25 January 2012, Burns Night, will be remembered as a historic, watershed day for Scotland and the UK.
Alex Salmond announced to the Scottish Parliament his government’s proposed question for the autumn 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?’ This was he said ‘short, straightforward and clear’ (1).
The Scottish Government consultation paper, ‘Your Scotland, Your Referendum’ (2) is a cogent, thoughtful document, offering the vision of a modern, progressive Scotland at ease with itself and its neighbours. Alex Salmond even states in his foreword, ‘Scotland is not oppressed and we have no need to be liberated’ (3).
The ‘Braveheart’ Nationalism of the British State
Those are important words because of the caricatures of Scottish nationalism which its enemies have. This can be witnessed in the widespread misinterpretation of the most famous exchange in the film version of ‘Trainspotting’ where the main character Renton invokes that Scotland has been colonised but not by an oppressor you can respect, proclaiming that, ‘we, on the other hand, have been colonised by wankers’ (4).
This was meant by writer Irvine Welsh as satire of a certain, ahistorical take of the Scottish predicament, but sadly it has become the view of many unionists and non-nationalists of Scotland, its culture and nationalist movement.
This has seen such opinion buying into the ‘Braveheart’ stereotype of Scottish nationalism; of seeing the SNP and self-government as romantic, irrational, sentimental throwbacks and ultimately, anti-progressive and unmodern. It is a view which flies in the face of the realities of the modern SNP and wider Scottish nationalist movement (which are two different entities). Alex Massie, always a thoughtful, considered voice, understands this, writing:
This is not a give me liberty or give me death type of struggle, far from it. In general, you see, Salmond wants to strip emotion from the debate, not pour it onto the pyre. (5)
A strange switch has happened in which the SNP have become thoughtful, pragmatic nationalists as far as you could imagine from ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Trainspotting’ sentiment. Instead, the romantic, fantasyland nationalists are those defending the British state and Westminster world: Gordon Brown, David Cameron and the unionist parties in Scotland.
They are romantic nationalists because they are letting their emotional attachment to the idea of the UK drive how they think of things. They tell themselves and the rest of us a selective, implausible, sanitised version of British history where we only did good things: brought ‘civilisation’ to the Empire, abolished slavery and beat the Nazis, and never address the complexities, nuances and darkside of having been an imperial power. In short, the new romantic nationalists defend an idealised, fictionalised United Kingdom, a world of in the words of Michael Moore, Lib Dem Secretary of State for Scotland, ‘a generous welfare state’ (6); the parallel universe of Gordon Brown’s land of liberty, tolerance and dissent (7). Alex Massie notes this significant change, commenting that ‘increasingly it is Unionism that tugs the heart’ (8).
Alex Salmond’s Hugo Young Memorial Lecture was one part of the choreographed bigger picture that is SNP strategy (9). Salmond had many audiences to address in this, the most important of which weren’t in the room, namely the domestic Scottish audience. SNP thinking, from al-Megrahi to Salmond’s visits to China and Dubai, is about Scotland taking a more prominent international profile and its place on the global stage.
There were different London Guardianista audiences, first, those who cannot get over the idea of an independent Scotland, gripe about nationalism, and feel threatened by the possibility that England may be left governed, god forbid by the English. Second, there are the others who Salmond can if not make common cause with, establish a dialogue with, many of whom see in Scotland an idealised centre-left community, i.e.: all that England and the UK isn’t. There is a bit of romanticism in that view too.
Salmond’s official story of progressive Scotland paints a powerful picture:
The Scottish Government’s policies attempt to protect many values which would be dear to any post-war social democrat in these isles. For example, we have promoted what we call a living wage - £7.20 an hour. And we have made a conscious decision to provide certain core universal services, rights or benefits, some of which are no longer prioritised by political leaders elsewhere – such as free university tuition, free prescriptions, free personal care for the elderly and a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies across the public sector. (10)
This is a selective account of social democratic Scotland, its achievements and how it feels which takes little account of the distributional consequences of these decisions. But as positioning it is masterful.
This moment requires a calmness and consideration to allow Scotland and the UK to have a reasoned debate and discussion. So far both the British political classes and media, and a large part of unionist opinion in Scotland has shown no indications that it has the capacity or qualities to do so.
The worst recent example of this wasn’t the tirades of Melanie Phillips or Simon Heffer, both of who preach to the converted about a ‘subsidy junkie Scotland’. Instead it comes from the BBC ‘journalist’ Jeremy Paxman, who has a track record in wearing his prejudice on his sleeve with regard to Scotland and Scottish independence.
