The social union between Scotland and the UK: how would it fare with independence?

Crucial to the argument for Scottish independence is the idea that leaving the political union of the United Kingdom will not mean leaving the social union. But what is this 'social union'?
Cailean Gallagher
30 January 2012

With his reference to Mugabe and that flippant question about transporting gold to Scotland, Jeremy Paxman did no favours for unionists in his interview with Alex Salmond last Tuesday. But he did pick up on two important ideas from Salmond’s Hugo Young Lecture. The first is the idea of the ‘social union’. The second is Salmond’s hope of an independent Scotland being a ‘beacon of progressiveness’ to those south of the border and beyond.

The ‘social union’, a term cannily appropriated by the SNP, appeals to those in Scotland and the rest of the UK (RUK) uneasy with the ‘breaking up’ of a multi-national state with strong social, economic and personal connections: the independence movement is in a strong position if it can argue that the social union will be preserved and even strengthened after independence. SNP strategists are well aware of the strategic value of the ‘social union’ argument. Prof. James Mitchell focussed on the term in a lecture to the SNP conference last November, making a brave and influential claim that the SNP is “the true social unionist party”[1].

The ‘progressive beacon’, if a little grandiose, appeals to those especially on the left – and Salmond spoke from the left, appealing to those on the ‘English left’ – who believe that independence would betray those south of the border, dooming them to persistent Tory rule. Highlighting Scotland’s comparatively progressive policy agenda, he implied also that a continuing British-wide society can share progressive ideals, including those of national or regional self-determination.

Both ideas have pervaded the debate since Tuesday, and each may be central to the positive case for independence. What Salmond did not bring out in his speech was the connection between them: that the potential of Scotland to inspire progress in the rest of the UK rests on the strength of the social union.

So what is this social union? A simple piece of propaganda? In his lecture Salmond explained: “when you consider our shared economic interests, our cultural ties, our many friendships and family relationships, one thing becomes clear. After Scotland becomes independent, we will share more than a monarchy and a currency. We will share a social union.”[2] Its meaning is rooted in society, it is separate from the hang-ups of monarchy and currency and brings society into the debate. The term was elucidated in Mitchell’s lecture, which focussed on the connections between family and friends but also highlighted the many different social and cultural elements – including the range of sentiments that will continue to be ‘British’.[3] That much is clear – there is not, and will never be, a demographic barrier between Scotland and England. But it is in continuation of working and living societies, as much as in leisure activities, that the substance of the social union can be found.[4]

One sense is to be found in elements of social life separate from the state – those relations within civil society, in the old sense alluded to by Tom Nairn[5]. After independence there will still be a society of economic and social mutual dependence; there will still be commuters, organisations, and communities that cross the border. The difference will be that amongst it will be a smaller and more progressive political entity – and therein lies the radical potential of independence. 

In its calling for a continuing social union, the SNP have made a positive pro-union argument more difficult. An argument from shared social bonds needs to be central to any left-wing anti-independence campaign: that our shared historical and empirical condition justifies an overarching state; and that in leaving the United Kingdom we let national inclinations overpower social solidarity.

Such an argument needs more than a reassertion of old unionism: that the state should correspond with those interconnected elements of this collection of nations. Paxman made this claim: “You’re talking about a social union. Isn’t the best way to guarantee a social union, a political union?”[6] The argument goes, that society has developed links and connections, and these can be solidified or else supplanted by a state, as Tom Nairn writes, in “attempts at State-fostered development far removed from the  'civil society' originally promulgated in Scotland”[7].

The actual result of this is precisely what we have: a state with the focus of power in London, with the subordination of the other nations but also, significantly, of the many regions of England outside of the Home Counties circle.  

This argument is not simply a defence of the union, but is unionism. It results in the exploitation of the social union in the interests of business and capitalist growth, by a Westminster elite that depends for its power and prestige on the Union. Labour ought to oppose this outright. (And insofar as Scottish Labour do, we ought not to describe the party as unionist, any more than we should describe the SNP as separatist.)

Of course, this unionism all makes sense for that elite, for whom the status quo requires compromise or concession to financial control. Their main social goal is to increase ‘well-being’ and wealth, measured through GDP and general happiness indexes.

A left version of this is the old idea of enabling ‘progress’ by rejecting identity so that the state can get on with governing – a strand of Fabian thought, re-expressed in New Labour – and cancelling the regional and national connections in order to implement universal reforms, a shiny new Tesco-clad Kingdom.

