Yes - the radical case for independence: introduction

Here, we publish the introduction to the new book "Yes - the radical case for Scottish independence".

Pete Ramand and James Foley
30 April 2014

In 2007, Holyrood’s Labour executive trailed Alex Salmond’s SNP in the polls, and Tony Blair, already leaving Downing Street, made a fateful choice. The election, he decided, should focus on his personal honour. ‘There was a feeling I shouldn’t, but I was equally clear I should go [to Scotland] and put real credibility on the line,’ he recalls in his memoirs. Defying the two-thirds opposition to the Iraq War, he toured the country, railing against nationalism and Alex Salmond. Blair warned that independence would cost every Scottish family £5,000, an alarmist slice of fantasy arithmetic dreamed up by Whitehall officials. Despite his habit of grovelling to business leaders, he labelled SNP supporter George Mathewson, an elite Scottish banker, ‘absurd’ and ‘self-indulgent’. His cringeworthy photo ops with Scottish voters, he later admitted, were stage-managed to avoid awkward questions. But there was no escaping Iraq.

Blair’s Scottish tour was his last significant act as Labour leader, and he had cause to regret it. He felt like an ‘outsider’, and was ‘never passionate’ about devolution. Besides, his very public loathing for Salmond’s SNP, together with voter resentment over his alliance with George W. Bush, granted the nationalists victory; even Blair admits this. Since then, the SNP received resounding approval for a second term. ‘I knew once Alex Salmond got his feet under the table, he could play off against the Westminster government and embed himself,’ Blair concedes. Aside from invading Iraq, his major legacy was handing Scottish nationalists an indefinite right to govern Holyrood. Just as Thatcher’s policies had produced devolution, so Blair’s transformation of Labour produced 2014, perhaps the biggest threat to British statehood for generations.

This bungling came on the third centenary of the Act of Union. There were few celebrations marking this founding event of modern Britain, and any commemorations were subdued. This was curious for two reasons. First, when Scotland united with England, it marked the beginning of two centuries of global domination, where Britannia truly ruled the waves, and commanded a quarter of the world’s people. Value judgements aside, these events were as significant to history, by some measures, as the French Revolution or America’s War of Independence. Yet they passed almost unnoticed. Secondly, Britain’s rulers kept insisting, since Thatcher, that we should stop apologising for our legacy of Empire. New Labour trumpeted its patriotic credentials by draping a bulldog in a Union Jack, and toured the Commonwealth reminiscing about pith helmets and stiff upper lips. But the anniversary of the British pact met, at best, with a polite cough of acknowledgement.

Blair and Brown staked their reputations on restoring Britain to its former glory. Hence, they volunteered to speak for all global leaders on two pivotal occasions: Blair for Bush’s war on terror, and Brown for bailing-out bankers in 2008. But beneath these showcases for British leadership lay fractures in the state’s skeletal structure. Scotland, no longer cowed by decades of Tory rule, was asserting its independence from Labour, recoiling from three parliaments of domestic failures and foreign policy horrors.

Scotland’s vote in 2014 opens subversive prospects and will decide a great deal. If Scots reject independence, Britain will get a momentary infusion of purpose, having postponed the biggest threat to the British state’s existence. Combined with patriotic reveries over Royal babies and opening ceremonies and routine wars, a new conservative confidence will emerge. If Westminster can impose austerity while upholding order on the streets, Britain may see a decade of consensus, based on more of the status quo. Without question, by 2030, the UK will have among the highest inequalities in Europe, an economy dominated by arms companies and banks, and a regressive attitude towards climate change. Westminster will resemble Washington, with two (or perhaps three) authoritarian parties divorced from a low-paid majority. Britain’s present path will continue: pretensions to global rule on the surface, built on a foundation of minimal workfare citizenship.

A ‘Yes’ vote would throw the status quo into doubt. Certain collisions, for instance housing Trident nuclear missiles – a key plank of the US’s strategy in Europe – would be unavoidable. The White House and the Pentagon would no longer regard Britain as a reliable diplomatic cover, and a blow to UK prestige would force the remains of Westminster to rethink their global ambitions. All of these events would be virtuous, offering opportunities to redirect wasteful military spending to civilian purposes, and shift subsidies from arms companies to green industries. Britain’s retreat from great-power politics would not harm its citizens, who have suffered for the sake of the Atlantic alliance.

