In 2007, Holyrood’s Labour executive trailed Alex Salmond’s SNP in the polls, and Tony Blair, already leaving Downing Street, made a fateful choice. The election, he decided, should focus on his personal honour.
Blair’s Scottish tour was his last significant act as Labour leader, and he had cause to regret it. His very public loathing for Salmond’s SNP, together with voter resentment over his alliance with George W Bush, granted the nationalists victory. Since then, the SNP received resounding approval for a second term. Scotland, no longer cowed by decades of Tory rule, was asserting its independence from Labour, recoiling from three parliaments of domestic failures and foreign policy horrors.
Scotland’s vote in 2014 opens subversive prospects and will decide a great deal. If Scots reject independence, Britain will get a momentary infusion of purpose, having postponed the biggest threat to the British state’s existence. Combined with patriotic reveries over royal babies and opening ceremonies and routine wars, a new conservative confidence will emerge. Without question, by 2030 the UK will have among the highest inequalities in Europe, an economy dominated by arms companies and banks, and a regressive attitude towards climate change. Westminster will resemble Washington, with two (or perhaps three) authoritarian parties divorced from a low-paid majority.
A ‘Yes’ vote would throw the status quo into doubt. Certain collisions, for instance housing Trident nuclear missiles – a key plank of the US’s strategy in Europe – would be unavoidable. The White House and the Pentagon would no longer regard Britain as a reliable diplomatic cover, and a blow to UK prestige would force the remains of Westminster to rethink their global ambitions. All of these events would be virtuous, offering opportunities to redirect wasteful military spending to civilian purposes, and shift subsidies from arms companies to green industries.
“A ‘Yes’ vote would throw the status quo into doubt.”
Scotland’s path would be less clear. By itself, voting Yes offers no guarantees of a better, more progressive future, never mind a radical redistribution of wealth and power. Scotland would face creating a new state under hostile circumstances, after decades in which states have eroded expectations about national citizenship. If Scottish rulers, politicians and managers conform to consensus assumptions about national welfare, and if Scotland’s people do not resist them, we could reproduce many of Britain’s current problems.
But creating a new state opens opportunities as well as risks. Most of Northern Europe has more progressive taxation, a better standard of living, and fairer social guarantees than Britain. They work shorter hours, they are happier, and they suffer fewer inequalities. At minimum, Scotland could aim to copy the example of its non-British neighbours, and define a social citizenship against Britain’s neoliberal citizenship.
A progressive case for Scottish independence would aim to mirror the best approaches to national citizenship under today’s capitalism, creating a ‘Nordic utopia’. To an extent, Salmond’s SNP already adopt this approach. Salmond has proposed that a Scottish constitution would guarantee the right to free education, outlaw homelessness, ban nuclear weapons, and set clear restrictions on armed force. The SNP conference in 2013 promised to examine the Common Weal initiative which aims to put Scotland on a path to Nordic citizenship. The present policy vacuum, with UK-style neoliberalism intellectually exhausted by the 2008 crisis, presents openings for left-of-centre agendas. Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands prove that such models are workable, and few would doubt they are desirable.
But although we find the progressive case appealing, compared to Westminster, we wish to go a step further, and define what we call a radical vision for independence, which we distinguish in three ways.
First, while new contracts between states and citizens might be steps in the right direction, we should not collapse into legalist fallacies. Rights are only worth having if we can defend them. Unless we know how property behaves, our rights are token gestures, not firm guarantees of social progress.
Secondly, a radical vision goes further than the mixed economies of Northern Europe. The Nordic examples are useful, because they prove the nonsense of Westminster’s slogan, ‘there is no alternative’. But like all capitalist societies, they are not equipped for the challenges of the twenty-first century, and a just, sustainable Scotland would have to go further, setting new precedents. To redress climate change and the rise of the 1 per cent, most economic decisions must be transferred out of private hands and placed under public control.
Third, radicals refuse to let Westminster set the agenda about independence. We take every opportunity to condemn the UK’s redundant economic model, its grotesque inequalities and its senile militarism. The Scottish media, upholding conformist ideas of economic and political security, mangles the realities and risks of independence. No ‘Yes’ supporter should fear stating the obvious. Britain, in partnership with the US, leads the way in making the world unsafe; its free market system makes most of its citizens insecure.
