Debating independence, avoiding the issues

Scotland faces a range of major challenges relating to demographic pressures, how to nurture the next generation, spending cuts and economic distribution. But the lack of substance in the campaigns around Scottish independence is depriving Scots of the debate these issues demand. 

Gerry Hassan
19 June 2012

The times they are a-changing all over the world, from Greece and Spain to the USA and China. There is unrest, voices of protest rising and authorities reacting with confusion as they cling to the wreckage of failed economic orthodoxy.

At the same time the battle of Scotland unfolds. Thankfully it isn’t life or death – though to some it seems that way – but the real issues which ought to be at stake are hard to find in the tepid and unimaginative debate that is unfolding.

The official independence campaign saw John Swinney this week declare his support for a ‘highly integrated UK financial services market’; Alex Salmond was sanguine at Leveson when asked about the need for either British or Scottish media solutions. Meanwhile, the pro-union campaign, with their ‘positive’ slogan, ‘Better Together’ are portraying a ‘Better Yesterday’ Britain, the mythical land of post-war social democratic fairness and order which never really existed and which we can’t return to.

The contours are thus clear. We have two significantly flawed campaigns facing each other, both of which are conservative and cautious, high on rhetoric but thin on substance. Indeed, they are a new form of CFCs - content free campaigns - and we have to be wary they don’t irreversibly harm our political environment!

Neither side seemingly has much appetite to address the big challenges and issues Scotland is going to face. It is much easier for them to pose an abstract vision of independence, on the one hand, versus a complete fantasyland version of the union on the other.

Scotland’s future should instead be about bringing to the fore the questions we face as a society. Then we could work out which kind of constitutional settlement most aids the kind of Scotland we aspire to.

These will include some of the fundamentals which are shaping our society. There are the demographic pressures building in Scotland. We have an ageing population as more of us live longer, with resulting pressures on public services which are difficult for politicians to address because elderly voters turn out more to vote o(lok at once rabid right-winger Michael Forsyth defend bus passes for the affluent older voter!)

There is how we nurture young people. It is true that public bodies now talk of early years intervention, but we need to address more important things – the power of emotional literacy, the issue of love, play and relationships.

We have huge strains and tensions in our democratic system for all the rhetoric of ‘new politics’ a decade ago. Scotland is a truncated democracy where the voices of ‘forgotten Scotland’ have been ignored by our political class for at least a generation.

Then there is the size and nature of our public sector and how we afford it. We will soon face the biggest public spending cuts since the war, and somehow we have to find a way to avoid the twin cul-de-sacs of the accountant-consultant mindset and the traditionalist ‘defend everything’ approach.

Related to this is the question of distributional choices and consequences. The people who gain most from our public services are the middle class who know how to work the system, advocate for and protect themselves; the people who it least helps are those who most need it. We need to start revisiting this and asking if affluent Scots cannot make a contribution to the greater good. Baby boomer Scotland is one group who are asset rich and gained from the bulge in property prices, and who could contribute something back to help young people get into the housing and job markets.

There is the question of how we want to do business. After the crashes of RBS and Rangers FC, two of the most totemic Scottish global brands, can’t we at least reflect on the limits of freewheeling, socially irresponsible, financial bubble capitalism? These giants were lauded and beyond criticism until they fell, so might there not be an old-fashioned morality tale in all this?

What this tells us is that we need to get explicit in a debate about Scotland’s future and talk about what different futures might look like. Part of Scottish opinion seems to permanently live in the world of 1945-75 and yearn for the return of the British post-war settlement and the ordered, managed society which went with it. But we cannot go back to this past because it was a product of numerous factors which no longer hold good today, such as the nature of the international system of global capitalism with fixed exchange rates. All of this began to fall apart in 1971 with the abandonment of the Bretton Woods world system.

We have to aim our aspirations and dreams higher than do those who are mired in constant nostalgia about what anti-Tory Scotland or ‘civic Scotland’ did in the 1980s. Some of the leading participants in the Scottish Constitutional Convention, a talking shop of the elect (and non-elected) seem to have never stopped talking about it since.

We can’t have pseudo-participative democracy forums or the Potemkin village gathering of ‘civic Scotland’ as the answer. That is what one version of the great and good have always done: talked the peoples’ talk while hoovering up the committee places to make sure they remain centrestage.

Instead, we have to try to change and widen this debate from the 1980s frame of mind (ands in some case, personnel). It isn’t an accident that there is no pro-independence think tank, or a Scottish equivalent of Compass, the imaginative centre-left group. There were calls to set up a Scottish Citizens movement by some of the churches based on London Citizens, the powerful grass roots organisation, but the London group proved to be insensitive to Scottish interests and blocked it.

Independence and pro-union supporters have to recognise that unionism and nationalism are not enough on their own to debate and decide the future. We need different ideas: communitarianism, self-determination and new economic thinking.

Fundamental to this is the relevance of empathy, dialogue and listening, and being able to recognise that whatever your views the other side(s) have a rationale and legitimacy. Too many nationalists think there is no case for the union, and there are too many unionists who have no insight into the power and pull of the call for independence.

I think we need, firstly, a campaign against CFC (content free campaign) Scotland and secondly, one for a different Scotland. That requires a real debate. One where we pose the difficult, painful choices about what kind of Scotland we want to live in and what kind of people we want to be. From that we could then explore whether we want to be independent or not. And in the process we will have positively sketched out the kind of future we want and shown a self-government of the mind which will aid us getting to where we want. 


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