Scotland’s path would be less clear. By itself, voting Yes offers no guarantees of a better, more progressive future, never mind a radical redistribution of wealth and power. Scotland would face creating a new state under hostile circumstances, after decades where states have eroded expectations about national citizenship. The right to free education, universal healthcare, and support for the disabled, unemployed, and pensioners are no longer guaranteed. Not every state has gone to UK or US extremes, but most have slid backwards, withdrawing earlier post-Second World War commitments. If Scottish rulers, politicians and managers conform to consensus assumptions about national welfare, and if Scotland’s people do not resist them, we could reproduce many of Britain’s current problems. With minimal rights, and low wages, we could enter a ‘race to the bottom’ with peripheral European economies.

But creating a new state opens opportunities as well as risks. Most of Northern Europe has more progressive taxation, a better standard of living, and fairer social guarantees than Britain. They work shorter hours, they are happier, and they suffer fewer inequalities. They also regard benefits such as free childcare as integral to citizenship, while Britain makes no concessions to women’s unpaid labour. At minimum, Scotland could aim to copy the example of its non-British neighbours, and define a social citizenship against Britain’s neoliberal citizenship. For all its faults, the Nordic model has many virtues in comparative terms. Pundits can exaggerate and romanticise differences between Britain and Scandinavia; but they have factual grounds.

A progressive case for Scottish independence would aim to mirror the best approaches to national citizenship under today’s capitalism, creating a ‘Nordic utopia’. To an extent, Salmond’s SNP already adopt this approach. The UK, unique among European countries, has no bill of citizen rights or written constitution. Salmond has proposed that a Scottish constitution would guarantee the right to free education, outlaw homelessness, ban nuclear weapons, and set clear restrictions on armed force. The SNP conference in 2013 promised to examine the Common Weal initiative, launched by the Jimmy Reid Foundation, which aims to put Scotland on a path to Nordic citizenship. The present policy vacuum, with UK-style neoliberalism intellectually exhausted by the 2008 crisis, presents openings for left-of-centre agendas. Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands prove that such models are workable, and few would doubt they are desirable.

Such alternatives would find no place in Westminster. The Commons is institutionally gridlocked, disenfranchising opponents of neoliberal norms. Labour, Liberals and Tories are committed to the same policies on world affairs, austerity and immigration. Scotland has a different consensus on these issues, but Holyrood has no levers to change them. Beyond Parliament, other British institutions help to enforce UK inequalities, including the City of London, the arms trade and a rotten conformism in the civil service.

But although we find the progressive case appealing, compared to Westminster, our aim here is not to defend this vision. We wish to go a step further, and define what we call a radical vision for independence, which we distinguish in three ways. First, while new contracts between states and citizens might be steps in the right direction, we should not collapse into legalist fallacies. Rights are only worth having if we can defend them. So besides written rights and pleas for ‘fairness’, we need to know who benefits, and how they organise through political alliances. Even when we subtract Westminster and its wars and nuclear bombs, Scotland will remain a capitalist, class-divided society. Unless we know how property behaves, our rights are token gestures, not firm guarantees of social progress.

Secondly, a radical vision goes further than the mixed economies of Northern Europe. As Robin Hahnel observes, ‘the backward trajectory of social democracy in Scandinavia … stands as a reminder of why we must go beyond capitalism if we expect to sustain progress toward the economics of equitable cooperation.’5 The Nordic examples are useful, because they prove the nonsense of Westminster’s slogan, ‘there is no alternative’. But like all capitalist societies, they are not equipped for the challenges of the twenty-first century, and a just, sustainable Scotland would have to go further, setting new precedents. To redress climate change and the rise of the 1 per cent, most economic decisions must be transferred out of private hands and placed under public control.

