From the ‘How’ to the ‘Why’ of Scottish Independence

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, October 29th 2011

Scottish independence was once viewed as an eccentric, maverick subject, something not to be taken seriously or mentioned in polite society.

Well no more. The unionist parties talk at the moment of nothing else, and even the self-obsessed London political class and media have noted that something is happening.

After years of ignoring independence, now they want instant answers, detail and a vote – all on their terms. The ‘how’ of Scottish independence has become nearly universally accepted, and we have quickly moved on to the ‘why’. The one exception on the ‘how’ is John McTernan, who earlier this week in ‘The Scotsman’ asked for some elucidation on the question: why independence?

First, let’s locate independence in a modern, mature setting. To many of us, independence isn’t primarily about unionism v. nationalism, a debate which turns most Scots off outside of these narrow political tribes. Instead, behind it is the issue of what kind of Scottish society we want to live in. And a belief in many of us that the failures of British government, politics and society are so fundamental that we can make a better society as an independent nation. It is less ‘Scotland why not?’ and ‘Scotland the Brave’, and more about ‘Scotland the future’.

Second, John McTernan argues that no industrial country has broken up, ignoring the example of Czechoslovakia. There is British insularity in the anti-independence argument. The reality is that in the last two decades, 24 nations have emerged independent from the end of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.

Each and every one of the 24 started from a less advantageous position than Scotland, and many have been successes. Yes, there has been the odd disaster such as Belarus, but from Estonia to the Czech Republic and Slovenia to name but three, the successes have been many.

Here are eleven reasons that set out the ‘why’ of Scottish independence with examples of the failures of Britain, and possibilities for Scotland.

1. Britain according to academic Danny Dorling is the fourth most unequal country in the rich world. The only more unequal places are the USA, Portugal and Singapore. British economic growth is increasingly about a narrow segment of society – primarily concentrated around London and the South East.

2. Britain despite devolution is one of the most centralised countries in Western Europe. Then there is the travesty of Westminster governance, a critique of which was one of the main drivers behind Scottish devolution. And since the advent of the Scottish Parliament, Westminster has got even worse.

3. The nature and direction of English public services. The current English NHS Bill opens up health to parasite American and foreign private companies eager to get their hands on public health monies. This is an extension of New Labour  public sector reform.

4. Then there is the character of British politics. There have been four periods of Labour Government since 1945 and only one of them has succeeded in narrowing inequality: the Attlee Government. The other three led by Wilson/Callaghan and Blair/Brown all presided over widening inequality.

5. The scale of poverty, health inequalities and dislocation in Scotland requires fundamental change: 1 in 4 children living in hardship, the worst life expectancy levels in Western Europe. Doesn’t the union have to take some responsibility for this state of affairs? And isn’t there at least the possibility that independence could aid the transformational change we need if we are ever to address this?

6. One wouldn’t argue for independence solely based on North Sea oil revenues, but a contrast between Norway and ourselves is salutary. The North Sea has oil reserves for the next 30-40 years; wouldn’t it be good to see some of its benefits directly benefit the Scottish people?

7. Foreign policy and international affairs (without reference to Iraq). The British state has for decades become a problem child in the world, a troublemaker in Europe, slavishly pro-American, a hawk on foreign adventures. Clare Short as International Development Secretary and a supposed left-winger supported water privatisation across the African continent funding the hard right Adam Smith International to do consultancy advocacy explicitly on this.

8. Defence. Then there is the controversy of the nuclearisation and militarisation of Scotland without our consent.

9. Europe. Britain’s Euroscepticism shrinks its influence in the corridors of Brussels. An independent Scotland would be seen by France and Germany as a Euro enthusiast, and allow us direct representation on key Scottish interests: farming, fisheries, oil and much more.

10. The Scottish public sphere has suffered in recent years with the atrophying of large parts of our mainstream media. Part of this is global economics and the internet, but part is the media regulatory framework. An independent Scotland would allow us to create an environment where our public broadcasting began to reflect and represent our culture.

11. A final thought. Tory Governments. For as long as Scots vote in such small numbers Tory, whenever we have majority Tory Governments at Westminster, there will be a crisis of legitimacy. Devolution hasn’t sorted this; it can’t because it is a political, not constitutional issue.

This last issue hurts Scottish Labour. Forty one years ago when Labour gave evidence to the Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution, the Labour delegation led by John Pollock were asked which they would choose if they had to: an independent, centre-left Scotland or a Conservative Britain, and they answered without reservation, a Conservative Britain. And this is still the bind they are in, choosing London over Scottish priorities.

There is an argument for independence and there is an argument for the union. They are both legitimate, but we need to challenge blinkered arguments from all sides.

An argument between the union and independence has to acknowledge nuance and subtlety as John Kay argued in the ‘FT’ during the election. Scotland will gain by being independent and lose some things. Being in the UK has advantages in pooling resources and risk and disadvantages. We need to have a debate in this terrain.

There is a deep seated pessimism in much of unionist opinion which either goes all hard and populist, as John McTernan does, or in other perspectives believes the game is up and independence inevitable.

Nothing is inevitable in this. Scotland can become independent or remain part of the UK. More important is having a serious, grown-up discussion about our future. We have to choose for the right reasons. It is that important.