Time for a Bolder Scotland: The Seven Stories of Scottish Independence
The National, November 30th 2016
We are living through unprecedented times of change and uncertainty.
The words and phrases we use can barely keep up – ‘post-truth politics’, ‘fake news’, ‘alt-right’, the vacuity of ‘Brexit means Brexit’, and the debate on whether Trump is a ‘fascist’ or not. Language itself is struggling to convey and understand these times.
This is true in Britain and Scotland. ‘The Economist’ magazine, in its review of the year and assessments of next year, when talking of Brexit observed that ‘When a building is demolished, a brief calm usually prevails at first.’ We are at the moment in the calm before the almighty storm – one which when it hits will bring walls tumbling down and from which no defences will be fully effective.
There is a widespread assumption in the Westminster village that, with all this impending chaos, Scotland and the cause of independence is increasingly boxed in by Brexit, the constraints of EU disengagement, and powerful economic forces. They seem to misinterpret the stillness north and south of the border as a permanent calm, alongside the slender basis on which Scots voted to remain in the union in 2014: not understanding that its pragmatism could quickly evaporate given the potential future direction of Britain.
Equally there is a prevailing view in Scotland, in some parts of the pro-indy community, that indyref2 is inevitable and will be won and that Britain as a political entity is finished – therefore all that matters is timing and the terms of divorce. Both of these assumptions are deeply flawed and wrong.
The future still has to be made. Britain is in deep crisis – one in which large parts of the Tory Party are in willful denial, with the Brexiteer tendency living in a fantasyland of past and future. The act of Brexit is one of arrogance, delusion, and deliberate self-harm: savaging economic growth and prosperity, cutting £122 billion off national wealth, and causing social rupture – while giving permission to racism, xenophobia and hate crime. Britain is heading for a lost decade of austerity and no rise in living standards, while things have never looked more rosy for the elites: with ex-Chancellor George Osborne making £320,000 from a one month US speaking tour: which would take the average UK worker more than eleven years to earn.
This didn’t happen overnight. It emerged from an unbalanced, unsustainable version of Britain which didn’t originate with Thatcherism and Blairism, but which they gave encouragement and voice. This divided kingdom has seen London, the City and the global class of winners slowly disconnect themselves from the rest of the UK, while inflicting their worldview and narrow vested interests on the majority of the population.
Yet, Scottish independence faces many difficult challenges. There is the economic argument, the intricacies of Brexit, and perhaps most seriously, the sheer lack of intellectual curiosity at the heart of the SNP. This latter point carries grave consequences for the Nationalists and independence, because this lack of interest is how political causes at their peak – think Thatcherism and New Labour – begin to over-reach, show hubris, and fall into decline.
The independence offer of 2014 was a flawed, contradictory one which failed to represent a wide enough consensus across society to get into a winning position. If there is to be any prospect of a second indyref, the independence offer has to be very different, and to address a series of challenges which in most cases it clearly failed last time. Let’s call them the seven stories of a future independence.
- The Economic Case
The economic argument was key to 2014. People worried about future prosperity, the currency position, and the economic viability of independence. Britain’s diminishing economic prospects have aided independence, but there still has to be new thinking on a different idea of the economy, economic success and wealth, and what the Scottish economy of the future should look like.
The SNP have been largely silent on some of the key economic issues such as ownership and control of companies in Scotland, corporate governance, and how to aid long term investment and productivity. Paradoxically, such issues have now come to the fore at Westminster, without any prospect of being solved. The SNP cannot continue to invest hope in talking about ‘economic levers’ accelerating growth and solving all its problems, but has to recognise there will be difficult choices post-independence, and has to have a more convincing position on currency, which cost it so dearly in 2014.
- The Social Justice Case
Scotland is scarred by inequality and poverty, and in the last indyref the assumption of the Yes side was ‘this was as bad as it gets’ and that Britain had failed disadvantaged communities. The social justice pro-indy case was taken as axiomatic, but instead it has to become explicit and detailed. Relevant to this is that after nearly two decades of the Scottish Parliament (more than half under the SNP) no significant redistribution to those disadvantaged or in poverty has occurred. That can only change through action and making central a vision of social justice which isn’t just welfarist or about the poor but about removing money and power from the rich.
- The Cultural Case
Scotland is already in many respects, culturally, quasi-independent. Yet, the SNP have shied away and shown little imagination or boldness in cultural areas. This can be seen in broadcasting, media, Creative Scotland and how it administers the arts and culture. But it is about much more than that.
Tellingly, the case for independence has always been focused by the SNP entirely on political institutions and the ‘full powers of the Parliament’, to the exclusion of culture. This made some sort of sense pre-2011, when independence seemed a distant prospect, and SNP politicians had to normalise it and present it in a way which voters could understand i.e.: as a continuation and acceleration of existing trends. That situation no longer holds after a three-year national conversation on the subject of independence.
If it is to mean anything, independence has to entail an idea of Scotland and change which goes beyond the political and political institutions, and which embraces cultural values and norms. So far the SNP have chosen to remain nearly completely silent on such matters to their loss and ours.