Paxman’s ‘interview’ with Alex Salmond on ‘Newsnight’ was one characterised by Paxman’s condescending, metropolitan media elite disdain for Salmond and Scottish independence (11). Paxman was clearly indignant at the positivity and optimism of Salmond’s Hugo Young lecture, and his call for Scotland to be ‘a beacon for progressives’, using this to invite a comparison between Scotland and Zimbabwe, and then following this, to sink even lower, comparing Salmond and Mugabe.
The whole interview was shaped by Paxman’s scorn and Salmond’s good humour and grace, realising how this would play back home with domestic voters. Paxman went through issue after issue, the UK national debt, public spending, the gold reserves, and challenged Salmond to explain his sheer effrontery in daring to think that an independent Scotland was possible and viable. ‘How would an independent Scotland pay for the BBC license fee?’ he asked, throwing his famously contorted face which had once brought politicians as talented as Michael Howard and Tony Blair to account.
Paxmanesque arrogance, over-reach and machismo could be seen as a one off, unrepresentative of wider currents, but there is a tendency in large aspects of the British political classes to dismiss Scottish nationalism and the viability of Scottish independence in such brutal, demeaning terms.
This can be seen in the Scottish political environment whereby the unionist parties north of the border are still in denial about the SNP, let alone Scottish independence. After Salmond’s statement to the Scottish Parliament, Johann Lamont replied as leader of Scottish Labour, in a nippy, ungracious manner which in three minutes used the pejorative word ‘separatism’ three times; she warned Salmond not to take for granted that ‘he spoke for Scotland’ (12).
What this is influenced by is that the unionist parties are shaped by regarding the SNP as illegitimate, and not part of mainstream, moderate Scotland. Thus they regard the SNP Government as partisan and not the expression of the national will in the way governments the world are. This jaundiced view of the Nationalists makes Labour, Lib Dems and Tories come across as slightly crazed and myopic.
After Salmond’s announcement to the Parliament, he and Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy First Minister, went the short walk up the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle to take press questions on the referendum. This is a beautiful site in the heart of historic Edinburgh, and one well suited and used for such occasions, famously, Donald Dewar in July 1997 when he unveiled Labour’s White Paper on a Scottish Parliament. And yet given their partisan view of the SNP what did Labour and the Lib Dems say this time? Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale said, ‘Edinburgh Castle is a proud symbol of Scotland and belongs to all of the people of Scotland – not Alex Salmond or the SNP’; Willie Rennie, Scots Lib Dem leader offered the view that, ‘Things seem to have gone to the First Minister’s head. To use Scotland’s national monument for party political ends will just jar with people’ (13).
Evidence abounds of unionist parties not understanding the appeal of the SNP and independence. One of the well-worn dynamics as illustrated above is that Labour or other unionist politicians get so irritated by the words or actions of SNP politicians that they go over the top. Thus, Salmond’s claim that an independent Scotland could be ‘a progressive beacon’ caused Willie Bain, Labour MP to respond about Salmond that, ‘the man who said Scots didn’t mind Thatcherite economics, demanded lighter bank regulation and backed Fred Goodwin might not know what the word progressive means’ (14). The same observation could have been made of Gordon Brown.
A recent BBC ‘Question Time’ saw another revealing example. Nicola Sturgeon made the calm case for Scotland being able to debate and decide its constitutional future, an uncontroversial point, which caused Douglas Alexander, Labour Westminster frontbencher and former Cabinet minister, to retort that ‘we have had 40 years of debating the border issue’ (15). This was interesting language for no one senior in any Scottish party has ever called the independence debate, ‘the border issue’, a phrase which carries with it not just connotations of belittling, but sectarian strife and Northern Irish associations.
Beyond the Debate of ‘Two Tribes’
These are momentous, challenging times, filled with a mixture of excitement and bewilderment, hope and fear, depending on your political opinions. It is up to those of us who want a serious, mature debate appropriate for the occasion to challenge and demand from all Scotland’s and the UK political parties, media and political communities, that they act respectively and reach out and understand perspectives different from their own.
First, the pro-union forces have a legitimate argument to put about the merits of Scotland remaining in the union, but to do so and be heard, they need to argue a nuanced case which stresses the positives of remaining in the UK; what they must not do for their sake is retreat into their comfort zone of peddling fear and scaremongering stories about independence.
Second, even more crucially and basically, the union parties have to come to terms with the normalcy of the SNP and Scottish independence. The SNP and independence are part of the mainstream; they are not mavericks, eccentrics, wild men (and women), or even romantics – these are the unionist stereotypes of a Scottish nationalism which has long since passed away. The union forces need to stop girning and learnt to empathise and relate to the modern SNP in front of them which isn’t that different from them or the rest of Scotland (except that they happen to believe in independence).
