The architects of a new nation

Today, the Scottish government launched its blueprint for an independent Scotland. On Saturday, Robin McAlpine was one of the closing speakers at the Radical Independence Conference, attended by more than 1000 people. This is his best memory of what he said.

Robin McAlpine
26 November 2013

The closing plenary at the Radical Independence Conference, where this speech was given

We have five massive tasks ahead of us. Of these tasks winning the referendum is only the first – and I'll come back to that. But when we say that we seek independence not for its own sake but for what we can achieve once we have the tools, we mean it. The accusations that we're living in fantasy-land or that the radical independence story is one of platitudes and vagueness is false. The vacuity of these accusations will become clear as we start to speak more about the tasks for which we are preparing. We have not only a will to change Scotland but a very clear idea about what must be done.

So yes, task one is to win the referendum – I will come back to that. Then, once we do, we have only a short time to prepare for the next four tasks. Make no mistake, we are preparing already and we are clear-headed and determined about what that means.

First, we must prepare to write a constitution. The opportunity to build Scotland's future on the basis of a written statement of what citizens may expect from their state, a constitution which ensures that as far as possible it is the citizen who shapes the future, that decentralises power, that sets out a path on which we can travel, this is a great opportunity. The Scottish Government has promised that it will be an open and inclusive process; this is greatly to be welcomed. We must hold them to their word – and then we must work tirelessly to fill the content of that constitution.

After all, if it is not us who write that constitution, who will it be?

But we must not get carried away with the belief that a constitution, in itself, is the same thing as a well-governed country. A constitution is a great opportunity but it is not an autopilot button which can be engaged in the assumption that things will just run themselves. It is a chance to set out the basis of our society, but the building of that society will not wait for the words of a constitution.

So second, we must take control of process of negotiating the separation of the states of Scotland and whatever the rest of the United Kingdom chooses to call itself. The debate over this process has so far taken place largely as framed by the usual defeatism of the No campaign. Up until now the media has been content to go along with the idea that the negotiations for separation are a process of unstoppable, unbeatable Whitehall mandarins lumbering Scotland with massive debt and a poor deal. That debate talks only of the allocation of liabilities and the weakness of Scotland.

Of course, one might well ask if those Whitehall mandarins are really as all-powerful as they would have us believe. One might wonder whether people who negotiate unbreakable deals for aircraft carriers which have no aircraft to carry are really so masterful that we should shake in our boots. I have worked with civil servants for many years and I personally feel no fear whatsoever at our ability to negotiate. Partly because Scotland has a very much stronger hand to play than the media narrative will allow, but partly because in Scotland, in our trade unions, business sector, legal industry and in academia we have more than enough negotiating and advisory talent to ensure that Scotland will get a successful outcome. In fact, over the piece I think that the rest of the UK has a much bigger problem than do we – they want us to take a big chunk of its debt.

But if we're going to do that they'll have to give up our share of the assets. So hold this in your mind; Scotland owns 22 stops on the London Underground. Despite my lack of ability to see what is 'national' about a train that runs round and round one city five hundred miles away from me, London decided to designate the tube as 'national infrastructure' so we've been paying our share of it. So which stations would you like? Westminster? We could make MPs walk the extra distance from Victoria, just out of meanness. And perhaps all the tube stops in the City of London (ticket price £4.50, unaccountable bonus added on top of that, £1,000). Or perhaps we'll take the asset value instead. Along with the asset value of Diego Garcia (yup, we own nine per cent of an island, though I favour giving it back to the people we stole it from), the asset value of every building the British state owns anywhere, the asset value of every military asset (though we should not take a penny of the blood money that would be our share of the cost of Trident).

And of course Sterling is one of our assets. I have no doubt we'll easily be able to secure Sterling for our currency for as long as we want – despite the endless bluster from Westminster types the act of throwing Scotland out of Sterling would plunge Sterling into a massive balance of trade deficit overnight (without our oil and whisky, what does the UK export?). And since the international money markets would be quick to punish any such stupidity let us discount the idea that we'll be forced out. And if we are, how will the debt be imposed on us exactly? Of course, I doubt we'll still want to be in Sterling for long since it is a very badly managed currency, but negotiation won't be difficult.

We must see this process of negotiation not as a routine act of accountancy but a creative act of nation-building. None of the decisions we make during negotiations are irreversible, but if we can get the right foundation it will make an enormous difference. What we choose to own at the birth of the new Scotland will matter. Perhaps we forego some other asset value in favour of taking RBS. We could transform it into a national investment fund for industry and break the rest of it up and use its property assets to establish a proper local and regional banking system that might once again engender trust between banks and their customers. Or think about our international presence. It is probably not in Scotland's interests to seek to keep a permanent presence in every country Britain currently has an embassy, but choosing where we do want to have a presence makes a big difference. For example, a Scotland which pursues a Common Weal future might have much in common with the Mercosur group of Latin American nations. Not only might we join with them in their efforts to rebalance global political power (it was Mercosur who stopped the WTO from its pernicious liberalisation of global markets) but there are some very obvious trade partnerships that would make sense too.

If we see negotiation as a creative act of establishing a new nation then a chore becomes a massive opportunity. Again, I have no doubt that Scotland has more than enough capacity to make a first-rate job of it.