And there has been progress, judged by some ‘standards’ of living – for the wealth that sloshed mostly around London did trickle its way to the regions. But now as the economy begins to shrink, and as national identity begins to rise, there can be a change in ‘standards’. There will probably be a slow-down in material growth; but, more progressively, there may be an assertion once again of a desire for self-determination, for attachment and identity, and for alternatives to a consumer-driven lifestyle. Social involvement, and the active expression of identities, was not for New Labour an end in itself; nor was integration and identification in communities and regions or nations. Perhaps we are witnessing the establishment of a new standard of ‘progress’, a kind of progress that will not simply override but seek to affirm local and national identities. Smaller states and cities can encourage self-determination by workers as an alternative to profit-driven enterprise. Civic, cultural and natural spaces can be developed or used in common. Solidarity and education in civil community can challenge minority discrimination and patriarchal norms. Perhaps it is romantic, but Salmond’s talk of the ‘common weal’ conjures up something along these lines.

Is the UK Government’s ‘Big Society’ an element of this? If ever appears this way, it belies the fact that Cameron’s scheme is a conservative reaction to such progress. It aspires not to regional identity, democracy, or social equality, but calls for apolitical activity under a ‘British’ pseudo-identity, familiar only to comfortable home-counties England, reinforcing disability and gender discrimination. It poses no radical threat to City or Tory interests, but allows them to extend the logic of selfish competition to every part of social life, and to reap the political and economic profit.  It neglects forms of identity at odds with a certain London-made model of community action based on self-interest. Unwilling to draw on regional identities as the spring of society, it instead offers financial or atomistic incentives as principles of society life, to the detriment of those least able to act autonomously but most in need of solidarity.

So how does this relate to Salmond’s claim that an “independent Scotland could be a beacon for progressive opinion south of the border and further afield”?[8] This is more than an appeal for other legislatures to emulate Scotland’s social policies. Consistent with his revival of ‘Burns the democrat’ in parliament on Wednesday[9], the important opinions in a democracy are held not by policy-makers, but by socially engaged people, with opinions formed through work, education, social and civic groups, communities and minority identities. Consistent, too, is the hope of a gradual consciousness that in the UK the people are not sovereign – a point emphasised in the Scottish Parliament’s endorsement of the Claim of Right, and a point Salmond makes each time he appears before an English audience[10]. The debate and decision on independence, to be made by a Scotland with popular sovereignty, will itself shed light on this murky anachronism.

It is also because of the continuing social union that relations, partnerships and inspiration between nations will continue despite the break-up of the UK. For instance, in the coming decades Scotland is likely to develop a new positive welfare state (or equivalent) in response to the UK Government’s abhorrent changes. Because of the common history and the similarity in experience and condition, Scotland’s reforms can be an inspiration in England much more than can, say, German or Swedish reforms.

Of course, Scotland's own social situation is not too rosy. (As Ian Bell pointed out in the Herald on Saturday, if the Union has been so good for Scotland then why, despite all the wealth and power, are health rates and social standards in Glasgow so abysmal[11]?) Huge areas in the Central Belt need regeneration, to transform some of the most limiting and unhealthy social conditions in Europe. In this, Scotland will continue to look for solutions to England Wales, and N. Ireland.

It is also worth pointing out that there is no reason why the ‘British Left’ should suffer through independence. The British Left tradition grew out of shared experience, solidarity and social union just as much as it did out of the political union. Not only can this continue, but, the political control having been removed, there will be possibilities for connections between communities and institutions that are no longer subordinate to the same state. There will be an opportunity for a new phase of Left thought to come to terms with new identities, of the continuation of capitalism in the aftermath of the crisis, and of ever-changing social and economic conditions in the face of less affluence. An independent Scotland would have the capacity and the will to develop different kinds of solutions, and to be more progressive in its government; but left ideas need to be developed at a British level, and not lose the historic and intellectual tradition.

So perhaps there was a hint of vainglory in Salmond’s claim. But if Scotland can indeed be a beacon of progressiveness south of the border, then it owes it to the social union. The similarities in culture and language will continue to inspire mutual comparison, partnership and emulation. Analogies always require similarities, and the stronger the social union, the stronger it will speak to regions and individuals.