Third, the political classes and parts of the media in Scotland and the UK need to stop using hackneyed language. Newspapers in Scotland regularly use the word ‘separatism’ without any qualification when this is a pejorative, partisan word. Labour, Lib Dem and Tory politicians love getting worked into a lather taking emotively of Scotland ‘being wrenched out of the UK’ as Nick Clegg did recently. This is the last stand of the romantic nationalists of the British state, and equally a sad story of how Lib Dems north and south of the border, have bought into the once Labour and Tory only Armageddon lexicon of seeing Scottish nationalism as the equivalent of a UK version of the Vietcong!
This brings us to the current political posturing between the Scottish and UK Governments over the nature of the independence question. The Scottish Government has stressed that it is open to two questions, one on independence and one on what is called ‘devo max’, sensing this is where most Scottish public opinion currently is. The UK Government and unionist opinion only want one question, thinking this offers them the best prospect of winning.
The debate between one and two questions is one that needs careful consideration by all sides rather than partisan calculations of what options are most likely to win. What is self-evident is that any referendum has to aid clarity, debate and decision on the part of the general public, and not be about the knowledge of the political cognoscenti. And offering up a multi-option referendum of ‘devo max’ and independence throws up huge challenges, asking for two political concepts to be defined, one of which, the former, has had no work done on it and at the moment has no institutional supporters beyond a self-proclaimed, self-selecting group who claim to speak for ‘civic Scotland’.
A two question referendum as is being currently mooted isn’t in any way comparable to 1997’s Scottish Parliament two vote question on a Parliament and its tax raising powers as it could be understood as a binary choice: for or against a Parliament. Such a proposed vote hasn’t really worked successfully anywhere in the world.
What equally matters is who calls the vote and who is seen to call it. This is about the politics and legitimacy of the vote rather than narrow legality. The best scenario is that the Scottish Government find agreement with the UK Government which allows the former to take the lead, call the vote and ask the question. A ‘Channel Four News’ poll found only 12% of Scots saw the UK Government as being best placed to call and run a referendum (16).
What such a figure reveals is that Scotland has already embraced a de facto independence of the mind, that Scottish politics are increasingly home grown, embrace a home rule politics, and Scottish voters wanting to see more and more domestic policy decisions and priorities made in Scotland by the Scottish Government, and have increasing questions of trust and legitimacy about the British Government’s role in Scottish domestic affairs (17).
All of this is part of a wider set of events which point to a quiet, peaceful and gradual revolution happening before our very eyes, of the emergence of a distinct Scottish public sphere and statehood, which is progressive, generous and about the collective future of its people, more than its past.
This is a Scottish story with major English, UK and European, as well as global dimensions. It is a social democratic story of a people and polity wishing to institutionalise their values and priorities. It is a story of the slow, painful decline of Britain, its state and statecraft, and how people see it. And it is as Anthony Barnett rightly argues the end of the argument for ‘a different kind of British state’ (18). It is the beginning of the conversation of what kind of post-British identities will emerge, what kind of union and co-operation, and what sort of Britain, society and role in the world we want to envisage.
1. BBC Scotland News, ‘Scottish Independence: Referendum Question Set Out’, January 25th 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-16702392
2. Scottish Government, Your Scotland, Your Referendum, Scottish Government 2012.
3. Foreword, op. cit.
4. Trainspotting, 1996, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0117951/quotes
5. Alex Massie, ‘Alex Salmond’s Inevitable Strategy’, Spectator Coffee House, January 25th 2012, http://www.spectator.co.uk/alexmassie/7603815/alex-salmonds-inevitability-strategy.thtml
6. House of Commons, January 11th 2012.
7. Gordon Brown, ‘Introduction’, in Matthew d’Ancona (ed.), Being British: The Search for the Values that Bind a Nation, Mainstream 2009.
8. Massie, op. cit.
9. Alex Salmond, Hugo Young Memorial Lecture, ‘Scotland’s Place in the World’, January 24th 2012, http://www.snp.org/blog/post/2012/jan/hugo-young-lecture-scotlands-place-world
11. Newsnight, BBC Two, January 24th 2012.
12. Scottish Parliament, January 25th 2012.
13. The Scotsman, January 25th 2012.
14. The Times, Scotland Edition, January 25th 2012.
15. BBC Question Time, January 12th 2012.
16. Channel Four News, January 16th 2012.
17. Gerry Hassan, ‘The Beginning of the Break-up of Britain: The Consequences and Practicalities of Scottish Independence’, National Library of Iceland Lecture, January 20th 2012, http://www.gerryhassan.com/blog/the-beginning-of-the-break-up-of-britain-the-consequences-and-potential-of-scottish-independence/
18. Anthony Barnett, ‘Time to Take Britain Out of Our Greatness’, Our Kingdom, January 25th 2012, http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/anthony-barnett/time-to-take-britain-out-of-our-greatness