If anyone walks out of here today with a lingering thought in their mind that this is 'nothing to do with us', that someone else will be doing these things, get those thoughts out of your head now. If we do not shape and drive a negotiating strategy, someone else will. We cannot allow that to happen.

Thirdly, we are going to have to rebuild many of the institutions of our state. We will need to rebuild a civil services, a foreign office, a tax system, a military, a regulatory system. We will be designing many of these crucial institutions from scratch. So think clearly; right now, who do you think is best placed to design a new tax system? Make no mistake, while KPMG or PWC or Deloitte would be most awfully upset if their beloved, corrupted UK were to meet its demise, they will still have on their desks a tender proposal which would allow them to design our tax system as a tax dodger system. So they must be stopped.

It is time that we celebrated the talent we have in Scotland. Anyone who heard Ailsa McKay or Rafi De Santos in this afternoon's plenary will be clear that we are not lacking in people who know what they are talking about and who have the talent, will and drive to change Scotland. At the Reid Foundation we are lucky to be working with them every day of the week. But we must also think carefully about where there are gaps in our skills – and how we fill those gaps. For example, there are lots of tax experts in Scotland but they are almost all in the tax avoidance industry. If we are to stop KPMG from replicating the UK tax system which is optional for the rich and for corporations, we need to think where else we look. Perhaps our best bet would be to talk to Sweden or Norway or Denmark, all countries which have infinitely better tax systems than ours. I am confident we could negotiate a deal with them to help us design a tax system.

Again, anyone who makes the task of rebuilding our institutions sound like a problem is to be mistrusted. It is these institutions that lie at the heart of the UK's failure and the ability to rebuild them is one of the greatest opportunities independence presents us with. Think what we could do, where we could do it and what it would mean. I spoke in Cumnock town hall last week and promised them they could have the foreign office – they're close to the state-owned airport and it would be great if the world's diplomats realised there is more to Scotland than Edinburgh. This is yet another creative opportunity we should not only grasp but which we must lead. If it is not us, then who do we imagine it will be?

Fourth, we need to prepare for elections in 2016. In the end, it is democracy that will save Scotland or fail Scotland. Again, the time when progressive forces thought that the dynamic of elections was beyond them must be consigned to history. It is us that have the capacity, enthusiasm and determination to drive the direction of debate. So that is what we must do. I want to see the Scottish Greens built up to be a major force in Scottish politics. I think that, in time, there is a very strong case for a major radical left party in Scotland – although I worry that there is not enough time to establish such a party (or to rapidly build up the SSP) to be a credible force in 2016 and that trying to do so might redirect too many of our efforts.

What is key is that in 2016, at least one major mainstream party with a real chance of forming a government goes into the election standing on a Common Weal manifesto. How we ensure that is a matter we must turn our minds to quickly and urgently. There are a variety of possibilities, but it would be daft to imagine it will just happen. If we don't take a grip, someone else will.

So five massive tasks, each a chance to do everything we have wanted to do but couldn't because of the British establishment. You may imagine that, somehow or other, after a Yes vote the Scottish establishment will simply effortlessly fill that power vacuum. In which case your imagination runs away with you – the Scottish establishment isn't that big, it isn't that strong and it's nothing like that clever. The Scottish establishment survives on the direct life support system that is the British establishment. When the inhabitants of the New Club look behind them and discover that the UK civil service is no longer there to appoint them to positions of power, when the City of London is no longer able to throw a ring of steel round them to prevent any uppity politician challenging their dominance, when the British Military no longer pulls the strings, when the Tories are on the fringes and perhaps when the Daily Mail no longer exists, what do you imagine will sustain that establishment? Their political connections to parties they despise? Their ability to enlist public support? Money alone will no longer protect them.

That power vacuum may not last long, but it is one we are capable of filling faster and more effectively than are they. After all, if they gain any positions of power we can of course just remove them again. Democratising the state will change everything.

And so, look around you. Look at the numbers in this room. Watch the thousands cheering us on over social media. Look at the progress we have made. We came here last year knowing not what we could become. We have improved enormously in the year since and while we must improve much more, we are becoming something no-one could have predicted. We have become the centre of gravity of Scottish politics. It is to us the others are responding, it is our ideas that are being debated, it is our vision of Scotland's future that is speaking to the people. This room is the centre of Scottish politics, not the periphery. We have the power, the numbers, the knowledge, the skills and the support. This is our opportunity. Does anyone in here want to squander it?

This morning we walked through these doors as activists. Next year, when we come here in the days after a Yes vote, we must walk through these doors as the architects of a new nation. We must raise our expectations and we must be focussed. Because if we don't, someone else will.

Which brings me back to the first task; winning the referendum. We have some wonderful thinking and all the energy in the world. But we will not win this campaign with slogans alone, and we will not win it only in discussion groups of ourselves. We have the numbers, but unless we are making those numbers count we might as well not have them. What will win this campaign is knuckle against door. The rich are voting No, it is for us to make sure that everyone else comes out and votes Yes. I have spoken in town halls all over Scotland and I do not for a second doubt that we can do it. But we must work, So if you've canvassed 100 doors, make it 500. If you've pushed leaflets through 1,000 doors, make it 5,000. We have a few months of work left. If we work, if we work like we've never worked before, we all know that this referendum is ours.

And then we wake up with a nation before us that we can build. A Common Weal nation that puts all of us first.

We will not blow this chance. Work, win, and I promise you we will not blow this chance.

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