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Scottish independence, Europe and the crisis of the British state

The Scottish nationalists want to win next years independence vote by saying things will not change while those opposing them paint 'separation' as a disaster yet call for the UK to leave the EU in order to... stay the same. What are we to make of it?

Gerry Hassan
11 May 2013

It has been another fast-moving couple of weeks in Scotland’s constitutional conversation.

The Times newspaper decided that a 3% fall in support for independence warranted the title, "’Yes’ vote hits trouble as support crumbles" and talked of the crisis of the ‘separation’ movement. Simultaneously, the same newspaper began an orchestrated campaign for the UK to leave the European Union – with a front page declaration from former Chancellor Nigel Lawson and follow up article from Michael Portillo, all posed with supportive coverage and the words ‘separatism’ and ‘separation’ nowhere to be seen.

Meanwhile north of the border, Denis Canavan, chair of ‘Yes Scotland’, distanced himself from SNP policy - suggesting that Scotland should have its own currency; while the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee made the startling observation that independence will involve shaking things up for the UK.

Then there was Alex Salmond’s announcement that an independent Scotland would not have a central bank. This is part of the ‘don’t frighten the horses’ approach of ‘continuity independence’ which sees the maintenance of the pound sterling as Scotland’s currency, with Treasury and Bank of England oversight, and Scotland remaining in the UK Balance of Payments.

The Scotland of Political Cross-Dressing

This is proof that Scottish nationalism is a form of unionism; just as unionism is a form of nationalism – British state nationalism – the latter in denial of this. Salmond’s new found unionism has become so pronounced that Scotland will continue in monetary union with the rest of the UK and the unreformed institutions of the British state.

There are several levels of this ongoing debate. There is a superficial appearance in the ‘Yes’/’No’ debate and campaigns that this is a choice of fundamental and opposing absolutes. That this is from the age of high modernity, and of defined, fixed and absolute authority and sovereignty, and of clear, binary choices.

Underneath the ‘Yes’/’No’ debate, and even within parts of the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns, a completely different set of realities is informing matters shaped by the dynamics of the late modern world. This is an environment of a differentiated global ecology of political and legal capacities, where political authority is split and shared between different levels.

This is a world many of us know and are comfortable with, based on the multi-layering of political identities, institutions and sovereignty. Yet for appearances sake both sides have to pretend that this is some 19th century duel to the death when it isn’t.

This Janus-like set of characteristics of the debate can be witnessed in the contradictions about where an independent Scotland could geo-politically sit. Large parts of Scots opinion aspire to be shaped by the values of Nordic social democracy, informed by an understandable revulsion at the excesses of Thatcherite/Blairite debasing of public goods, life and values.

This Scottish desire to be a bit Nordic is thus based on the desire to reject something we know doesn’t work, and to be positively different. However, it doesn’t take into account the fact that the Nordic nations no longer feel themselves social democratic eldorados but under attack from the same market determinism. And that if we wanted to be a little more Nordic, the Scottish Government have it in their power now to start making some of the intricate networks of collaboration and partnership we see in our friends in the north.

Yet at the very same time, the version of independence on offer from the SNP and elsewhere is about realities beyond the ‘Yes’/’No’ debate: concerning shared authorities, common competencies and a fuzzy, messy sense of sovereignty.

This is the interindependence of the modern world and the SNP which is fine and proper, but when it crosses over into monetary union and the virtual continuation of large parts of the British state, it reduces the options for shifting Scotland geo-politically.

The Salmond strategy is based on making the big vote not about independence but greater self-government. This is tactically probably right, but for many ‘Yes’ supporters there is an illusion or false comfort in believing that only a ‘Yes’ vote brings change and that the ‘Better Together’ parties cannot develop other versions of change. This when Lab, Lib Dems and Tories are all working away on proposals. And, beneath the rhetoric, what this debate boils down to is one version of home rule from the SNP versus others as yet to be determined.

What would contribute to this debate is a more thought out version of interindependence with all the shared bits and sensibleness, but which spoke to Scotland’s desire to be different. That would allow the debate to progress to examine the limits of further devolution which require acquiescence and agreement at a British level (and eventually British reform and democratisation at its centre which we will wait a long time for as things currently stand).

If the next sixteen months are to offer some kind of tangible choice and debate there has to be a challenge to the safety first, minimal choice Scotland found in the conservatives of all hues, supported by the radicals who say nothing substantive can be debated this side of the big vote.

The majority of Scottish opinion have consistently indicated that they oppose the Thatcherite/Blairite consensus, but if this is to be meaningful its influence north of the border, unstated, unsaid but everywhere, in the SNP, Labour and public life has to be noted. This would entail stopping the pretence that we can be progressive and cut corporation tax, embrace the Laffer Curve and advance deregulation.

Instead we have to get explicit about how we want to be different: in our public realm, in our ethics of modern life and society and in imagining the ways we could go about economics and business differently from the wreckage of ‘bubble Britain’. That has to be about more than maintaining what we currently have, whether it is free tuition fees or OAP bus passes, but grasping the thistle of what a Scottish ‘good society’ would look like.

There will be many surreal comic moments along the way. Last week some of the SNP took umbrage at the Foreign Affairs Committee daring to suggest that independence would lead to ‘reputational damage’ and ‘loss of prestige’ for the UK. Surely this would be no bad thing given the state of the UK and we can safely say that it isn’t the job of independence to look after the existing union.

Yet we also have to bring to centre stage the problem of the power vortex of London and the South East, the character and nature of the British state, and the long term problem of the Treasury and Bank of England which have embedded short-term thinking and economic uneven development at the heart of UK policy making.

There is at the centre of UK politics, from Tory and Lib Dem to Labour and UKIP a desire for restoration: for a return to the certainties of Britain pre-crash with its consumer, property and banking fetishes. It is a myopic worldview that independence should have no truck with and has the courage to take the moral high ground on and challenge the devolutionists to explain how they will change.

The Scottish debate has to deal with this and the long term unraveling of the British crisis and articulation of this restoration through the campaign for European withdrawal: this is about a certain version of globalisation, protection of the City of London, a deregulated labour market, and uncodified human rights. It is a statement of how distorted and myopic British politics has become, the strange morphing of ‘the conservative nation’ of the English right, and weakness of progressive Britain, that such a toxic, unappealing brew of populist prejudice should have traction and appeal, but they do.

All of this poses short-term challenges for the Scottish independence debate, introducing more uncertainty and risk, and placing Scottish geo-political aspirations in the wider context of the shifting of the Great British project. This may work against Salmond and company in the 2014 vote, but in the medium to longer term, it makes it more not less likely that the weakening of the British union and fraught UK-European relationship will eventually result in Scottish independence.

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