Scotland’s Real Debate: The Wider Campaign for Genuine Self-Government
The Guardian Comment, November 30th 2009
Today sees the publication of the Scottish Government’s independence White Paper. Last week Jim Murphy, Scottish Secretary of State, launched the UK Government’s White Paper on the Calman Commission proposing more powers to the Scottish Parliament.
These are two competing visions of Scotland. Alex Salmond has declared in the run up to his paper’s publication that ‘only independence gives Scotland the freedom to achieve its full potential as an equal member of the international community’. Jim Murphy launching his White Paper in the Commons stated that Scotland had ‘the best of both worlds’ with ‘two Parliaments’ in a union which has never been about ‘uniformity’.
The Scottish Government’s White Paper does not offer a suggested form of words for the independence question. Instead it lays out four possible options for Scotland’s future: the status quo, Calman, full fiscal autonomy and independence. If we leave aside constitutional change, what do the Scottish and UK Government visions say about Scotland and its future?
To answer this we need to understand the nature of devolution in Scotland and ask who and what has gained from devolution so far? The answer is a paradox compared to the expectations pre-devolution. The groups who have gained the most are the insiders – those who knew how to work access and networks pre-devolution and have adjusted to continuing to influence and shape decision-making post-devolution.
Scotland’s insiders, the business community (or often more accurately the business membership organisations: CBI, IoD, Scottish Financial Enterprise, SCDI), leading corporates and major institutions, whether public or private, have been the winners of the first decade of devolution. Such groups have aided two things. First, a stultifying economic conformity which has no real radicalism, no sense of political economy, and is obsessed with economic growth and the supposed challenges of globalisation, and which runs from Wendy Alexander, the former Scottish Labour leader to the SNP leadership and most of institutional Scotland.
Second, this all contributed to boom times for the professional middle class, lots more well paid jobs and initiatives, along with student tuition fees abolished, higher teacher pay and higher health professional awards. What has been lacking in devolution has been any understanding – from Labour, SNP or anywhere – of the distributional consequences of devolution and who has gained and missed out. The second paradox of devolution has been that this institutional, ‘corporate capture’ of devolution has meant that those who have gained the most have been those doing alright, who have power, income and voice. Those who have not gained have been some of the people who were among the most passionate supporters of a Parliament pre-devolution, and who do not have much power, income and voice.
This brings us to the wider picture of life in Glasgow North East and Glasgow East, scene of the two recent Westminster by-elections. These are parts of a ‘forgotten Scotland’ and indeed a ‘forgotten Scotland’, places only mentioned in the media to confirm a set of middle class prejudices about today’s poor and welfare recipients.
Who speaks for such parts of Scotland? Are they part of the story of inclusive, social democratic Scotland? What if anything do the two competing visions say? The answer is very little. ‘Forgotten Glasgow’ has for decades solicited very little interest, connection or relevance from the four main political parties.
Tommy Sheridan’s Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) before it self-imploded threatened to give some of the marginalised communities a voice. Whatever you think of the attractions or not of Trotskyite politics (or at least what began as that), Sheridan’s single-handed destruction of the SSP has left a void, none of the mainstream parties has any idea or seeming interest in filling.
Tackling the double exclusion of ‘forgotten Glasgow’ – its real physical and psychic disadvantage from society, and its exclusion from the political world – is clearly complex and difficult.
A start would be for our politicians and media to stop using the invidious language of the ‘underclass’ and ‘dependency culture’. This has slipped out from the world of the New Right into popular usage, used by commentators such as Andrew Neil week in and week out to denote that ‘these people’ are not like the rest of ‘us’. The ‘underclass’ doesn’t have aspirations like ‘real’ people, and therefore we can just turn our back on them, and give our politicians permission to practice their endless initiatives of ‘tough love’, punitiveness and punishment.
Second is the issue of voice, hope and power. How can places like Glasgow North East find a sense of collective voice, and nurture the spaces, vessels and avenues that allow people to recognise these bodies as their own creation, and not that of the system? A common cliché talking about the deprived parts of Glasgow, and indeed the UK is to lament the lack of hope and tangible feeling of passivity and acceptance which to many seems to be pervasive everywhere in such areas.
