Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in the future
And time future contained in the past.
T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets (1936)
This week the Scottish independence debate reaches new levels with the launch of the ‘Yes Scotland’ pro-independence campaign, the emergence of the shape of the pro-union campaign, and the spectre of Tony Blair hovering threateningly over Scottish politics.
Scottish independence has long been viewed by the British political classes as eccentric and unworldly. The Economist’s ‘Bagehot’ column made a revealing comment this week when it stated that ‘the SNP took control of the Scottish Government in 2011’, showing that for many in London this debate (and the threat of Scottish self-government) only really began with the election of a majority SNP Government in May last year.
The week of the launch of the ‘Yes Scotland’ campaign has confirmed the problematic right-wing trajectory of British politics, the Conservative Party and the Westminster village. First, there has been the leaking of the Beecroft deregulation report, which proposed that small employers should be able to ‘hire and fire’ at will, and which has been met with derision from Lib Dems. Second, more impressively and worryingly, was the huge report from the Taxpayers Alliance and Institute of Directors, the 2020 Tax Commission, which brought together 19 ‘experts’ (18 men and a solitary woman) to propose the toxic mix of a 30% single income tax, abolition of corporation tax and inheritance tax, and the shrinking of the state as a percentage from half to one-third of GDP.
This backdrop has a massive impact on Scotland, as UK politics heads inexorably towards a deregulated, marketised, individualised fantasy world which aspires to be some kind of Singapore or Hong Kong sitting off the European continent. And of course, there is the now nearly inevitable in/out European referendum, posing the question: what kind of union is it that the pro-union forces want to defend?
No longer is it good enough for the pro-independence argument to be a ‘Big Tent’ approach which postpones all decisions to post-independence and attempts to encompass tax competition, reducing corporation tax, and world class public services. Instead, the pro-independence forces are going to have to be explicit, and to begin to imagine and create the Scotland of the future, including taking some of the first steps now.
Here are seven suggestions for an agenda for independence and self-government which goes beyond constitutional issues to embracing the economic, social, cultural, democratic and the international.
1. A Different Tradition of Political Economy
The Anglo-American model of capitalism, economic development and corporate governance has increasingly shown itself to be short-termist, fixated on global winners, widening inequality, and not connected to any real viable corporate social responsibility. The SNP and pro-independence forces have said little on this since the collapse of RBS and HBOS, and yet the crisis of the Anglo-American model has huge consequences for Scotland and wider afield. The UK is one of the most unequal nations in the rich world, its economic development aiding huge inequality across the UK, and this needs reflecting in a different economic debate north of the border. The land that gave the world both Adam Smith and Robert Owen must be able to have a debate about the moral dimensions of the economy and the limits of short-term, short attention span hyper-capitalism.
If we cannot imagine a post-capitalism at the moment, we have to envisage a different, better capitalism. And I have a radical suggestion. If we are to talk about ‘social justice’ we have to talk about the economy and break the post-Thatcherite Faustian path between globalisation and progressives, a path which both New Labour and the SNP have gone down. Otherwise we are just continuing the Scots tradition of focusing on ‘welfare nationalism’.
2. A John Smith Social Covenant
Scotland is scarred by deep, inter-generational inequality and poverty; this has marked our society for the last three decades since the bitter deindustrialisation post-1979. The difference across Britain between the top 10% and lowest 10% in incomes is 95.8:1 in England (aided by the grotesque levels of inequality in London of 273:1), but only slightly less in Scotland, 93.4:1 and Wales, 89.5:1 (thanks to Danny Dorling for directing me to these figures). Despite the pervasive story of modern Scotland that we are an egalitarian land the reality is that Scotland is the most unequal part of the UK after London and the North West of England.
It is now twenty years since the launch of the John Smith Commission on Social Justice which had a significant impact on the ‘New Deal’ and challenging New Right thinking on welfare. Scotland doesn’t need any more commissions but we should renew our ideals on social justice and take a reality check on the gap between who we think we are and what we actually do. One option is to bring together a John Smith Social Covenant to report in two years time, on the 20th anniversary of Smith’s death and the final report of the Social Justice Commission.
This Covenant should be mandated to articulate how we close the gap in Scotland’s most deprived communities within a decade. This would entail: understanding the complex story of success and failure in New Labour’s record on poverty, addressing child poverty in a way never before attempted, and emphasising that if you are in work you should not be poor. This would advance the notion of a Living Wage, but more importantly embrace an enlightened idea of what good work is, something which would have major implications for public bodies and business.
3. The Missing Scotland of Our Democracy
Many have applauded the credentials of ‘the new politics’ of post-devolution Scotland. There is sadly at the same time a widespread silence about an uncomfortable truth: our democracy is shaped by a truncated and manipulated politics, where those that vote are increasingly an affluent, older ‘selectorate’. Looking at the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, if we went back to turnout levels of only 25 years ago in the mid-1980s, nearly one million (977,742) Scots are now missing from the democratic debate.
The missing million Scots are mostly younger, poorer, and live in the West of Scotland and Central Belt and what were once called ‘traditional Labour heartlands’. We cannot have any meaningful debate about self-government without these voices being heard and included; the Scottish Government has to look at a voter mobilisation and engagement strategy to reconnect these people to our democracy. Most haven’t given up on society, but have given up on traditional party politics and a belief that their votes matter.
