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How do we talk about Scotland?

How should we talk about Scotland and the coming referendum on independence? A non-partisan debate is needed that includes all the nations, acknowledges the English question, and exists outside of the Westminster circle. But how will this be achieved?
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
24 May 2011
OurKingdom's debate on The Scottish Spring

How should we talk about Scotland’s election result and the coming referendum on independence? I’ll come to who I mean by “we” in a moment. The question might seem bland but the way we engage with the issue is explosive.

I realised this after just a few of us met to plan an informal open-minded seminar in London on Britain and Scotland: think-tankers in ippr trying to develop policies for a progressive government, independent-minded editors of OurKingdom (one Scottish) seeking a better democracy across the UK.

I want to share our conversation, which was ad hoc and merely exploratory, seeking to identify issues and problems. It mostly focussed on how to have the discussion. It strikes me that far from being merely a practical issue, this is central.  Because implicit in it is the question of what kind of wider, British political process do we want.

Now for that ‘we’. In this instance the ‘we’ meant those of us who want a discussion that engages with and influences but is not confined by the circles of Westminster and Whitehall. But this grows into the Anglo-British we, the great public who as yet would prefer not to talk about it. 

The Labour politician Ron Davies, who was the architect of the Welsh Assembly in 1998, coined the phrase about devolution to Wales: it is “a process not an event”. The same clearly applies to Scottish politics. But now it also is true for Westminster itself. Devolution is a process for the central state itself: a growing claim on its reach and a challenge to its power to set the domestic agenda.

The Spectator tendency on the right and the Labour hard men who are themselves often Scottish and who, er, are also on the right, want to put an end to Scottish pretensions “once and for all”. Their first wheeze is to demand that the Cabinet calls an immediate referendum on independence, calling SNP leader Alex Salmond’s “bluff”.

They want to turn what is happening into a mere “event”. They want to bury any process and turn it into a simple demand that can be exorcised so that Scotland can swiftly return to subordinate status and the exercise of sovereignty from Westminster can continue as if it is normal.

We saw no point in having a bad-tempered stand-off which this kind of attitude generates. As, indeed, Scottish triumphalism would also produce. 

But the Scots are striking a very different note from the trumpeting of demands for ‘independence’ projected onto them by the London media. I’ve had quite a few conversations since the election with Scots or people in Scotland, none of who are members of the SNP. It is a little bit like talking to people in Cairo; a glow comes down the telephone: a sense of relief as well as excitement, canniness as well as optimism, a sense of vindication not triumphalism, that whatever happens next they can be proud of themselves as a people. 

It’s important not to exaggerate but also not to denigrate or diminish what seems to an outsider to be an exceptional opportunity (which in the nature of opportunities could fail, for all sorts of reasons). Articulate Scots have long been aware that they inherit what George Davie at the start of the sixties termed the “Democratic Intellect”. This is something they share and, in my experience, the English, though very intelligent, regrettably do not (at least not yet, despite the best efforts of openDemocracy). Today, it seems to me, there is now a democratic spirit flickering into life in Scotland.

You can feel it in Gerry Hassan’s writing (his latest OurKingdom piece discusses the 'Scottish Spring' both as a national moment, and in the context of a deep crisis of unionism); in Scottish blogs from Bella Caledonia to Thoughtland to the Scottish Review; and among younger OK contributors to our Scottish Spring page like Cailean Gallager and Adam Ramsey. Or in the thoughtful column of a Spectator regular, Alex Massie.

It may seem odd to say this when Hassan has complained of the stifling impact of Scotland’s traditional Labour hegemony and its companion, lachrymose if occasionally charismatic trade union male chauvinism. But I’m not saying that Scotland has consolidated a cultural breakthrough, only that it has achieved its possibility, which is remarkable enough. 

When the SNP won power as a minority government in Edinburgh four years ago it was clear that a political rhythm was underway in Scotland distinct from Westminster’s. Now the outright victory of the SNP and the meltdown of the Lib Dems (they no longer hold a single Holyrood constituency in mainland Scotland) have intensified the distinction of Scottish politics from Whitehall’s, causing a huge problem for Labour, the last party of the Union as Nick Pearce reflects. 

