never quite be the same again. A devolved administration in part of the UK lays out the case for independence and for formally ending the 300 year old union which has bound Scotland and England together.
Yet beneath these is a contest between two competing technocratic versions of the world, shaped by faith in conventional economic growth models which are globally growing more threadbare and discredited by the day. This is the rationalist mindset, illustrating by the actions of both campaigns the limits of such an approach and politics.
Then there is the mainstream media. The IFS report was greeted by what can only be called near-hysteria by some of the pro-union newspapers. The Scottish edition of ‘the Daily Mail’ shouted ‘BLACK HOLE: Report exposes SNP economic gap: They’ll have to raise income tax or slash spending’ on its front page; the ‘Daily Telegraph’ that ‘Separation would deal £6bn blow, impartial study finds’. We have had two and a half years of this one-sided Pathe News style propaganda and clearly it is only going in one direction: towards a date with Armageddon on September 18th 2014.
All of this: the managerialist politics, the trading of documents, the mix of a partisan hectoring press and hollowed out broadcasters, mean that we tend to forget that all of this is history in the making on a number of levels which need to be understood and contextualised.
For one, independence, once the preserve of the eccentric and a lunatic fringe, has become the mainstream. Whatever the qualifications and shortcomings some have with the SNP version of independence, as an idea it has become normalised. All sorts of Westminster politicians of every persuasion have to pay lip service to it being possible and feasible that Scotland as an independent nation would be viable. It doesn’t matter that this might be a tactical accommodation on the part of some; by constantly saying it the reality on the ground and popular perceptions change.
Another is the way that the British state and government is seen in Scotland. Think of the phrase ‘the British state’. In the past even mentioning it marked you as a dangerous left-wing nationalist imbued with the writings of Tom Nairn, Neal Ascherson and others. Now it has entered wider popular usage and behind this lies a shift in how it is understood. The British state has come to be seen increasingly as a problem for Scotland: in how it governs for a small elite and an unrepresentative corner of the UK in a way which harms Scotland’s national interests (along with a majority of the people of the UK).
That is a dramatic shift and one that looks irreversible. It has been aided by the cumulative effect of UK Governments and their close alliance with the forces of finance capital. The Cameron-led government has accelerated all of this, but it is about more this or the shortcomings of New Labour and Thatcherism. There is the long term disequilibriums of the UK economy, the continual failure from Macmillan onwards to build a developmental state, and the track record of four periods of post-war Labour Government over 30 years which have not managed to shift the forces of power and privilege of ‘the conservative nation’.
We cannot be sure how much of Scotland is listening to the above but there are differing layers of engagement and non-engagement. To many, much of what has passed so far is like mood music coming from another room. They can hear the occasional oft-repeated word or phrase: ‘independence’, ‘Trident’, ‘currency’, ‘role of the Treasury’, ‘North Sea Oil Fund’ but miss any of the nuance and detail.
In this, independence is being normalised to differing degrees to different voters. This is mostly inevitable. Scotland has been on a fast track since the SNP’s election victory of 2011 seeing independence move centrestage and doing so in a public realm and political culture which is constrained, heavily managed and historically institutionally defined.
There is an element of incomprehension amongst some swing voters about this debate; people who are neither pro-union or pro-independence, but struggling to catch up with the scale of this change. Many are conventionally progressive, normally Labour voters (at least at Westminster elections). Then there is the ‘missing Scotland’: the part of society which has become disconnected from politics and what passes for democratic participation: younger, poorer, more living in social housing and while more prevalent in the West of Scotland situated in every street, village and community of Scotland.
This debate isn’t a zero-sum game; it isn’t even just about a binary Yes/No set of choices. Some of the most siren voices in both camps want to deny this but we should celebrate that this isn’t a Scottish political version of the Cold War Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Patrick Harvie, leader of the Scottish Greens, recently made this point in the ‘Daily Record’, talking about the differing visions and possibilities under Yes/No (1). One is that the pro-independence Greens do not buy into the economic determinist, technocratic version of independence.
The debate of shifting perceptions on Scotland, the union and independence, is being supported by a range of books, resources and initiatives. Next week, ‘After Independence’, edited by myself and Prof. James Mitchell of Edinburgh University will be officially published, which addresses in a non-partisan way at the possibilities of independence (2). This includes what it can mean in an age of interdependence, the economic, fiscal and cultural contexts, the British dimensions, defence and foreign affairs, and how it could impact geo-politically. It is a predominantly Scottish based set of contributors, but it also draws on English voices (Danny Dorling, Anthony Barnett), Irish (Niamh Hardiman) and Nordic perspectives (Sara Dybris McQuaid).
