Scotland’s constitutional future: after deadlock

Beneath the clash of argument over Scotland’s political destiny a workable and creative solution can be glimpsed, says Michael Keating
Michael Keating
8 December 2009

The Scottish National Party (SNP) government of Scotland published a document on 30 November 2009 setting out the options for further constitutional reform in Scotland, including its preferred outcome of independence. Your Scotland, Your Voice: A National Conversation, the culmination of the “national conversation” launched by the government following the SNP’s narrow election victory on 3 May 2007, provides for a referendum on independence to be held within a year of enabling legislation being passed. 

At the same time, Scotland’s main political parties (Labour, Liberal Democrat, Conservative) - all opposed to independence - have pursued their own constitutional path via support for the independent commission headed by Kenneth Calman. It published its final report - Serving Scotland Better: Scotland and the United Kingdom in the 21st Century - on 15 June 2009, suggesting improvements to the present system while ruling out independence.

The public seems broadly unmoved by the clashing perspectives, and a dispassionate observer might have to conclude that both sides have lost the argument.

The corsets of change

Those in favour of a continuation of the British union  - who nonetheless in almost all cases have come to support a high degree of self-government for Scotland - have for some years been unable to articulate just what the union now means and what it is for. They have lost the assurance of old-style unionists, both Conservative and Labour, who embraced the plurinational reality of the United Kingdom but set their faces against any concession to self-government for the nations. In that now-vanished landscape, there were many ways of being British - but all political expression passed, at some point, through Westminster.

The Scottish parliament opened its proceedings at Holyrood (Edinburgh) in July 1999. This followed a change of government in London (May 1997) from Conservative to Tony Blair’s New Labour; a referendum in Scotland (September 1997) in which 74.3% of those voting said “yes” to the proposed institution; and the passage at Westminster of the Scotland Act (November 1998).

Since then, unionists have shifted ground and share with all other parties acceptance of devolution of power; but they seem curiously to have lost their grasp of plurinationalism. Nowhere is this clearer than in the tortured debate about “Britishness”, where Labour especially (now led by Gordon Brown, and no longer enamoured of the “new”) seems fixated on trying to create a unitary national identity that never existed in the past and can surely not work in the 21st century.

The architects of this debate allow and even celebrate multicultural and plurinational variations, but seek to constrain these within an overarching identity that is itself unitary. Onto this British identity are then loaded all manner of things which, however desirable in themselves, have no necessary connection with it. So a British bill of rights is advocated, but not so much to extend rights as to link them to Britishness against the constituent nations of the United Kingdom and (in the case of the Conservatives) against Europe. Since Scotland already has the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) entrenched in the devolution settlement - which applies directly in devolved matters (unlike at Westminster) and which is unconnected with national identity and citizenship - it is difficult to see what a British charter could add.

Similarly, unionists have latched onto “social citizenship” in defence of the union. This implies that social citizenship must necessarily be British, in the face of evidence that distinct forms of social citizenship may be emerging in the devolved territories which are certainly no less solidaristic (and probably more so) than those prevailing at the UK level. There has too been a lot of talk about revising the devolution settlement so as to ensure “national” (meaning UK) standards in public services; although if universal services are under threat anywhere it is not at the UK periphery but at the centre. Meanwhile, by focusing so exclusively on Britishness, unionists have left the nationalists to establish a monopoly over Scottish identity - something that old unionists would never have allowed. 

The emerging framework

The nationalists, for their part, have failed to articulate a coherent vision of a renewed Scottish nation or an independence project. In contrast to their counterparts in Catalonia or Quebec, they seem to take the “nation” itself for granted; while at the same time (and with a touch of paradox) engaging in a lot less nation-building rhetoric than their unionist opponents.

This in itself is no bad thing - and far less troubling than if the SNP government were to come up with a “Scottishness” agenda, insist that it be promoted in schools and suggest that (for example) democracy, fair play and social justice were peculiarly Scottish virtues. What is more serious is the lack of a project for society in the SNP vision. The ruling party’s policies are an eclectic mix of social democracy and neo-liberalism that avoid the critical issues facing small nations seeking to combine economic success and social solidarity in the face of global markets. So it advocates low business-taxes but pursues expensive welfare policies and (before the financial crisis brought down its iconic banks) even invoked an “arc of prosperity” of successful north Atlantic countries - Iceland and Ireland among them - that had little in common except for their geographical location.

Europe has for the last twenty years been an essential part of the independence recipe but SNP attitudes to Europe share the ambivalence of British policies. The party seeks an à la carte Europe, picking and choosing policies to suit; this is in contradiction to the European Union’s acquis communautaire which stipulates that, while member-states may be able to negotiate opt-outs from new policies, they are bound to existing ones. The SNP also proposes to keep the pound sterling pending a decision on entry into the eurozone, ignoring the fact that acceptance of the euro requires both a pre-planned programme of convergence and a great deal of economic restructuring.

Several of the smaller European democracies have achieved the necessary flexibility through forms of concerted action and social cooperation very different from the policy-style that has prevailed in Britain since 1979. So independence is not merely a matter of constitutional change but requires internal institutional change as well. 

The next conversation

It may seem surprising that support for independence appears to have fallen even as the SNP has thrived in opinion-polls, but a deeper reading shows more consistency. Scottish voters want more self-government and increasingly see Scotland as the focus of identity, social citizenship and policy compromises. They mostly do not think that this entails having a seat in the United Nations. They see little contradiction between a strong sense of Scottish identity and a remaining British identity, as long as the latter is not expressed too stridently or made the precondition for political, civil and social rights.

It is not that they differ in basic values from citizens elsewhere in the United Kingdom, nor that economic and social structures are diverging. On the contrary, there is less difference than ever on most measures. It is rather that the framework for the realisation of shared values is shifting as part of a broader process of spatial rescaling across Europe and beyond. The old unitary nation-state is fading; and if it is impossible for unionists to reinvent it at the British level, it is equally difficult for Scottish nationalists to do so at the smaller scale. 

The Scottish debate has become polarised between the unionist and nationalist options, but opinion-polls consistently show the majority opting for something in between. This “something” views Scotland as a self-governing nation embedded in a series of unions, including the United Kingdom and the European Union. Since the 1970s it has been common among progressives to argue that the UK was still a kind of ancien régime, having missed out on radical democratic and republican reforms, notably the principle of popular sovereignty that other western states had achieved. I have argued more recently that in some ways this was a blessing, as it allowed the UK to pass from a pre-modern to a post-modern polity without passing through that phase of modernity represented by the unitary nation-state (see The Independence of Scotland: Self-government and the Shifting Politics of Union [Oxford University Press, 2009]).

In an era of shared and diffused sovereignty, the emerging British practices of accommodation have a lot to offer the world as long as the attempt is avoided to force them back into outdated categories. Once the present cycle of constitutional argument is over and the referendum concluded (and most likely defeated), it will be time to move on to a discussion about what self-government for a small nation really means in the modern world, and how a Scottish social democracy can be built and defended. 

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