Something irreversible seems to have happened. Whether within the UK or without, but either way on their terms, the Scots have already started to govern themselves – of course, as they are the first to insist, only in so far as this is possible in a highly inter-connected world. One of these connections is the fact that Scotland will be subject to the spending cuts legislated by Westminster, yet how their impact will be handled, explained and experienced north of the border can still be distinctive. 

While the London media bangs on about independence or about whether Scots hate the English or the English despise the Scots (see this dreadful bucket load from Tim Lott) a wide-ranging, nuanced debate over the political, cultural and economic practicalities of self-government (and not ‘separatism’) is underway in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. 

It may not have dented Westminster’s belief in its self-importance. But its ingrained attitude of superiority – that Scotland does not ‘really matter’ and any ‘threat’ of ‘independence’ can be ‘dealt with’ – is deepening the divisions between political life north and south of the border.

So the first task of any seminar, we felt, was to hear a range of reports on what is actually happening in terms of opinion, policy, party politics and economic prospects across Scotland.

However, do people down south really want to know? We share the desire to show people that this discussion poses issues that are very significant indeed. The starting point is that the SNP majority in the Scottish parliament will call a referendum in four or five years’ time, one that will include the option of independence after seeking to build a perception of its feasibility and putting momentum behind it.

Even the possibility of this impacts on the way the British will perceive themselves.

There is an honourable and democratic argument for Britain. Currently unionist sentiment clearly holds a majority across the UK. But there is a one-word problem that is all too often repressed: “England”.

Just after the election there was a Progress meeting on Blue Labour with Maurice Glasman and Phil Collins, which included a brief exchange about Scotland. Glasman pointed out that Labour had run a dreadful campaign, while Salmond and the SNP had projected a positive, progressive generous-minded patriotism.  Labour, he said, in both Scotland and Britain now needed to do the same. Glasman himself is aware of the English question, which floated away in this instance. But the obvious query in response to such a call for patriotism is ‘which country?’ Did Glasman mean an English patriotism or a British one? My guess is he meant both. If so, Labour has to encourage a political Englishness. 

If Labour is to develop a generous, open-minded British patriotism that will help persuade the Scots to stay in the Union, it also has to be equally open and generous to the English. If it will embrace and celebrate Scottish voice, politics and autonomy within the UK in order to further a Labour Party recovery in Scotland, how can it retain this spirit of decentralisation and at the same time refuse the English the choice of, say, a parliament?

One answer is that it does not have to as there isn’t any such demand. At the moment, despite a marked growth of English culture, so this argument goes, there is no clear English democratic crisis of the kind that, for example, stirred the Scots into action after Thatcher experimented on them with the poll tax as if they were guinea pigs. 

But is it not the role of the left, of progressives, to use that term, or simply of the Labour Party to encourage the emergence of a demand for an English politics? To create an English Labour party for people to join, just as there are Scottish and Welsh ones?  To make everyone aware of England’s democratic deficit and offer a positive resolution of it? 

A conversation that welcomes and recognises the positive spirit of the Scottish Spring needs to be open to ways of inspiring something similar in England, at the very least through a democratically conceived British union. 

The starting point for such a discussion would not be how to stop the impetus of the SNP and defeat a referendum. It would be how to engage with the SNP, so that a similar spirit of cautious confidence in the desire for self-government can grow south of the border.

Which means the argument needs to go well beyond Labour to engage with the wider forces of conservatism that are hard-wired into the institutions of Britishness. Scotland’s breakthrough can help to make this possible. What matters now south of the border is to rise to this challenge.

This in turn will link up to the wider discontent with the financial crash and the need to develop a democratic politics in response to it. As the cuts impact on Scotland, I have no doubt that the British political class is hoping the effect will implicate the SNP in deficit reduction. So far no government has been able to turn popular discontent with the consequences of the financial crisis to its advantage, for obvious reasons. The profoundly important debate over the wonderful challenge to British democracy posed by the political springtime in Scotland is going to proceed in this ominous context. 

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