- The Democratic Case
The UK clearly doesn’t work on any democratic criteria, and is at best for all its folklore and traditions, a partial democracy: key examples of evidence being the continuation of the House of Lords and power and patronage of the Crown. In 2014 there was an attitude that an independent Scotland would automatically be more democratic, more participative, with the rights of individuals and minorities respected and entrenched.
This argument cannot just be won by default. Britain may be increasingly a pre-democratic country in many of its central institutions, sitting in, what is called by academic Colin Crouch, the age of post-democracy – meaning rule by the emergence of new elites. But Scotland needs to have its own democratic moment, spirit and revolution. That entails recognising the limits of Scottish Government centralisation, and encouraging pluralism, diversity and decentralism, from local government to public services and the wider ecology of the country.
- The Philosophical Case
The values of Scotland now and in the future are central to any debate – and it is widely accepted that we are a social democratic, progressive country which, if independent, would see itself in such terms. This was evident in such Yes leaflets in the indyref as the one proclaiming that independence would ‘end Tory rule forever’.
However, social democracy in Scotland has for decades shown itself to be defensive, unimaginative and at the same time rather self-congratulatory – as in the ‘we aren’t New Labour’ line of thought. This though has aided not radicalism and innovation, but the digging in and maintenance of an unattractive, managerialist politics. Just not being Blairite and New Labour isn’t enough, and is increasingly going to be problematic as we enter hard times.
- The Psychological Case
In 2014 Yes offered a confident, upbeat resume of a future country, but what it didn’t allow for was doubt and uncertainty. Numerous surveys and focus groups from both campaigns found that this certainty acted as a powerful barrier to people voting Yes. Any future independence offer has to embrace and reflect at its heart, the dynamics of doubt. The psychologies, emotions, hope and fears of politics have always been pivotal to how people make their political choices and vote. Such drivers didn’t just arrive, as some have bizarrely suggested, with Brexit and Trump. Independence needs texture, tone, nuance and an emotional literacy, all of which were missing last time.
- The Geo-Political Case
Britain is on the move – aided by Brexit. It is repositioning itself further from the European continent and EU integration. Its final destination is as yet unclear – considering the state of flux in the US and globally. This uncertainty offers huge opportunities to Scotland – to place itself as a pro-European, pro-Commonwealth, northern, internationalist nation – expressing a different set of traditions to that of the post-imperial delusions of Britain.
An independence politics which can win the popular and intellectual argument needs convincing answers in all seven of the above. The 2014 package fell spectacularly short – only having the clear better in two – the democratic and cultural terrain – in large part because of the shortcomings in Better Together, while having a case in the social justice argument. It failed decisively in the economic, philosophical, psychological and geo-political. Such a flawed prospectus can never be put to the people again.
Running through Scotland and the cause of self-government is the powerful refrain ‘Not in My Name Britain’. It draws on Thatcher, Blair, the Iraq war and the affront of inequality, poverty and the super-rich in the fifth wealthiest country in the world.
However, we also need to take a good look at ourselves. Scotland has its own uber-rich, its own socially irresponsible landowners, and its own shameful poverty and inequality: a life expectancy gap between our richest and poorest areas of 24 years just being one of many. Some of this is our own collective responsibility. Not all of it down to Westminster. We need an equally pointed ‘Not in My Name Scotland’ campaign which shows the same indignation at homegrown injustices and challenges the power of Scottish elites.
The future cannot be certain, and an indyref in the next few years cannot be assured, but we should act as if one is more likely than not to happen for two reasons. First, this makes an indyref more likely. Second, it aids a more honest, responsible and substantive politics – one which closes the democratic deficit in our own society.
Even ‘The Economist’ in its predictions for 2017 thinks in its ‘just possibly’ column that a second indyref could happen ‘in exchange for [the SNP] abstaining on a crucial Brexit vote.’
This is the calm before the storm. We are living in a phony war. And as ‘The Economist’ said earlier, when we move on from the moment of pause after the building demolition charges are set off, an almighty number of crashes and set of implosions will occur, the like of which we have never seen in our lifetimes.
The idea of Britain is broken. Its political system and institutions are no longer fit for purpose. The economy and society fail the vast majority of people who live in these isles. Yet such crisis and anxiety doesn’t automatically have one pre-determined endpoint and future, whether it be the election of a Corbyn led Labour Party, or Scottish independence, and the political dismantling of the British state.
What this does do is put a huge responsibility on Scottish pro-independence opinion. We have to be bolder, more radical, and more honest, in preparation of the next time. We cannot see SNP loyalty and independence as the same thing: in fact they are mutually antagonistic. Uber-partisanship, hectoring and asking ‘are you Yes yet?’ aren’t the way to win new friends and independence.
Instead, we have to reach out the hand of friendship and understanding to those who for various and legitimate reasons are wary, suspicious, or opposed to independence. That is the way to a better kind of Scotland, politics, and future, and ultimately, to a more human and humane form of independence, which will be all the more attractive and appealing for it.
Gerry Hassan is author of Scotland the Bold: How Our Nation Changed and Why There is No Way Back just published by Freight Books, £9.99..