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As Ireland embraces the future, Scottish Nationalists merely embrace the (flawed) present

On the day Ireland cast its historic vote on abortion, the SNP launched an economic policy that maintains fiscal conservatism – vacating a space which could be inhabited by a more honest, bold and radical independence movement.

Image: Yes Campaigners celebrate the Irish abortion referendum result. Rights: Niall Carson/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Ireland made international headlines last weekend as the country voted to permit the legalisation of a woman’s right to choose, overturning decades of religious and moral dogma. Meanwhile in less dramatic terms Scotland’s debate on independence and its future has been shaped by the publication of the governing SNP’s Sustainable Growth Commission. The two have similarities in ways neither is aware of.

Ireland’s trust in its own people

Ireland’s debate was ostensibly about a woman’s right to choose and repealing the Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution outlawing abortion. But really it was about much more. It was about the legacy of religious intolerance and authoritarianism, choice, respect, citizenship and the prospect of Ireland as a modern country embracing openness and optimism.

Ireland has been through an awful lot in the last decade. ‘The Celtic Tiger’ gave Ireland a swagger and confidence, followed by a decade of retrenchment and national re-examination. This, whilst difficult, has illustrated some of the strengths of Irish society in its adaptability and flexibility, but also its shortcomings as it has put the same flawed economic model back on the road.

With the caveat that in absolute terms more people aged over 65 years voted for repeal than those aged under 25, it is also true in relative terms that younger voters were more pro-choice (under 25s being 87.6% Yes; over 65s 58.7%). The emphatic vote (66.4% Yes; 33.6% No) articulated the hopes of the Generation of 2008 - young people whose lives have been defined and blighted by the global crash, and saddled with massive debts, restricted employment and housing choices. The campaign and its result showed the optimism and belief of this generation in the possibility that Ireland can be remade in a way that respects and understands their needs. That is what is possible when there is a deep-seated degree of trust in the democratic process: the referendum being part of a longer deliberative process, alongside a campaign where the dirty tricks of the manipulators did not prevail.

Fintan O’Toole, one of the most astute observers on Ireland as well as on the UK post-Brexit, wrote in the Irish Times the immediate aftermath of the vote:

This referendum was a collective act of letting go, the end of a very long goodbye. Three years ago, when the results of the same sex marriage referendum came in, it felt like a big Irish wedding. This time, it feels more like a wake - albeit one of those wakes where most people do not bother to hide their disdain for the deceased. For something has undoubtedly died.

This death was ‘the end of Irish exceptionalism’ – and is part of the final parts of a jigsaw that are transforming Ireland into a normal country. This may sound boring and humdrum to some. But in comparison to where Ireland has come from historically - brutal British repression, a war of independence followed by civil war, and then decades of religious authoritarianism, it is cause for celebration.

Scotland’s Growth Commission and its aftermath

Life is a little less dramatic in Scotland, but we still face big choices. On the same day as Ireland’s momentous vote the SNP’s Growth Commission, chaired by former SNP MSP and economist Andrew Wilson, was published.

Set up by Nicola Sturgeon in September 2016 in light of the Brexit vote the Commission was tasked with coming up with an economic case for independence which was robust and that answered the weaknesses of 2014. In so doing, it has taken North Sea Oil out of the equation, come up with a position on the currency which is different from four years ago and made a pro-immigration case. More fundamentally, the entire report across its 354 pages is honest in admitting that the early years of independence will be tough, involving difficult choices and fiscal challenges. Such an admission was missing four years ago.

The report has certainly sparked an intense debate about independence. Thus, a host of high profile opinion formers have applauded its clarity. Harry Burns, former Chief Medical Officer, commented that ‘the implications of the report are elegant, middle of the road and inclusive’. Historian Tom Devine hailed the commission as ‘convincing intellectually’ on the economy, while writer and commentator Will Hutton observed that the ‘work of the commission would have strengthened the Yes campaign in 2014.’

The left-wing case for independence felt betrayed and angry. Commentator Iain Macwhirter led the denouncements, arguing that the plan ‘made Nicola Sturgeon sound as if she is an advocate of austerity.’ Economist Katherine Trebeck noted that the report had a narrow perspective of growth, embracing the idea that ‘no stone will not be unturned in the pursuit of growth’, while ‘the way the environment is talked about … the business environment, the financial environment .... wasn’t even talking about nature and the planet.’ Author and rapper Darren McGarvey (aka Loki) concluded that the report forced him to reappraise his politics: ‘But if social justice is the objective, as well as a rejection of austerity as an ideology, then this report, which largely accepts the precepts that gives rise to it, forces me to consider my priorities as a citizen – not just as a member of a political movement.’

The honesty within parts of the Growth Commission has to be welcomed. The economic illiteracy and belief that everything would just turn Scotland’s way aided by chutzpah and North Sea Oil found in the Salmond White Paper of 2013 is now thankfully nowhere to be found.

The report takes aim at the illusions in certain circles, which were nurtured in the indyref, that somehow Scotland could financially and politically challenge the entire global capitalist system, finance capital and the forces of neo-liberalism. It also drives a horse and carriage through the belief that austerity can be opposed just by assertion and resisting Westminster Tory or Labour policies.