Third, radicals refuse to let Westminster set the agenda about independence. We take every opportunity to condemn the UK’s redundant economic model, its grotesque inequalities and its senile militarism. The Scottish media, upholding conformist ideas of economic and political security, mangles the realities and risks of independence. No ‘Yes’ supporter should fear stating the obvious. Britain, in partnership with the US, leads the way in making the world unsafe; its free market system makes most of its citizens insecure. For independence activists, trying to show that Scotland can match the UK’s armed forces or strong currency is a trap, and it may be avoided. Britain’s assertion of armed force in Afghanistan and Iraq put millions in harm’s way. Britain’s commitment to appeasing bondholders and finance led to a massacre of jobs in the 1980s and now poses decades of unrelenting austerity. There are better alternatives to this scandalous waste of resources. Westminster, in other words, needs to prove it can change; but at present, many ‘Yes’ supporters feel compelled to show how little will change. Our national discourse is back-to-front.

The Economy

The independence debate occurs in particular circumstances, amid the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s. This context should cause us to rethink existing models of economic security. Before the crisis, the SNP argued:

Off our east coast lies Norway, the second most prosperous country in the world. Off our west coast lies Ireland, the fourth most prosperous country in the world. Off our north coast lies Iceland, the sixth most prosperous country in the world. These independent countries represent an arc of prosperity – and Scotland has every bit as much potential as them.

Today, the phrase ‘arc of prosperity’ makes a mockery of the economic case for a Yes vote. Ireland’s neoliberal model is an object of pity rather than envy, and Dublin is a byword for financial incompetence. Iceland is hardly a model economy either. Unionists never tire of observing the sorry fate of independent European nations. Small countries are exposed as vulnerable and unable to compete, and nobody wants to end up like Greece. Hence, the neoliberal case for Scottish independence – small, competitive states in niche markets – will not work. Unionists insist, pointing to crumbling economies around us, that we benefit from the security of a bigger state, and ‘we are better together’. United, they argue, Britain has more power to combat crises and face down the EU.

But are small economies extra vulnerable to recession? On closer inspection, this assumption seems dubious. Britain, a large and globalised economy, suffered a major crash and has continued to worsen. Five years after the banking collapse, output was still 3 per cent down, while even the sluggish US economy has grown by 5 per cent. Other big economies, for example, Spain and Italy, show the futility of measuring an economy’s endurance by its size. By contrast, the economies of Denmark and Norway have weathered the crisis and Sweden has continued to grow (see Figure I.1). These countries hold their own currencies and tolerate far fewer inequalities (see Figure I.2).


Figure I.1 UK economy vs small North European economies
Source: The World Bank


Figure I.2 Rate of income inequality (GINI): UK vs small North European economies
Source: Eurostat

Small, therefore, does not mean more vulnerable or economically weaker. Instead, to explain crises like 2008, three other variables are decisive. The countries suffering the heaviest crashes were those that clung closest to the neoliberal troika of free trade, deregulation and privatisation.

Together, these factors prompted risky lending booms, often combined with property market bubbles, creating deceptive growth in construction sectors. But so-called ‘free markets’ were not enough to cause the crash. Bankers and financiers only took such heavy risks because they believed governments would not let them fail. Underlying their adventurous private capitalism was simple trust in the social power and political sway of national governments. As Professor David Simpson remarks:

Banks in countries like Iceland and Ireland had been able to run up large liabilities, because their creditors and depositors anticipated that their Governments would always bail them out in time of need. Once Governments make it clear that in future insolvent banks will be allowed to fail, then the size of a country in relation to the liabilities of its banking system should no longer be a problem.

Hence, small economies are only more vulnerable if they conform to a UK-style neoliberalism. If Scotland promised to socialise the risks of globalised banks, while keeping profits in private hands, then it would face obvious dangers. But if bankers knew that taxpayer bailouts were conditional on conforming to democratic objectives, then a different investment strategy would result. Westminster’s bailouts reflected decades of political preferences towards speculation and debt-fuelled finance. Scotland does not have to follow this model, and if banks engage in privatised gambling, beyond public scrutiny, they should face the risk of failure.