This is a complete deception by our politics and mainstream thinking. In the Glasgow 2020 project I recently led for Demos we undertook nearly 40 events involving over 5,000 people across the city, and in the most disadvantaged places we always found a sense of hope. When people were asked to imagine their future and that of their family, community and friends using stories, play and creativity, they found a way to slowly and hesitantly at first give voice to their hopes. These were centred on navigating ways of things working out, kids growing up supported, people keeping out of trouble, and in short, living normal lives like the rest of ‘us’.
This was a very female and feminised view of the city and the future (and thus of the present). For one of the unstated stories of ‘forgotten Glasgow’, beyond the clichés of ‘Shettleston Man’ (the worst life expectancy in the UK) is how gender shapes everything: from the unhealthy obsession with football, to crime, violence and experience of poverty. Women seem to be able and this is a dangerous generalisation which needs to be qualified, work these things out. They prioritise and judge, have a combination of the practical and pragmatic with working out a longer term path, while retaining a sense of optimism in the future. This all contributes to a very female version of the city which is about the local, micro-politics and actually bringing about change.
This leads on to ‘the men question’. It is men in Glasgow who conduct most of the crime and violence, and it is men, whether on welfare or relatively affluent, who seem to be less pragmatic and more defined by the past. In the poorer parts of the city, but elsewhere, there is a whole generation of ‘Walking Wounded’ men, scared by the experiences of unemployment, dislocation and in some cases drugs. None of Scotland’s mainstream politics seems to recognise this gender division and what we do about a generation plus of lost men.
Alex Salmond talks of independence giving Scotland ‘responsibilities other countries take for granted’. This is the idea of independence as a normalising force, the ‘Scotland Why Not?’ argument, which underplays the scale of change this would bring about north and south of the border.
Gordon Brown and Jim Murphy’s vision of a confident Scotland in a diverse United Kingdom seems oblivious to what has happened to the UK under their tutorage. The last decade has seen the humiliation of the progressive story of Britain, and the corrupting of the character and purpose of the British state, with the rise of the neo-liberal state at home, and the emergence of a blinkered Atlanticism internationally which has placed the UK as a nation-state permanently on a war footing.
Somehow Scotland’s social justice traditions, to the left of the UK, have to be brought to the fore – the successful smoking ban in public, the SNP’s public health strategy, the proposed alcohol minimum pricing in a culture saturated with drink. At the same time, the economic conformity, found in both the SNP and Scottish Labour leaderships, and which has taken hold so emphatically of the whole Westminster village, needs to be challenged.
There is north of the border a historic opportunity to bring about change which could have a major contribution to politics far beyond its boundaries, and that is to contribute to the defeat of the neo-liberal leviathan. Scotland starts with a couple of advantages here. First, the Scottish state for all its limitations and conservatism with a small ‘c’ is far removed from the practices of the British neo-liberal state. Second, Scotland’s institutional class, who were part of the bulwark against Thatcherism and have been the main gainers of devolution, have only ever paid lip service to the neo-liberal, market fundamentalism so beloved of New Labour and the Westminster classes.
Thus, Scotland’s choice of visions isn’t really about independence versus a reformed union, but between different paths of working our way out of the neo-liberal wreckage which has produced such devastation to the British economy, society and life. One approach is that of continuity: the Scottish elites maintaining their historic position of privilege and shepherding the people to a post-neo-lib managed age. The other is to dare to challenge the rights and motivations of this class who have not exactly served many Scots well, and begin to flesh out an alternative Scotland which looks at power, voice and status.
Such a choice would be a real historic opportunity for Scotland and would mean that the debate about independence versus the union could become a real one, filling out the detail, connecting constitutional change to economic and social issues and addressing how self-government links to aiding greater self-determination for people.
Much will depend on what happens at the next UK election, the actions and style of a Cameron Conservative Government (if they are elected) and how they are viewed north of the border, the degree of legitimacy they have in Scotland, and how a programme of ‘tartan cuts’ will be seen. How will institutional Scotland react? Will it close down or open up the possibilities of debate? Then there is the simmering English dimension and how that influences the rest of the UK.
One thing is for sure: Scotland is on the move at the start of journey. It would be helpful if we can aid widening the discussion from the non-debate between independence versus the union which a large part of our political classes seem to be intent on having and are just a little too comfortable in. Scotland is in the process of a long revolution and this should not be left solely to our politicians and institutional opinion.