4. The Disconnection of Digital Scotland
The mainstream global debate now celebrates digital inclusivity and connectivity as the answer to all our problems as citizens, consumers and social beings. Technological determinism is everywhere in our lives from the ‘death’ of print media, books and physical records, to the role of ‘social media’ in the Arab spring.
Research by Ofcom presented to the Scottish Parliament last year showed a very different picture. Broadband and PC access in Glasgow and the West of Scotland was at shockingly low levels versus the rhetoric of digital liberation. Ofcom stated, ‘The reasons for this are complex but lower income levels and older age groups are less likely to take broadband services’. Yet the same research showed that there was a ‘Scottish effect’ which went beyond material poverty: with lower income groups having 30% Broadband access compared to 55% across the UK; 16-34 year olds have 65% access in Scotland and 82% across the UK. And this digital divide has an even more pronounced ‘Glasgow effect’.
There is an alarming low level of awareness of this disconnect. One businessperson working in media related activities that I put this too replied ‘all the young people will be looking at their apps’. We have to bring centrestage to the public debate the disconnections and limitations which disfigure the lives of so many Scots, and address how public bodies such as Ofcom include within their remit a mandate to understand this and connect up the digitally disenfranchised part of our nation.
5. Where is Scottish Self-Government Going Geo-Politically?
Part of the story of any nation is where is situates itself geo-politically. Some nations at points in their history shift how they see themselves; Finland at the end of the Cold War or Turkey’s relationship with Europe and the Middle East are examples. In some respects, the ‘arc of prosperity’ was an attempt to address this, but also avoid the issue. Scotland will always have some influence from its Anglo-American heritage and the union, but can we talk about being a bit more Nordic, and life in a northern nation? Can we imagine different geo-political futures, identities and unions?
6. A Little Bit Nordic Now
We can aspire to emphasise some of the characteristics of our Nordic neighbours but if we want this to be more than a vague hope we have to realise that we could begin to emphasis a little bit of Nordic-ness now (see The Nordic Model: embracing globalisation and sharing risks). For example, Nordic societies have an embedded set of relationships between government, business and trade unions working in partnership towards long-term economic and social goals. There is nothing to stop the Scottish Government progressing some of this under devolution.
7. An Oil Fund for the Mind
The Norwegian Oil Fund is much referenced in Scottish debates but seldom understood. One thing it does which we could learn from and adapt is that a small percentage of the Norwegian fund is earmarked for international conflict resolution, and has played an important role in such conflicts as the Tamil Tiger-Sri Lanka civil war.
This could be an international statement of who we are as a society, that we develop a dedicated Oil Fund for the Mind which gives 1% of its income to supporting social justice at home and conflict resolution abroad. The Norwegian initiative has over the decades built up a reputation and expertise for aiding reconciliation in the world; wouldn’t it be empowering if we could do the same?
A Philosophy of Self-Determination
Finally, what draws the above together is that the Scottish independence project has to be about more than just nationalism. It has to have a societal project and a set of values which point towards and inform a different society and collective future. We have to embrace a more radical politics than that on offer in the current National Performance Framework, recognise trade-offs and conflicts between different goals, and that ‘smarter’ economic growth is not the painless panacea presented by some, but can come at the cost of social injustice and environmental degradation; the recent Oxfam Scotland ‘Humankind’ index showed some of the possibilities of such an approach.
Many of us find repugnant the actions and behaviours of the British state these last few decades, and Anglo-American capitalism, and a moral dimension has always been a major part of Scottish politics. But we cannot automatically assume that Scottish self-government is morally superior to the rotting edifices of the British body politic; we have to actively make it so.
This entails shifting the independence debate from self-government to self-determination, to embracing a philosophy, set of values and credos which inform how we act as a society (see Radical Scotland: arguments for self-determination, edited by myself and Rosie Ilett). For too long, the Scottish establishment debate has been about what institutions will and won’t do, and what they let you do; even independence has often been framed this way. We need to shift to self-determination, which has a political practice as well as a psychological set of insights about change in terms of autonomy, resilience and control.
All of this: the general and specific suggestions above, developing a philosophy of self-determination, and being explicit about our rejection of Anglo-American capitalism, requires action and that necessitates resources. So far the election of a majority SNP Government hasn’t seen any real major mobilisation of resources by pro-independence forces, and in the last few decades, such sentiments have not had a good track record at nurturing and aiding into creation new agencies, bodies and spaces.
Indeed, across the nationalist, self-government and social democratic traditions, there is a conspicuous absence of creating new spaces, voices and forces. If we are to have an independence debate which is genuinely about a different Scottish future, we have to put an effort into creating a genuine ecology of diverse, radical, challenging self-government/self-determination forces.
This will necessitate a philosophy and vision of Scottish society, a view of these isles post the current union, and an internationalist outlook. This will require a society project: that of self-determination, and a new language which isn’t obsessed with absolutes, sovereignties or separatism, but about a new relationship of equals and respect: a vision of interindependence, of self-government in the age of interdependence.