Perhaps the answer is not just ‘fail’, but also ‘jail’. Iceland set a clear precedent by letting banks go bankrupt and putting corrupt speculators in prison. British bankers, by contrast, have continued to reward themselves massive bonuses and payoffs, and unregulated finance continues unchanged. The tiny Icelandic economy, having suffered total meltdown, will be ahead of the UK in its recovery by 2014, according to current IMF estimates. Iceland, lest we forget, suffered the worst possible catastrophe of a small economy; yet once again it outperforms united Britain.

Thus, two factors explain exposure to crisis: the degree of deregulation, and bankers’ faith in unqualified government support. But what about recovery from a crash like 2008? Here, the answer is simple. The more governments impose austerity, the slower they recover; those that re-inflate the economy almost always do better (see Figure I.3). Capitalism makes crises inevitable, but certain strategies work better than others, and austerity benefits bondholders and elites, not economies as a whole.


Figure I.3 Austerity shuts down growth in Europe: 2008–12
Source: World Bank Fiscal Monitor Oct 2012 and Eurostat

Returning to Scottish independence, both sides miss the essence of economic stability. Unionists say that Scotland, as a small isolated economy, would be more vulnerable than Britain. On empirical grounds, these assumptions are false: equivalent neighbouring economies combine higher living standards and greater equality. Even the worst offenders, like Iceland and Ireland, who bought into the false promises of neoliberal growth and suffered severe emergencies, will recover better than Britain. Nationalists are wrong, or were wrong, to argue that an independent Scotland can succeed by liberalising and competing on corporation tax. Correlations between an economy’s size and its vulnerability are weak. The most unstable nations are those that conform to the neoliberal rulebook.

These pro-market norms, we should remember, had a specific source. The failed economic ideas of the past era made up the ‘Washington Consensus’, with messianic fervour pressed upon others by the US-UK alliance. Both economies saw limited real wage growth even in boom years. Instead, the benefits of the US-UK bubbles in finance and went to fund luxurious lifestyles for rich elites. As a result, investment plummeted, debt soared, and the poor suffered the brunt of recessions.

We believe Scotland has the opportunity in 2014 to break with this model. But independence offers no guarantees of radical, necessary economic change. To make sure we avoid another 2008, we must change on three fronts. First, Scotland must abandon the view that deregulation, private ownership and free trade benefit the economy. Secondly, we would need to rebalance rewards, risks and punishments. Those who take risks that harm public welfare should face jail-time, not bailouts. Third, where recessions do happen, we should end the insanity of austerity, and raise government spending to create jobs and fund investment. In the present era, this would mean a ‘Green New Deal’ to meet our future energy needs, with clear targets for ending poverty.

In opposition to the ‘Washington Consensus’, we must build a consensus against neoliberal policies in Scotland. A Yes vote would not make this appear by magic, and elite interests will risk massive upheaval to maintain their present privileges. But Scotland already possesses resources to build a better society. This, of course, comprises North Sea oil and our green energy potential, among the highest in Europe. But it also includes a left-of-centre climate of opinion, which would have far greater muscle under independence. Political will, allied to organised working people, is crucial to our future as much as oil or climate infrastructure. Scotland does not suffer from scarcities; our assets are mismanaged, and this can be corrected.

No electable Westminster party offers alternatives to neoliberal norms, even as austerity jeopardises most peoples’ living standards. The big three all pander to big business, and corporate interests are embedded in UK politics more than any rival polity. All parties, moreover, are committed to purchasing massive military items, like £80 billion Trident missiles, at taxpayers’ expense. And the main opposition to this comes from UKIP, which is driving Westminster politics further to the right. Westminster cannot shift leftwards by its own momentum. It would need a transformative shock, either a miraculous revolt of citizens from below or a cataclysmic world event, to turn Labour against austerity and American power.

So while independence poses risks, these should be placed in proper context. The prospect of Westminster rule means decades of manufactured uncertainty. Remaining in the UK endangers livelihoods, by forcing vulnerable people to rely on the market, as the Bedroom Tax shows, or by sacrificing our youth, at the US’s behest, in illegal wars. If Scots vote No, they will secure the present insecurity.