It isn’t then surprising that the left populist case for independence – from the likes of the Radical Independence Campaign and Common Weal - are disillusioned by this SNP prospectus for independence. But this report isn’t aimed at convincing them. In fact it is aimed at them only in as much as it is happy to challenge their delusions and invite their opposition, in part offering differentiation to the independence cause.

Instead, Wilson’s plan is focused on floating voters, as well as business and institutional opinion. It recognises that the sovereigntists, leftists and those who want a complete break with the British state, do not produce a pathway to a majority. It is aimed at ‘middle Scotland’ – those in the middle and working classes with secure employment, incomes and prospects who have yet to be convinced by independence.

There are questions which the commission hasn’t managed to answer convincingly. The idea that an independent Scotland would retain sterling as its currency for at least a decade brings with it a downside. It means that an independent Scotland would abdicate having its own monetary policy and would instead give it over to the Bank of England and Treasury. Thus, Scotland couldn’t set its own interest rates and would be constrained in its fiscal autonomy by the decisions of another country. Andrew Wilson has made great play of the fact that the UK is the most unequal country regionally in the OECD – but a significant part of the reason for this has been the economic orthodoxies of the Treasury and Bank of England, which the commission wishes to retain.

The commission may be an improvement on the 2013 White Paper on currency, but only marginally. Paradoxically, then and now the SNP version of independence proposes to forego real independence for the foreseeable future in the pursuit of stability and reassurance. One day in the years ahead the SNP will eventually come round to a version of economic and monetary independence - while others such as the Scottish Greens and Common Weal have already arrived. There is also nothing on redistribution, no ideas from the labour and trade union movement, and no addressing of EU membership and Brexit. There isn’t even any connection to areas where the Scottish Government is trying to be innovative such as a National Investment Bank.

There is another related issue. Many independence supporters want a referendum as soon as possible even if that risks losing it: an argument put by the likes of Kevin McKenna and Pat Kane. The SNP leadership has not openly communicated its intentions, or dared to stand down such impatient, counter-productive politics.

Nicola Sturgeon is promising to ‘restate’ the independence argument over the coming months and in the autumn come back with thoughts on another indyref as the Brexit endgame becomes clearer. The weakness with this is that Sturgeon knows that the UK Government will not allow an official, legal vote now, and she will not sanction an unofficial Scottish vote after the previous Westminster approved one, noting that there is no independence majority at the moment.

Therefore, there is an argument that leading the independence troops up the hill to march them down again is bluff. Sturgeon is talking about another indyref, knowing one will not happen and not fully believing in it herself. The only motivations in such manoeuvres are to keep the base happy and to try, when Westminster blocks any move, to make the argument about democracy and Scotland’s right to choose, laying the groundwork for the 2021 elections. This does not exactly seem like straightforward politics or leadership.

Yet despite its limitations the Growth Commission feels like a significant report. Scotland isn’t exactly awash with internationally referenced economic analysis and this has supplied it in spades. It has embraced conventional economics to make the case for independence, shown the unrealistic nature of many left-wing arguments for independence, and by its fiscal conservatism and maintenance of the pound, vacated a political space which could be inhabited by a more honest, bold and radical independence, which could come from the likes of the Scottish Greens and others. The report just does not feel like it is about Scotland’s future; whereas Ireland’s democratic spirit feels like it is very much of the future.

Becoming a normal country and living in colour

What the Growth Commission has in common with Ireland’s historic vote is the desire of many independence supporters for Scotland to be a normal country - self-governing, modern, democratic and outward looking. Ireland has managed to progress to this by a circuitous route and Scotland may get there soon. However, while this may appear a revolutionary politics in contrast to the self-harm and faith-based delusion of Brexit, on its own Scotland becoming a normal country doesn’t quite seem enough or seal the deal. Unlike Ireland, Scotland doesn’t come from the shadows of oppression or experience of inhumane colonialism, and so while there has been a maturing by the commission publication, we still need to ask: independence for what? What kind of Scotland do we want to be? Here the commission’s acceptance of the world as it currently is, is a problem.

Ireland’s debate and vote ended decades of having to be careful what you said and what you wished for in public. The Irish broke with decades of silence and acknowledged those silences and hurt. Scotland doesn’t have any issue as totemic and defining as abortion and the weight of religious authority, but there are some commonalities. Fintan O’Toole concluded his essay the day after the vote stating:

We have decided not to think in black and white anymore. Now we have to decide whether to subside into greyness or to replace that old monochrome with new colours of justice, decency and inclusion.

That is a big change. It is walking into a different future and nation. And that, in less dramatic terms, is what Scotland also has to do. We have to learn not to be defined by our differences, and what tribe we belong to, and to work out what beyond independence we agree on - even when we disagree on the constitutional way to it. We too have to decide whether we want to live in colour.

About the author
Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and academic on Scottish and UK politics, power, democracy and social change. He has written or edited over two dozen books including Scotland the Bold and the newly published A Nation Changed? The SNP and Scotland Ten Years On (edited with Simon Barrow). His writing can be found at: www.gerryhassan.com

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