The Scottish Question has not yet been answered:
The SNP, Independence and the Future of Our Nation
Sunday Herald, August 20th 2017
SCOTTISH politics feels, and looks on the surface, becalmed at the moment. This is an age of permanent disruption – of populist movements, protests, anger, indignation, dismay and social division. This shouldn’t surprise anyone considering the politics of the last 40 years across the West: the rise of inequality and insecurity, the grand theft and appropriation of the super-rich. In the 10 years since the financial crash, the fundamentals of finance capitalism haven’t changed, while in the UK, US and elsewhere real-terms living standards have flatlined.
Scotland isn’t an exception. But there has been a growing Scottish autonomy and detachment from the rest of Britain and the direction of British politics. The idea of Britain as a political entity, not a geographical territory, is now in crisis. This means that the idea of independence – beyond the SNP’s cautious version of it – speaks to this wider canvas – of a more autonomous, distinctive Scotland which doesn’t look to Westminster for solutions or the future, whereas unionism, despite its tactical successes in the recent election, has very little positive to offer.
There is even a difference of opinion within the independence movement, not just between the SNP and those of other and no parties. This is between those who want to navigate through this age of uncertainty by emphasising security, stability and solidarity, championing worthy British values from the immediate post-war era. And those who recognise that in this era of instability, independence can only be about embracing change as the best way to articulate the Scotland of the future.
The bigger and longer-term picture needs stressing now, in late summer 2017. The Scottish question isn’t going to go away; namely how this country best expresses and finds the form for its collective interests and self-government – either through independence or maximum decentralisation within a semi-detached UK. This journey has been going on for at least half a century, and has always been informed by the twin track of Scottish voters’ domestic priorities and a growing apprehension at the direction of the British state and successive governments.
To better shape our future, we need to fully understand the changes of recent years, particularly the past decade since the SNP came to power in Scotland. The Scottish Parliament had been established in 1999, readers will recall, following a referendum in 1997. In the 2007 Holyrood election, the SNP squeaked to victory with a one-seat lead over Labour, and with the support of the Scottish Greens, Alex Salmond replaced Jack McConnell as First Minister.
Four years later, in May 2011, the SNP confounded expectations and the Additional Member system, which was designed to prevent a party winning an outright majority, by doing just that, with 69 seats. Despite losing the 2014 referendum (and their leader Alex Salmond, who resigned and was replaced by new First Minister Nicola Sturgeon), the party succeeding in hugely increasing support for independence, and at the 2015 UK election, they achieved a landslide, going from six MPs to 56. At last year’s Holyrood election, the SNP lost six seats and its overall majority in the Scottish Parliament, but returned as a minority government for an historic third term. Thus, the SNP have appeared for a decade to dominate Scottish politics, and although they still do at Holyrood, expectations have had to be recast when in this year’s UK election, while still remaining the biggest party, they lost 476,867 votes and 21 seats.
When they first came to power under Alex Salmond, many saw the SNP as a new broom, whose energy and dynamism swept away the old and tired. They focused outwardly, raised ambitions, and importantly in 2007 and 2011 had a story of the Scotland of the future filled with aspiration and possibilities.
A decade on from that first victory, Scotland has changed in many ways, but not enough in others: this balance the subject of my and Simon Barrow’s just published A Nation Changed? The SNP and Scotland Ten Years On.
The SNP themselves have been fundamentally changed by office. No longer insurgents and outsiders they have become incumbents and insiders. That may be inevitable but it has come at a price. That is the dilution of the SNP political intelligence about how it understands and sees non-Nationalist Scotland – always a majority even at the Peak SNP of 2015.
We now know that defensive social democracy isn’t enough. It is a limited politics of defining ourselves against what Westminster and the current Tory Government does, and has missed making the overt case of what a forward-thinking social democracy would entail, its values and priorities. What would a Scottish egalitarianism, for example, look like and what would it have to say about the grotesque inequalities in this country?
At points, this defensive stance has been essential, given the parsimonious, punitive nature of the Westminster Government’s management of the welfare state of the sixth richest economy in the world – from the bedroom tax to the rape clause and benefit sanctions.
This defensiveness means that we are always responding, shadowing and being defined by Westminster politics. It also restricts our opportunities for mapping out our own strategic priorities. But there is also a sense that such reactiveness plays into a self-congratulation – a belief that we in Scotland are completely different, and that all the main problems we face are external and emanate from the Tories and/or Westminster.
We are restricted by the thinness of what passes for our social democracy. Across too many areas it is taken as a given, rather than being championed everyday. In its pragmatism its ideals are often taken as self-evident, instead of made explicit. It isn’t an accident that neither Labour or SNP in the last forty years have had a prominent figure contribute to remaking and renewing social democracy in our country. The last examples would be J.P. Mackintosh in Labour, who died prematurely in 1978, and the late Stephen Maxwell in the SNP, who was marginalised by the leadership in the early 1980s.
More practically, this absence of a living, contemporary credo means the lack of a wider body of ideas for government and public bodies to draw from and measure themselves against in how they advance egalitarianism, social justice and empowering people. To take some random examples, in what ways are bodies such as Scottish Enterprise, Universities Scotland and Creative Scotland being driven by social democratic values? To even ask the question is to observe that it isn’t even on the page.