We can have no illusions about contemporary Scotland. Instinctive collectivism may prevail in parts of society, but things are far from even. Edinburgh has a greater ratio of children in private school (20 per cent) than any other region of Britain. There are millionaire hotspots across Scotland, and the number of million-pound homes has shot up in the recession. The wealthiest Scots earn 273 (two hundred and seventy three!) times more than the poorest families. This shabby order is indefensible, and independence should serve those who wish to change it. A Yes vote is more than a protest against the injustices of UK capitalism. It can be the first step towards a better society, one that sets precedents of social and environmental justice, rather than dehumanising its citizens in a race to the bottom.

Two Nationalisms

Scottish voters are judging more than Britain’s economic model. The 2014 vote poses questions of identity, experience and oppression. On these matters, we are also confronted with mystifying assumptions, mirages and an overpowering conformism. In particular, a depressing feature of Scottish public dialogue has been the sterile, uncritical conceptions of ‘nationalism’. In the mainstream media universe, Salmond is a nationalist, but pith-helmeted Blair and Brown are … internationalists? The Daily Record, to take one example, ran an editorial urging Scottish trade unionists to turn away from the siren’s call of blood and soil. ‘The clue is in the name – unions are about unity,’ they argued. ‘Nationalism, no matter how it is dressed up, is about dividing people.’ As a result, organised workers should vote to keep the British state, QED.

These editorials are correct in certain details. Nation states divide more than they unite; humanity deserves better than arbitrary borders separating people by so-called ‘ethnic origins’. But this abstract truism adds nothing to understanding 2014. The latent premise of Daily Record unionism says that a No vote means a stance against nationalism. This masks alarming misconceptions about the content and dangers of nationalist ideas.

In historical terms, the most dangerous nationalisms derive from powerful states. This has dragooned young men and women from humble backgrounds to sacrifice their lives, face down in muddy fields, for the territorial ambitions of speculators, aristocrats and militarists. The true risk of these ideas concerns their routine, unacknowledged nature, what Michael Billig calls their ‘banality’ (see Chapter 2). By contrast, other nationalisms belong to weaker nations, and aim to arouse passionate indignation at injustice, to enfeeble stronger rivals and gain support for statehood. These latter movements are dismissed by powerful nations as pathological. Hence, ruling groups claim they are immune from nationalist temptations, which belong to simpletons and backward peoples, but their political authority rests on mobilising loyalty to the state. Clearly, Britain’s dominant ideas are nationalisms of this sort, expecting citizens’ instinctive and uncritical docility, while warning that rival sovereignties are toxic.

The SNP relies on two methods to create a new nation state. First, it seeks public approval for its party policies in the semi-autonomy of Holyrood. Secondly, it aims to mobilise a social movement to build a popular mandate for Scottish sovereignty. There is scant evidence that it attempts either practice in a divisive fashion, not in recent decades. There are a few ultra-fanatical fringe groups who rant against English colonists, but they are a tiny minority of nationalist opinion. Six per cent of SNP members were born in England, which more or less equates to the proportion of English people Scotland-wide.

By contrast, what we call British nationalism revolves around invading and occupying other nation states. During routine Westminster wars, the media bombards the UK with divisive and racialised images, from Muslims refusing to conform to ‘our’ values, to immigrants arriving to steal ‘our’ jobs. The Sun, the Daily Mail and those other ‘patriotic’ outlets are never short of MPs and ministers to stoke fears of ‘Others’. Pompous narratives of an aristocracy of Empire, with a right to rule the world, linger in Westminster discourse. ‘Century upon century it has been the destiny of Britain to lead other nations,’ intoned Tony Blair. ‘That should not be a destiny that is part of our history. It should be part of our future.’ All displays of British public pomp and pride revolve on themes of racial superiority, blood lineage, and might-makes-right; hence, the Royal family.

By examining Scottish and British nationalism, a few contrasts should be clear. Both can involve mythologised references to traditions, national bonds and kinship. Therefore, both nationalisms fuse reactionary and progressive elements to move their people into action. In 1995, Alex Salmond hailed the SNP Conference, ‘with Wallace – head and heart – the one word that encapsulates all our hopes – freedom, freedom, freedom!’ British nationalism, forged by Empire, places different emphases and aspires to more than mere nationhood. UK rulers are unhappy at being an equal nation with Denmark, Poland, or Canada; they wish to comport themselves as a Civilisation. They are burdened with a legacy of mastering other nations, bringing them the splendiferous benefits of Enlightenment, Christianity and free trade.

