Scotland’s Future: Society, State and Story
The Scotsman, May 21st 2011
The debate about Scottish self-government is also about how Scotland sees its future.
This has seen different interpretations arise about the meaning of independence. This reflects the new realism and gradualism of Alex Salmond’s SNP Government. Experienced voices such as former SNP MP Jim Sillars and academic James Mitchell have made the case for a pragmatic nationalist politics, while Pat Kane on these pages has seen such thinking falling well short of independence and Scottish statehood.
This is a timely, crucial debate which needs to be had in a generous, open-minded way. We need to be clear that the politics of independence addresses the real issues, challenges and problems which Scotland faces today and in the future, and isn’t just about some ‘Scotland Why Not?’ argument.
Many of the British political classes catching up with Scotland post-May 5th have seen independence in old-fashioned, romantic tones and as therefore out of kilter with the times. This is the argument of Bill Emmott, former editor of ‘The Economist’ who has asked, ‘what problem does independence actually address?’ He then answers that all radical political change needs to address this question, something he judges that Cameron’s disintegrating NHS ‘reforms’ and Scottish independence do not.
We will face many more examples like this from the British media in the next few years, portraying simple-minded separatists who just don’t understand the modern world, and cant get over Bannockburn or Tony Blair. It almost invites us being proactive and putting together a Duffer’s or Beginner’s Guide to Scottish independence. The trouble is that their misrepresentation of Scotland’s nationalist movement belies a wider set of confusions about the nature of Britain which it will take a political earthquake to move.
Scottish independence does answer a series of problems; it gives Scotland the strategic potential to develop its economy, skills and institutions, and to break out of the embrace of the British state. The reason I am pro-independence has always been a belief that the British system doesn’t work well for the majority of people on these isles, a fact confirmed by the United Kingdom being the fourth most unequal country in the developed world, after the US, Portugal and Singapore, and London the most unequal city.
A genuine debate about self-government and independence has to address three crucial S’s: society, state and story.
First, what kind of society do we want to live in? What is the nature of the economy, businesses, public bodies and public realm we aspire to? What is the relevance of self-determination to how we think of the economy, running businesses, creating jobs and wealth? What is the Scottish business model after the bubble of RBS and HBOS?
These wider considerations were left out of Calman and ‘the national conversation’, both of which were closed conversations of elites and groups who had already made up their minds. Instead, we have to talk about the issues which shape people’s lives, hopes, aspirations and fears first, and then link this to our preferred constitutional change for Scotland.
Second, what kind of state do we want to create? What areas do we define as crucial to the development of a new Scottish statehood? Clearly, macro-economic, social and cultural and communicative powers are pivotal here. But we also need to have a mature debate about defence and foreign affairs? Do we need to see Scotland become a non-nuclear state and a nuclear free Clyde? Alternatively are there ways we can make a transition to this ultimate goal while sharing defence and security with the rest of the UK?
Do we want Scotland to be a social democratic or more accurately, post-social democratic state, one that promotes inclusive development, tackles inequality and injustice, and does so in a green, sustainable way? Or do we want Scotland to be a smart, successful, slimmed down state, still chasing the Celtic Tiger dream, and hung up on deregulation and reducing business taxes? The SNP’s vision still sits between these Nordic and Ireland pre-crash models.
Finally, most of all what we have to do is to make these debates about society and state into one about Scotland’s story. The power of story is now widely accepted as being part of what it is to be human, connected and making sense of the world in an emotionally resonant manner in a way facts and rationalism cannot. That’s why technocrats, policy wonks and rationalism doesn’t shape the world of politics, a point David Brooks has made in ‘The Social Animal’, the latest cod-psychology account to sweep Westminster.
Scotland’s future story wont be one shaped by cost-counting, the pros and cons of the Barnett formula, fiscal autonomy or full independence. It will be one defined by who we see ourselves as, what we want to be, and where we want to see ourselves in the future. I reckon that story will broadly be of a self-governing nation which develops a new kind of ‘independence’ and which has some kind of union or institutional relationship with England or whatever the rest of the UK is called.
All of this, the consideration of society, state and story, will lead to a debate about where Scotland sees itself geo-politically and geo-strategically on the international stage. Several dimensions will continue to shape a self-governing Scotland.
One will be the continuation of some kind of British dimension, probably mostly, but not exclusively about England. There will be a European pillar. Will Scotland continue with the semi-detached relationship of the UK with the EU, or becomes a Euro-enthusiast? Then there is the American-Atlanticist dimension which covers defence, security and nuclear weapons, but also economic and social values. The dynamic of British politics these last three decades under Thatcher, Blair and now Cameron has been an American-style marketisation of every part of society which is not the direction most Scots want.
Finally, there is the North European sphere. Scotland is a northern country with much in common with our Nordic neighbours, and this is, of the four options, both the weakest and the mostly likely to develop in future years.
All of this requires an ambitious post-nationalist politics, one of shared, fluid sovereignties, making alliances and partnerships, and a very different kind of politics from the Westminster world hung up on old-fashioned sovereignty and power.
This will require some bold leaps and imagination on our part. One area where we can begin to show such thinking and practice is to break out of the narrow thinking of constitutional conventions, or the non-discussions of Calman and ‘the national conversation’. Instead, we need to nurture spaces, vessels and bodies which make Scotland’s journey to self-government real, and take our future into our own hands. I have a feeling it has already begun.