At present, many ‘Yes’ supporters feel compelled to show how little will change. Our national discourse is back-to-front.
The independence debate occurs in particular circumstances, amid the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s. This context should cause us to rethink existing models of economic security. Before the crisis, the SNP argued:
‘Off our east coast lies Norway, the second most prosperous country in the world. Off our west coast lies Ireland, the fourth most prosperous country in the world. Off our north coast lies Iceland, the sixth most prosperous country in the world. These independent countries represent an arc of prosperity – and Scotland has every bit as much potential as them.’
Today, the phrase ‘arc of prosperity’ makes a mockery of the economic case for a Yes vote. Ireland’s neoliberal model is an object of pity rather than envy, and Dublin is a byword for financial incompetence. Iceland is hardly a model economy either. Unionists never tire of observing the sorry fate of independent European nations. Small countries are exposed as vulnerable and unable to compete, and nobody wants to end up like Greece. Hence, the neoliberal case for Scottish independence – small, competitive states in niche markets – will not work.
Unionists insist, pointing to crumbling economies around us, that we benefit from the security of a bigger state, and ‘we are better together’. United, they argue, Britain has more power to combat crises and face down the EU.
But are small economies extra vulnerable to recession? On closer inspection, this assumption seems dubious. Britain, a large and globalised economy, suffered a major crash and has continued to worsen. Five years after the banking collapse, output was still 3 per cent down, while even the sluggish US economy has grown by 5 per cent. Other big economies, for example, Spain and Italy, show the futility of measuring an economy’s endurance by its size. By contrast, the economies of Denmark and Norway have weathered the crisis and Sweden has continued to grow. These countries hold their own currencies and tolerate far fewer inequalities.
Small, therefore, does not mean more vulnerable or economically weaker. Instead, to explain crises like 2008, three other variables are decisive. The countries suffering the heaviest crashes were those that clung closest to the neoliberal troika of free trade, deregulation and privatisation.
Together, these factors prompted risky lending booms, often combined with property market bubbles, creating deceptive growth in construction sectors. But so-called ‘free markets’ were not enough to cause the crash. Bankers and financiers only took such heavy risks because they believed governments would not let them fail.
If Scotland promised to socialise the risks of globalised banks, while keeping profits in private hands, then it would face obvious dangers. But if bankers knew that taxpayer bailouts were conditional on conforming to democratic objectives, then a different investment strategy would result. Westminster’s bailouts reflected decades of political preferences towards speculation and debt-fuelled finance.
We believe Scotland has the opportunity in 2014 to break with this model. But independence offers no guarantees of radical, necessary economic change. To make sure we avoid another 2008, we must change on three fronts.
First, Scotland must abandon the view that deregulation, private ownership and free trade benefit the economy.
Secondly, we would need to rebalance rewards, risks and punishments. Those who take risks that harm public welfare should face jail-time, not bailouts.
Third, where recessions do happen, we should end the insanity of austerity, and raise government spending to create jobs and fund investment. In the present era, this would mean a ‘Green New Deal’ to meet our future energy needs, with clear targets for ending poverty.
In opposition to the ‘Washington Consensus’, we must build a consensus against neoliberal policies in Scotland. A Yes vote would not make this appear by magic, and elite interests will risk massive upheaval to maintain their present privileges. But Scotland already possesses resources to build a better society. This, of course, comprises North Sea oil and our green energy potential, among the highest in Europe. But it also includes a left-of-centre climate of opinion, which would have far greater muscle under independence. Political will, allied to organised working people, is crucial to our future as much as oil or climate infrastructure.
So while independence poses risks, these should be placed in proper context. The prospect of Westminster rule means decades of manufactured uncertainty. Remaining in the UK endangers livelihoods, by forcing vulnerable people to rely on the market, as the Bedroom Tax shows, or by sacrificing our youth, at the US’s behest, in illegal wars. If Scots vote No, they will secure the present insecurity.
We can have no illusions about contemporary Scotland. The wealthiest Scots earn 273 (two hundred and seventy three!) times more than the poorest families. This shabby order is indefensible, and independence should serve those who wish to change it.
Scottish voters are judging more than Britain’s economic model. The 2014 vote poses questions of identity, experience and oppression. A depressing feature of Scottish public dialogue has been the sterile, uncritical conceptions of ‘nationalism’.
