Scottish independence and the ‘democratic’ left

It's not democratic to draw a line round those who agree with you more and declare independence, it's cowardly.

Robert Lamb
4 April 2014

Hadrian's wall - wikimedia

One of the most remarkable things about the success of the Scottish nationalist movement, over the last ten years, has been the role of the left in making the political case for it. This is strange because the battle-lines of Scottish politics had long been drawn according to the traditional hostility between the labour movement and nationalisms of all stripes: the left being proudly outward-looking and cosmopolitan, appealing to what unites the exploited and the downtrodden, rather than to any parochial view of national identity that might be thought to divide them. For proponents of such a cosmopolitan viewpoint, any mythical appeal to blood and shortbread nationalism has usually been dismissed as thoroughly reactionary.

Nevertheless, of late, Scottish nationalism has increasingly been championed by the left. In particular, a kind of leftist, ‘democratic’ argument has been put to work in defence of Scottish independence: put plainly, the claim is that a dismantling of the Union will improve or enable real democracy in Scotland. The narrative supporting the argument runs something like this. All the recent historical evidence points, overwhelmingly, to the conclusion that Scotland is significantly more left-wing in its political orientation than England. In 1983, the Labour party won more votes than any other in Scotland – in spite of its notorious ‘longest suicide note in history’, anti-nuclear, socialist manifesto – while it was rejected spectacularly in England, in favour of the monetarist Thatcherism of the Tories. During the 1980s, Scotland opposed the privatisation of national assets, rebelled violently against the Poll Tax and, in the 1990s and beyond, always retained a canny suspicion about the New Labour project, about Tony Blair’s pandering to ‘Mondeo Man’ and his imperialistic, military adventures. Then, as soon as Scotland achieved a portion of meaningful political autonomy through its parliament in Edinburgh, it pursued properly egalitarian policies, such as the abolition of University tuition fees and of NHS prescription charges, which can, in turn, be compared to the ‘austerity’ agenda of public sector cuts pursued by the Con-Lib coalition at Westminster.

The conclusion, seemingly irresistible to many, is that were Scotland to completely unfasten itself from the Union, it could continue to enact progressive legislation, while the English drift ever more towards the market-worshipping, small-state xenophobia that befits their political orientation, something recently revealed further by the successful right-wing populism of Ukip. Hence, the democratic argument for independence: left-wing, Scottish policies, for left-wing, Scottish people.

That many features of this narrative depend on suspensions of disbelief – that the non-means tested policies of the Scottish parliament are actually at all progressive, or that New Labour was not, in fact, actually a political project conceived of and driven by Scots, or that people north of the border are themselves strangers to xenophobia – can be put to one side for the moment. What is far more worrying is the misleading claim to democracy that this historical narrative then seeks to pursue.

For the left, the obvious attraction of the democratic argument is that it can endorse Scottish independence without nationalism. The argument is that independence is necessary for the democratic will of the Scottish people to be guaranteed, for its true political character to be properly revealed, instead of continually being thwarted through the domination of its right-wing neighbour.

The central myth that this argument trades on is, of course, the political unity of Scotland. Such unity is obviously a fiction. As the comedian Billy Connolly recently observed, there is actually a more manifest cultural commonality – and more substantive grounds for political solidarity – between the working poor of mighty British industrial powerhouses like Glasgow and Liverpool than there is across Scotland. There is ostensibly not much that unites the political interests or cultural identities of residents of the central belt with those of the rural Highlands or Lowlands.

From certain vantage points Scotland may seem to possess a single political identity, but a moment’s thought shows this to be untrue; there is in fact significant ideological and cultural diversity north of the border that cannot simply be wished away by the left. The Tories may now only have one British parliamentary seat in Scotland, but they nevertheless won 16.7% of the vote at the 2010 General Election, which was just 3% behind the SNP and only 2% behind the Liberal Democrats.

It is often conveniently forgotten that although Labour were the largest party in Scotland at the notorious 1983 election, the Conservative Party polled an impressive 25%. The fact that one in four Scottish voters actually plumped for Thatcher, freshly wrapped in post-Falklands patriotism, is very rarely mentioned and its significance never acknowledged. 25% is obviously a very sizeable minority of voters and it is worth wondering, were a similar outcome to take place at a future election, what proponents of the democratic argument for Scottish independence would have to say about this. They would probably say that it does not matter much: the interests of a Tory minority, no matter how sizeable, should not be allowed to trump the interests of a significant left-leaning majority. In fact, the proponent may insist that this is the whole point of the democratic argument, that independence protects the will of the majority.

Though superficially compelling, what this logic really reveals is a kind of betrayal of democratic values. Democracy is, by definition, an inclusive concept, one that seeks to invite the voices of all the citizenry into the realm of political discourse. When we talk of widening or deepening democracy, we mean to devise new techniques of bringing people into the political process, such that their voices are properly heard, that ‘the people’ are somehow individually empowered.

Such democratic empowerment certainly does not mean that the relevant community should be truncated until everyone in it agrees on the same political values. Not only would it be impossible to eradicate the political diversity in Scotland, the very desire to do so reveals a basic hostility to the spirit of democracy, which is rooted in and thrives on disagreement, argument and heterogeneity. At its heart, democracy thrives on conflict of opinion and is fundamentally opposed to blandness, unity and homogeneity. The whole point of it is to provide a mechanism through which the various elements that make up a society can air their views publicly, in as purple and passionate a manner as possible, hoping to win but, crucially, prepared to lose, whichever argument they are engaged in. And this is exactly what the leftist case for Scottish nationalism increasingly reveals: an unwillingness to lose and, by implication, an unwillingness to engage in meaningful democratic battle. If one wishes to make the case for, say, the radical redistribution of wealth within society, that person should be prepared to actually marshal the political, economic and moral arguments for it and then attempt to persuade the sceptic of their merits. Until the sceptic is persuaded, the argument has not succeeded, and resurrecting a legislative Hadrian’s Wall in order to secure majority opinion for your own viewpoint within civic discussion is nothing less than the act of a political wimp, taking refuge with those who think alike and afraid to engage with those that do not.

The leftist argument for Scottish independence is not actually democratic at all: those that advance it merely want to be part of a community where theirs is the majority opinion. The aim is seemingly to rig the political process, circumventing the disagreement that defines a pluralistic democratic society. At its worst, such a position is redolent of intellectual and moral cowardice, signalling a political culture characterised by ressentiment and bitterness, one that has failed to make its peace with the ghosts of Thatcherism and the 1980s.

When the democratic argument is unmasked, shown merely to be a way to avoid pugnacious political contestation, leftist supporters of Scottish independence face real political embarrassment. This is because all they have to fall back on are ideals that are both tenuous and alien to their worldview: a parochial, tartan vision of national identity and, ironically enough, the claim to private property ownership over the fossil fuel most infamously associated with the excesses of global capitalism.

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