The UK has failed but we have to address Scottish shortcomings
Newsnet Scotland, April 26th 2014
The Scottish independence debate is about many things. It is about the state of modern Scotland and its different possible futures. But it is also about the condition of the UK, its multiple crises and how these impact north of the border.
The state of the United Kingdom is one of the main drivers of the Scottish debate. It has become an accepted fact that the UK is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world, ranked fourth in a study by Prof. Danny Dorling of Oxford University. London is, on some indicators, the most unequal city in the entire developed world.
The City of London and London as a world city ‘crowd out’ the rest of the UK: the latter accounting for 12% of UK population and 22% of GDP. The UK has become disfigured by uneven economic development on a scale unseen in the rest of Western Europe. Then there is the level of debt which the UK has counting personal, corporate and state debts which has fallen from 502% in September 2012 to 471% at the end of 2013 according to McKinsey: the second highest of any major economy apart from Japan. Government debt, the part that obsesses Cameron and Osborne, represents just over one-sixth of all UK debt.
Then there are the limitations and shortcomings of what passes for British democracy. The UK has never ever become a fully-fledged political democracy. Only one part of the constitution is democratic, the House of Commons, while all across British public life relics and practices of feudalism, and the over-class who used to rule us with impunity remain.
For anyone who thinks this an over-statement, Enoch Powell, no radical left-winger, but an astute right-wing constitutional observer, commented in 1982 that, ‘I slightly bridle when the word ‘democracy’ is applied to the United Kingdom. Instead of that I say, ‘we are a parliamentary nation’. If you … put us into the jar labeled ‘democracy’, I can’t complain. I can only tell you that you have understood very little about the United Kingdom’.
The UK has, as it has become more characterised by its multiple crises – economic, social, democratic and its failure to become a European country – increasingly obsessed with the past. To be more accurate this is about the power of a mythical past – one which is being reconjured by the UK’s elites to present a compelling good story about what the country is for and about.
This year’s commemorations of the First World War (100th) along with the Second World War (75th) and D-Day (70th) come in a long line of major anniversaries past: Trafalgar and Battle of Britain and to come in the following years, Waterloo for example in 2015.
The UK’s dominant stories can be seen as a fantasyland disconnected from the realities of most people. Remember David Cameron’s rhapsody last year in Moscow after being told by a Russian Government spokesperson that the UK was a ‘small island … no one pays any attention to them’ when he had what many described as his ‘Hugh Grant moment’. Property developer Kirstie Allsopp inadvertently articulated this mindset last year when William and Kate produced a royal baby, and in amidst all the celebrations and commentary, observed of the state of the UK, ‘What is wrong with Britain being a Disneyland?’
Disneyland might be a fine place for Allsopp, considering her father is the Sixth Baron Hindlip, but for the rest of us it has damaging consequences. Disneyland is not a real place, and pretending the UK is such, infantilises and diminishes the people as citizens and adults.
These are all reasons which drive many on the self-government and independence side. Yet at the same time if this debate is to produce economic and social change then people have to recognise that in many ways modern Scotland falls short in numerous areas of life we pride ourselves that we care about.
Modern Scotland is not the egalitarian, inclusive land sometimes portrayed by some pro-independence supporters and ‘civic Scotland’ voices. For example, Scotland is nearly as unequal as England in terms of income – both being disfigured by grotesque inequalities.
Scotland has the worst health inequalities in Western Europe, and in terms of educational opportunities, across our society from early years to school, college and university, there is what can only be described as an educational apartheid disadvantaging working class children.
Our society is not, as some present, without elites and establishments, but instead a country where many, including lots of radical voices, choose to ignore inconvenient truths. To take one example Scotland has one of the most extreme concentrations of ownership of private estates anywhere in the world.
All of the above are not synonymous with the picture many present of Scotland as centre-left, radical, social democratic or even socialist in its credentials. Instead, this paints a picture of a society disfigured by the power elites and forces of conservatism and privilege – whether landed gentry, corporate power, myriad institutions of the public sector or local government.
Who is responsible for this state of Scotland today? To some the answer is clear – it is all the fault of external forces from the nature of the union and UK, to the values and more Southern focus of Tory and Tory led governments. But that does not stand up to sustained scrutiny as the full story.
The inequities, injustices and blighted lives which disfigure too much of Scotland are rooted in a number of factors. There is the responsibility of Scottish people, elites and public institutions in this, along with that of British elites and institutions. British governments down the years have to take a major share of the blame, but so do the cumulative collective decisions of Scots in areas of public life which have been autonomous or devolved long before a Parliament came about: law, education and health for example.
The multiple crises and failures of the UK are rightly a major part of this independence debate. The progressive aspirations and values of many of the pioneers and idealists who shaped the Labour Party and labour movement look to have become unrealisable, given the state, condition and future direction of the UK.
This is a powerful set of negatives but more is needed if Scotland is to embark on radical change and break with the failed economic and social model of the last three decades. This requires that Scotland has an honest look at our country and our society, how we make our public policy choices, and the relationship between our words and actions.
This is an argument I have put forward in the just published ‘Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland’ addressing the fundamental and damaging shortcomings of British politics and what passes for democracy and their inter-relationship with the many failings and crises of the UK.
At the same time, as noting the above, this debate has to be radical and far-reaching, rather than simply rejecting what the UK has become and supporting an ‘abstract’ Scottish future of independence.
The shape of our collective future is being made and played out now, and that requires that we address now with honesty and candour the limits of much of Scottish public life, our myths and the power of homegrown elites. That is a demanding prospect: challenging the still powerful stranglehold of the old closed order who hold sway across large aspects of society, but their strength and legitimacy is weakening, and it is possible to say the winds of change are blowing across Scotland. Now is the time to aid, encourage and nurture such change.