Scotland isn’t a proper social democracy for the moment, but it isn’t really an effective, fully-fledged democracy. In this it has much in common with the UK – which has never become a modern democracy or country. But the difference is that while the UK doesn’t at an elite level make much pretence about what it is, in Scotland we tell ourselves that we are different, and believe that the centre-left values we constantly espouse inform most of our practices, instead of noting their selectivity and the glaring omissions.
The argument about democratising Scotland has for too long been focused on what happens with the Scottish Parliament – achieving it, its electoral system and internal workings – rather than noting its context and seeing it as a catalyst for further change.
The Scottish Parliament was established on top of an intricate and deep set of networks, relationships and institutions which worked comfortably for elite Scotland in the age of pre-devolution. It was assumed by the architects of devolution that the arrival of the Parliament would be change enough. They viewed this as a one-off job done, rather than an ongoing process of embedding and nurturing democracy.
This matters to the SNP because it has in recent years presented independence as about ‘the full powers of the Parliament’. This has aimed to normalise the idea of independence, make it feel less threatening, and emphasise that independence would be part of a continuing process of evolution, rather than marking a radical change in direction.
In recent years it has become apparent that political power lies less in the Parliament, and is to be found in the Scottish Government and civil service. This was true of the way Labour and the Lib Dems ran devolved Scotland. And it has become even more true of the SNP – posing a problem for their conventional vision of independence as an unthreatening proposition.
Where does this take us? Scotland has had in recent years its own twin peaks of disruption – the independence referendum and Brexit. We are still living through these powerful upheavals, and coming to terms with how they have changed, and may continue to change, the world about us.
This will take time, but we can now see the SNP tartan tsunami of 2015, when they gained 56 MPs, as partly a kind of aberration; nor are we going back to business as usual in Scotland or the UK. The union has been shaken, people have become aware of their collective power, and the idea of independence (once dismissed as eccentric and on the margins of public life) has become mainstream.
This is one reason why much of our political debate has become fraught. The stakes have been raised post-2014 in the aftermath of the independence referendum and Brexit. And while too many commentators predict the return to constitutional stability, support for independence, as measured by the academic Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, now stands at an all-time high of 46 per cent – double what it was five years ago.
For many Scots, who do not go around constantly thinking about politics and the constitution, it would be a relief if the great questions of our age – economic, social, democratic, the vast inequalities of wealth and the absence of any sense of social responsibility or citizenship by the super-rich – were sorted out by the British political classes waking up and realising they have been going in the wrong direction for the last 40 years.
This simply is not going to happen, despite the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon. To unleash what in effect would be a very British revolution would require an economic and social upheaval that the UK hasn’t seen in centuries. This would have to be undertaken while decentralising political power, federalising and embracing a written constitution. All of that is the work of at least one generation, and has been made even less likely by the car crash of Brexit – in which, for now, Corbyn’s Party Labour are colluding with the Conservatives.
These are historic times that are fast moving and even bewildering. The SNP and the independence movement urgently need a national project which will inform any future offer of independence. That has to speak authentically to the priorities of a future Scotland. It necessitates a project which goes beyond party, creating new spaces, resources and centres of expertise such as think tanks and research institutes to inform and guide the self-governing Scotland emerging from the shadows and wreckage of the British state.
It has to address the long-term economic and enterprise gap that has meant, for as long as anyone can remember, Scottish growth and start-up rates trailing the rest of the UK. We know the limits of GDP as a measurement, but we need to look at how we create wealth, stimulate the economy and drive investment, productivity and better corporate business.
We need to ask to what extent our public services are really ‘public’; too often they are the preserve of their professional interest groups: education, health and law being good examples. ‘Public sector reform’ became in Westminster a Blairite-Cameron device for bashing workers, but surely we can embark on a different route of reform, rather than just assuming everything is fine in centre-left Scotland?
Then there is the democratic deficit which is evident in the centralisation of too many bodies and too much decision-making. Where is the politics of self-determination beyond the Parliament, or the debate about how we widen the way we run public bodies beyond the usual suspects? Ten years into SNP rule, the same supposedly safe hands are running the same national bodies: this ‘Boardism’ has survived intact through SNP, Labour and Tory eras.
There is a cultural deficit which restricts too many of us. Recent decades have seen a flowering of our arts and culture, but for too many Scots this might as well be a foreign country, such is their estrangement from their own culture. Part of that is a failure of media and representation, but we have to at the least bring this divide centre-stage.
Finally, all of this is underpinned by the need to explicitly challenge the confidence and imagination gap which exists in too many parts of our country. This excuses or ignores what goes wrong in our nation – such as our scandalous health and education divides in class. Maybe we could consider launching a ‘Not in Our Name Scotland’ which takes aim at the way too many parts of our country short-changes its citizens when they need our support most.
All of this is about the Scotland of the future: the politics, mindsets, cultures and nurturing of human relationships. It entails looking beyond the immediate future to the medium and longer-term horizon. Independence is not only a mindset, it is about an attitude and how we see ourselves, our power and formal institutional power: a Scottish republic of the mind which is the opposite of seeing independence as about faith and believing everything will be different the day after the UK as we know it ends. Independence is about everyday democracy.
Such an approach would make independence feel real and relevant. It would raise the game of what politics are about – whether pro-independence or pro-union – and make it more about substance and detail.
We stand at a point – a lull in the huge storms and controversies which define the age – where we can choose to sketch out the future we aspire to, identifying the range of choices, trade-offs, opportunities and threats, developing possible route maps to get us from where we are now to the society and nation we want to be in the next 30-40 years. The Scotland of the future is tantalisingly within our grasp.