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The big question: who ‘lost’ Scotland?

Whatever the result of the referendum, the idea of independence has been normalised, with even Better Together failing to make the case for the union. In a sense, Scotland has already been 'lost'. How has this happened?

Gerry Hassan
14 March 2014
Old_Scottish_Office_-_geograph.org_.uk_-_612081.jpg

The old Scottish Office - wikimedia

The independence debate is a product of Scotland changing over decades and generations. Subsequently, this debate has also accelerated and abetted change, challenging old assumptions and throwing light on parts of our public life never previously thoroughly examined.

This transformation will continue whatever the result. One big observation, which needs to be stated, is that whatever the referendum result independence has already won. And Scotland has already been ‘lost’ – a point understood by some of the more thoughtful pro-union observers such as Alex Massie and James Forsyth in ‘The Spectator’.

First, what do I mean by stating that independence has already ‘won’? For a start this does not translate into any automatic balance of forces in the referendum ballot – a point some pro-independent supporters thought I meant when I previously made this strategic observation.

Instead, independence has become normalised – which translates into it coming in from the cold and margins and becoming a mainstream political demand. That’s a massive, generational shift compared to where we were previously.

Prior to 2011, Scottish elites, institutions and pro-union opinion, didn’t take any of this seriously. Some still do not in the inner sanctums of the London power elites. When the Westminster political class talk of ‘the referendum’ they rarely mean our imminent vote on the horizon, but the prospect of being dragged kicking and screaming by Nigel Farage to the prospect of the Britexit European vote.

Independence is something which is now tangible, talked about and ruminated over. Indeed, much of the serious debate is now about whether the SNP’s offer is ‘real’ independence or home rule by another name, with the ins and outs of currency union, the Treasury and European Union membership widely discussed.

Second, there is the approach of ‘Better Together’, the cross-party campaign for the union who seem to be running a virtual reality, almost post-modern interpretation of what amounts to a campaign. Despite ample resources there only real activity so far is directed towards TV and radio studios, along with their phalanx of reliable newspaper supporters.

There are no regular meetings, only the occasional ‘flashmob’ stalls in towns, and no real attempt so far to engage in voter identification, mobilisation and engagement. This has not been aided by the tensions between the three main pro-union parties, but something much more is at work. For one, all three of these parties are in retreat, organisationally, in ideas, resources and confidence, one for two generations (Tories), one since devolution (Labour), and the other only recently, but from a small base (Lib Dems). All of them have forgotten the craft of successful politics: for years the Scottish Labour ‘machine’ analogy was just that, and ignored that there was no omnipotent force behind it. This may not prove critical to their cause this year, but it doesn’t help them.

Then there is the strategy of ‘Better Together’ which is based on two premises: take on the technicalities of independence, and make the case for more powers through voting No. Both are questionable.

Take the first. ‘Better Together’ has forensically challenged the SNP’s official prospectus and case for independence on the details of their offer. Thus they have concentrated their ammunition onto the issue of the currency union (namely what currency in what kind of union would an independent Scotland inhabit) and that of European Union membership post-independence.

These are genuine areas of examination. They are also the weakest spots in the SNP’s armory. But the mistake ‘Better Together’ have consistently made at a strategic level is to make this the main argument against independence. Thus this has produced the laughable situation of the two Alistairs - Darling and Carmichael arguing that what the SNP are offering is not ‘full independence’, that such a premise cannot involve the Nationalist version of currency union and EU membership, and at the same time that ‘full independence’ isn’t viable in an age of interdependence.

It is a mess of a position; mirrored by SNP politicians singing the praises of the Treasury and Bank of England. (This whole argument is back to front: the pro-unionists should be making the case for such British institutions and independence supporters the case why they fall short, not exactly difficult given their record of long term failure.)

Yet the ‘Better Together’ argument is the more serious error, as they are fighting a campaign of retreat. To base the argument for the union and against independence on narrow, technical grounds, concedes so much: the wider case for independence, and in particular, the emotional, gut, instinctual one. It may well pay short-term dividend for September, but in the long-run it is hollowing out the argument for the union.

There is also the unionist disinformation campaign which seems to be based on scatter gun disorientation and waging low level psy-ops on the independence case. This is a much more sustained, serious, elite led operation than some of the media’s fascination with some of the worst excesses of the ‘cybernats’. There was the late Lord Fraser’s comments of ‘let’s bomb all Scottish airfields after independence’ (to which I am only slightly paraphrasing); then the claim that an independent Scotland could be seen as a blank canvas without any history, tradition or law – a sort of black hole or vortex in international governance.

Last week, David Lidington, Conservative Minister for Europe at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office decreed that if Scotland voted Yes the very next day, September 19th 2014, the UK, the legal entity Scotland sits in would stop representing and advocating for Scotland. So much for the ‘myth’ of British fair play and all that!