In the mainstream media universe, Salmond is a nationalist, but pith-helmeted Blair and Brown are… internationalists? The Daily Record, to take one example, ran an editorial urging Scottish trade unionists to turn away from the siren’s call of blood and soil. ‘The clue is in the name – unions are about unity,’ they argued.
These editorials are correct in certain details. Nation states divide more than they unite; humanity deserves better than arbitrary borders separating people by so-called ‘ethnic origins’. But this abstract truism adds nothing to understanding 2014.
In historical terms, the most dangerous nationalisms derive from powerful states. This has dragooned young men and women from humble backgrounds to sacrifice their lives, face down in muddy fields, for the territorial ambitions of speculators, aristocrats and militarists. By contrast, other nationalisms belong to weaker nations, and aim to arouse passionate indignation at injustice, to enfeeble stronger rivals and gain support for statehood. These latter movements are dismissed by powerful nations as pathological. Hence, ruling groups claim they are immune from nationalist temptations, which belong to simpletons and backward peoples, but their political authority rests on mobilising loyalty to the state. Clearly, Britain’s dominant ideas are nationalisms of this sort, expecting citizens’ instinctive and uncritical docility, while warning that rival sovereignties are toxic.
The SNP relies on two methods to create a new nation state. First, it seeks public approval for its party policies in the semi-autonomy of Holyrood. Secondly, it aims to mobilise a social movement to build a popular mandate for Scottish sovereignty. There is scant evidence that it attempts either practice in a divisive fashion, not in recent decades.
By contrast, what we call British nationalism revolves around invading and occupying other nation states. During routine Westminster wars, the media bombards the UK with divisive and racialised images, from Muslims refusing to conform to ‘our’ values, to immigrants arriving to steal ‘our’ jobs. The Sun, the Daily Mail and those other ‘patriotic’ outlets are never short of MPs and ministers to stoke fears of ‘Others’. Pompous narratives of an aristocracy of Empire, with a right to rule the world, linger in Westminster discourse. ‘Century upon century it has been the destiny of Britain to lead other nations,’ intoned Tony Blair. ‘That should not be a destiny that is part of our history. It should be part of our future.’
Britain cannot aspire to dominance today, but this reinforces the nationalist element. For policy makers, reasserting Britain on the world stage, by allying with the US, remains an overarching goal.
Both Scottish and British nationalism use mythology and appeals to tradition to gain consent and to steer voters’ political aspirations. But are the desires of social movements for autonomy more divisive than the desire of powerful states to enhance their influence by violent force?
While Britain is consistent, Scottish nationalism is confused with respect to empire and race. The problem is that knowing where Britain ends and Scotland begins is very difficult. Scots played a practical role in the British empire, as soldiers, settlers, churchmen, traders, financiers and slave owners. An ‘absurdly high proportion’ of empire administrators were Scottish, notes Neal Ascherson. Scots also contributed to the empire’s emotions and sentiments. And thus, today, the Scottish identity blends with nostalgia for world conquest.
“We must build a consensus against neoliberal policies in Scotland.”
Untangling a Scottish sense of pride from a British and Protestant sense of privilege is tortuous. Scottish identity has increased in recent decades; but its roots are often very shallow. Scots can sustain bonds to the distant past while supporting a practical alliance with the British state. Research shows that how Scottish you feel has little or no impact on how you will vote in 2014. Even those who firmly reject British identity are not guaranteed to vote Yes; far from it.
In terms of emotion, tradition and identity, the key battle for 2014 is about Britain, not Scotland. But the mainstream Yes campaign avoids the issue of the UK. Instead, it has allowed the media to frame this element of the debate. Yes campaigners are urged to concentrate on the ‘positive’ message, making Scots optimistic about being Scottish. We think that unless this bias is reversed, the debate will be lost. Britishness, we argue, is the missing link in the debate, and failing to discuss it limits the Yes case.
We are excited by the prospect of breaking up Britain. A Yes vote would close a dark chapter of Scottish history, and force all UK nations to confront our colonial past. It would end the fantasy of holding Europe down with nuclear force, rather than diplomacy. And it would weaken, beyond redemption, one of the most reactionary American client regimes in world affairs. As internationalists, we welcome these prospects, and wish to persuade others across Britain that Scottish independence is the first step towards changing our unjust society.