The ‘social union’ probably will suffer to some extent with independence (though not nearly as much as it would if Scotland does not choose independence at this juncture, which, as Anthony Barnett points out, will leave a bitter taste especially for the younger generation). It might be seen as two steps forward, one step back. In order to regain any of the potential in reconstructing politics from below, we need to break the all-too-stately power of the union.  The people on these islands will still belong together, just not in political unity. It is not a separatism; on the contrary, but political autonomy is a step in the right direction to challenging the suppressive effect of London-centrism that is based on that old claim, that London is hub of the UK superpower and that wealth will trickle out in time. Even if this were true, such a trickle is no way to achieve social progress, nor to revive a social solidarity, regional identity or self-determination.

This links to a conviction, inspired by Tom Nairn, that there is another type of broader progress for which Scotland will be a beacon – the progress represented in a new era of smaller nation-states and identitarian self-determination, which can be sensitive to their own particular history and identity, in partnership with other nations. Burns-the-internationalist ultimately sought universal solidarity. But Burns-the-nationalist recognised not only that the means to this end was through the nation, but also that only the nation itself – with its cultural and social roots – can inspire solidarity and identity with Salmond’s ‘common weal’, and the social fruits that come of this.

The losers will be the political class, the predictable stability of the status quo, and, perhaps in the long term, the non-democratic, non-national corporations and profiteers. The call for 'economic stability' links directly to what it serves to defend: economic domination by London, and by the City. Their growing fear can be heard when the big-business crows croak for doom, and when Westminster ministers repeat their myopic cry that 'economic stability' is at risk in delaying the  democratic process, and is the great threat of independence. The God of Economic Stability is their deity, and it appeals to the fears and insecurities of people suffering from economic crisis, and anxious about the future.

But this is why the optimism of the SNP is so important; and it is also why even those in Scottish Labour who have the interests of Scotland at heart should construct a positive case for financial autonomy.[12]

Throughout the coming years, the long game should be borne in mind. It is tempting for nationalist strategists to draw on anti-English sentiment in Scotland, and on the animosity from England to Scotland. While it may win short-term votes, it will do nothing but harm a social union that otherwise could inspire in other nations or regions a new form of self-determination (there are signs of this already in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland[13]); and it can be a source of hope for many who, in the current world, do not see great prospect of change and development.

This is why the break-up must be a civil one – a wide agreement and sympathy on both sides of the Tweed. It is why Salmond, far from saying anything against England, calls himself an Anglophile: it is to the advantage of all to preserve and strengthen the social union.

So what sort of beacon, then, can an independent Scotland be? Rather than preserving its old-fashioned 'progressive' ideology, imposed from above, there is the potential for much more democracy: political and social life developed collectively, in the people's interests and with popular support. But an independent Scotland can be an example close to home of more genuine democracy, people finding a political form for their own and their social interests and values. It will have progressive or, dare I say it, socialist policies, inspired by an egalitarian tradition; it will reject Trident, resist bankers, and refuse London control; it will be a peaceful state, not intent on asserting its dominance, but in encouraging a harmonious internationalism.

Of course, independence is only one small step to this. Independence itself will not strengthen the social union, nor will it inspire change elsewhere, without conscious activity across the islands. And it will not free any nation from the control and exploitation of finance and capital, multinational organisations, mass consumption or the many plagues of an atomistic 21st Century. We mustn’t get too optimistic.

But perhaps, with effort, it can begin to inspire, not only in Scotland but also in the rest of the UK, the call for a new democratic politics to enable radical social and economic change. And if it can, then such change would owe a great deal to the social union between Scotland and the rest of the UK. That is, in part, what makes this independence journey such a radical one.


[1] Donaldson Lecture, unpublished

[2] Hugo Young Lecture, Alex Salmond, 24th January

[3] Britain After Britain

[4] More theoretically, the social union might also stand for the shared consciousness of these similar conditions and social historical realities, and of the inspiration and activity that can arise from it (a crucial element for the left to consider). See again Britain After Britain.

[5] New Faces of Nationalism  

[6] Interview with Alex Salmond, Newsnight 24th January

[7] New Faces of Nationalism

[8] Hugo Young Lecture

[9]  Scottish Parliament presentation of Referendum Consultation, Wednesday 25th January

[10] See Andrew Marr, Saturday 29th January

[11] Ian Bell, Herald, Saturday 28th January

[12]  See, for instance, Henry McLeish

[13] See the recent flood of polls indicating on the one hand increasing English identity, and on the other the signs of a new stirring for political control in Wales and Northern Ireland.

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