Third, this brings us to the United Kingdom as ‘the global kingdom’ and the capital kingdom: the place of speculative, asocial, outsourcing, offshore capital. Week in week out self-declared spokespeople for corporate capitalism, the very antithesis of business and entrepreneurship, stand and pontificate about what they might do if little Scotland dares to defy their wishes and make their tax and investment arrangements a tiny bit more complex adding one more legal jurisdiction. All of course aided by the unapologetic cheerleaders in the media (with special prizes for the ‘Daily Telegraph’ and ‘Daily Mail’ who have form in this sort of thing).

Then there are the parts of Scotland which have articulated a consistent meme these last thirty years. Take CBI Scotland who have said No, No, No: no to Labour’s 1979 Assembly plans, no to the 1997 devolution proposals, and no to 2014 independence offer.

They are perfectly entitled to do this, as are others, but it is permissible to observe and draw deductions from this pattern. Where have been the counter proposals to democratise Scotland from these groups? Strangely after nearly twenty years of Iain McMillan heading up CBI we are still waiting. And from Standard Life and many others. The answer is because elite, closed order Scotland – based on the revolved doors of the Scottish Office, SCDI and corporate clubland pre-1979 worked perfectly well in their interests.

Britain as an ‘Imagined Community’

Finally, there is the issue of the problem with Britain. When ‘Better Together’ invoke ‘the greatest union the world has ever seen’ the degree of hyperbole gives it away. When Britain ruled the waves its elites didn’t have to blow their trumpets so desperately; they exuded confidence, élan and their own importance.

They also don’t engage with the reality of the actually existing union. Instead, they invoke a fantasy union, an abstract and illusion, a place of magical, almost mystical powers which only really exists in their heads, nowhere else. This is truly Britain as an ‘imagined community’.

There is confusion about the nature of this union with some thoughtful voices calling for or believing the UK is heading towards a federal or quasi-federal set of arrangements. This is the politics of ‘devo max’ and ‘devo plus’ north of the border: the second strand of the ‘Better Together’ argument.

It is perhaps their strongest and weakest case at the same time: strong in that a coherent pro-union devolution offer from Labour could be decisive in the referendum; but weak in what fails to take into account, namely, that pro-union forces are fighting on their opponents territory, and that any devolution has to be agreed at a British level giving a Westminster class veto. That didn’t matter in 1997, but devolution cannot entail the Scots on their own continually just making demands for more autonomy, and it not having to involve some kind of pan-British considerations (further reduction of Scots MPs etc.), and the political centre and Labour so far show no sign of being interested in this.

Federalism, quasi-federalism and further devolution do not address the wider problem of what Britain has become. They don’t address the profound economic and social imbalances of the UK, the rise of London as a world city and it crowding out the rest of the UK and rest of England in particular, with the regions of the North, Midlands and South West reduced to the status of a ‘Flyover Britain’ between London and Scotland without collective voice.

They don’t engage with the absence of public support in England for such proposals, or face the challenge of the rightward, populist drift of UK politics and the rise of an anti-immigration, anti-welfare, xenophobia aided by UKIP and large parts of the English media. Finally, any kind of federalism involves not only codified relationships (something the British political class finds one of the problems of the European Union), but remaking and reforming the political centre. In a decade plus of devolution, the centre has collapsed in on itself: becoming a neo-liberal state advocating for the worldview of corporate class interests.

All of this: the normalising of independence, the ‘Better Together’ strategy, even the political cross-dressing of the two campaigns, the union disinformation strategy, and the increasing problem with Britain, British politics and the British state, all point in one direction. That this debate has come about, not surprisingly, at the time of multiple crisis and decline in the idea of Britain.

Who ‘lost’ Scotland? The conventional answer is to cite Mrs. Thatcher, but the reality is much more complex, and not found in one person, period or philosophy. When the history books are written the list will be long and varied because this is part of a long set of changes. It will include the nature of the 1707 settlement and its retention of Scots autonomy, the role of the Kirk through the years, the establishment of the Scottish Office in 1885, Walter Elliot and Tom Johnston and the expansion of the state, Labour’s abandonment of post-war social democratic growth in 1967 (devaluation) and 1976 (IMF) long before Tony Blair, ‘A Claim of Right for Scotland’, and the arts, cultural and musical renaissance of the 1980s. All these may in time prove more influential than Thatcher or even Alex Salmond.

Scotland has undergone a long revolution – slowly pulling itself out of the wreckage of the British polity and state. Whether that involves formal independence this year or further into the future, remains to be seen, but the question of who ‘lost’ Scotland, what it means and who gains needs to be asked and understood now. It is a question it looks like on current trends we will be returning too again and again.

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