David Torrance recently published ‘The Battle for Britain’ (3) gives a neutral, informed account of the independence debate, how Scotland and the UK got here, possible consequences, and potential future directions. Torrance ends with two futures in the Scotland of 2024: one where Scotland has voted for independence, and another where it remains in the union and continues on its road of self-government within the UK.
What both illustrate is that beyond the partisan voices the idea of independence as a fact and possibility is beginning to be seriously explored. This is a watershed moment: a kind of ‘Yes We Can’ or maybe more accurately, ‘Yes We Might’. It opens debate and voters to considering positively imagining what kind of future Scotland they want to live in post-September 18th 2014.
This shift can be seen in the point made by Alex Massie that ‘Alex Salmond has already won’ (4). Massie means in this context that whatever the result the entire debate has become framed around Scotland’s ‘journey’ to greater self-government, irrespective of the referendum result.
This then leads to the issue of greater self-government for what ends: for what vision, values and idea of a society, rather than being seen as an end in itself? This is where the world of the IFS report and Scottish Government competing technocratic worlds do not reach out into the emotions and instincts of the debate. Filling this void is the panoply of a range of alternative and radical voices of ‘the third Scotland’: National Collective, Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) (holding their second huge gathering this coming weekend in Glasgow), Jimmy Reid Foundation’s Commonweal project, and a host of others.
These two approaches in terms of how they frame independence and political change are dramatically different forks in the road. One is about ‘economic levers’, economic growth, ‘the full powers of a Parliament’ and offering a reassuring certainty. The other is about often vague but emboldening ideas of fundamental and far-reaching political and cultural change, rejecting ‘the Westminster consensus’ and developing an ecology of self-determination.
A simple observation. Perhaps each could learn from the other a bit. Maybe the ‘official’ independence offer could learn to adopt a more radical tone and not just offer a future which looks rather like present day Scotland. And maybe the alternative voices could understand some of the complexities and intricacies that independence will entail: trade-offs, painful choices and understanding distributional consequences.
In this Scottish self-government could do with an understanding of timescales, a point made nearly thirty years ago by Bernard Crick (5). Scotland for example cannot overnight become a Nordic nation; yet we could collectively become more Nordic, and part of this debate is informed by how Scotland wishes to see and place itself geo-politically: as a mainstream, progressive, European nation (and while that doesn’t sound revolutionary, the UK clearly has no interest in any of these three characteristics).
Therefore if the independence offer is to transcend the safety first versus radical impatience divide, Crick’s understanding of timescales is crucial. Building a different kind of society and moving a nation geo-politically is a long-term generational project. This requires understanding that there will be many bumpy roads, but developing a three stage approach, of in Crick’s words, ‘(i) short-term tactical reforms within the system to build a basis of popular confidence for advance; (ii) middle-term strategies to change the system; and (iii) long-term persuasion to work a new system in a new spirit’.
Much has already changed in this debate which is only just beginning to be understood. Scotland increasingly thinks and acts as a nation which is independent in how it sees itself. The British political elite no longer have an emotional, gut story of Britain which binds the people of these isles together. The Labour and progressive story of Britain for all Ed Miliband’s good intentions does not look likely to be rehabilitated and renewed in the near-future. And then there is the slow semi-detachment of the UK with Scotland going one way and the Westminster village increasingly self-obsessed, insular and fixated on the coming European Union referendum.
Maybe the British establishment could do with understanding or showing a small degree of comprehension that Scotland and the nature of the union are altering dramatically and in far-reaching ways at unprecedented speed. This debate is maturing part of Scotland: bringing ideas of taking responsibility for your collective choices centrestage, whereas before there was a universal gripe, blame and evasion culture. Surely and quietly, Scotland is creating a culture of self-government which will continue irrespective of next September’s vote.
1. Patrick Harvie, ‘Independence Referendum Campaigns more complex than just Yes or No’, Daily Record, November 18th 2013, http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/patrick-harvie-independence-referendum-campaigns-2805813
2. Gerry Hassan and James Mitchell (eds), After Independence, Luath 2013, http://www.amazon.co.uk/After-Independence-Scottish-Nation-Viewpoints-ebook/dp/B00G1SW25Q/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1384939503&sr=1-1&keywords=gerry+hassan
3. David Torrance, The Battle for Britain; Scotland and the Independence Referendum, Biteback 2013, www.amazon.co.uk/Battle-Britain-Scotland-Independence-Referendum/dp/1849545944/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1384943223&sr=1-1&keywords=david+torrance
4. Alex Massie, ‘Scottish independence: the Union is endangered by premature and misguided complacency’, Spectator Coffee House, November 15th 2013, http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/alex-massie/2013/11/scottish-independence-the-union-is-endangered-by-premature-and-misguided-complacency/
5. Bernard Crick, Socialist Values and Time, Fabian Society 1984.