Britain cannot aspire to dominance today, but this reinforces the nationalist element, as we will outline. For policy makers, reasserting Britain on the world stage, by allying with the US, remains an overarching goal. Grass-roots British nationalism seeks to protect the privileges of a dominant race from immigration: ‘British jobs for British workers’. Every major party in Westminster flirts with this brand of rhetoric. Gordon Brown coined the phrase, after all, and trade union leaders from Unite adopted it before Nick Griffin gave it a permanent home. Holyrood politics avoids racial competition in elections, to the credit of all parties.

Both Scottish and British nationalism use mythology and appeals to tradition to gain consent and to steer voters’ political aspirations. But are the desires of social movements for autonomy more divisive than the desire of powerful states to enhance their influence by violent force? Some Scots might feel excluded or alienated by a Yes vote. But what if Labour or Tories, appealing to superior British values and asserting our right to police other nations, invades another Iraq or Afghanistan? This would guarantee conflict and bitterness, at home and abroad. British nationalism glorifies might and strength, aiming to whip the population into a state of readiness for conquest, often phrased as ‘defence’.

While Britain is consistent, Scottish nationalism is confused with respect to Empire and race. The problem is that knowing where Britain ends and Scotland begins is very difficult. Scots played a practical role in the British Empire, as soldiers, settlers, churchmen, traders, financiers and slave owners. An ‘absurdly high proportion’ of Empire administrators were Scottish, notes Neal Ascherson. Scots also contributed to the Empire’s emotions and sentiments. And thus, today, the Scottish identity blends with nostalgia for world conquest. ‘Presbyterianism and plunder’, with ‘an indecent share of the spoils of Empire’, soldered the Scots to the Union. The Church of Scotland, that most definitive institution, sprawls across the globe thanks to missionary colonialists. Often, its influence has been benign, but its toxicity should be noted: in 1923, the Kirk released a report entitled The Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nationality.

Untangling a Scottish sense of pride from a British and Protestant sense of privilege is tortuous. Scottish identity has increased in recent decades; but its roots are often very shallow. Pre-union Scottish legends, those ancient memories of Wallace and Bruce, make little practical impact on consciousness. Like many Scots, our ancestors lived in England, Ireland, or (in the case of one of this book’s authors) India at the time of the Wars of Independence. Our emotional ties to tradition are not Scottish, and here we resemble much of Scotland.

For others, it applies the other way. Scots can sustain bonds to the distant past while supporting a practical alliance with the British state. Hence, one can, without contradiction, celebrate Bannockburn, hate England at football, and vote No in 2014. Many Scots undoubtedly will. This conclusion is backed by research, which shows that how Scottish you feel has little or no impact on how you will vote in 2014. Twenty-three per cent of Scots identify as Scottish and not British; 30 per cent as more Scottish than British. But this does not total 53 per cent support for independence. Even those who firmly reject British identity are not guaranteed to vote Yes; far from it.

In terms of emotion, tradition and identity, the key battle for 2014 is about Britain, not Scotland. But the mainstream Yes campaign avoids the issue of the UK. Instead, it has allowed the media to frame this element of the debate. Yes campaigners are urged to concentrate on the ‘positive’ message, making Scots optimistic about being Scottish. We think that unless this bias is reversed, the debate will be lost. Britishness, we argue, is the missing link in the debate, and failing to discuss it limits the Yes case. ‘The SNP’s task is not to encourage Scots to feel more Scottish,’ notes Herald columnist Ian Bell, ‘but to persuade them to feel less British.’

We are excited by the prospect of breaking up Britain. A Yes vote would close a dark chapter of Scottish history, and force all UK nations to confront our colonial past. It would end the fantasy of holding Europe down with nuclear force, rather than diplomacy. And it would weaken, beyond redemption, one of the most reactionary American client regimes in world affairs. As internationalists, we welcome these prospects, and wish to persuade others across Britain that Scottish independence is the first step towards changing our unjust society.

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