The Possible Scotlands of the Future

Gerry Hassan

The Guardian Comment, January 13th 2012

The Scottish independence story has become one of the UK’s hottest stories, forcing Westminster and London politicians and correspondents to gen up quickly about Scotland and Scottish politics as they try to make sense of what is going on.

Scottish independence and self-government are not about an old-fashioned nationalist movement drawing from reactionary ideas, but a profoundly modern, pro-European, centre-left politics.

The debate of independence versus the union has already seen battlelines drawn, David Cameron and Alex Salmond engage in the first of what will be several duels, and the political camps and tribes anticipate the sound and fury to come.

Despite this we have to acknowledge the subtleties of the Scottish debate in an age of complexity and interdependence. There is a positive case to be made for the union. And a positive case for independence.

A powerful, plausible, non-partisan case can be made for why independence could be a power for good for Scotland and the rest of the UK. Firstly, Scotland is a relatively rich nation which, when we factor in the 91% North Sea Oil monies, would be one of the most prosperous countries in the world.

This would be a society and nation which could have proper debates on how it grows its economy, the nature of economic growth, how it supports and nurtures business and entrepreneurs with a different set of ethics from the spiv capitalism of the City of London, and which like the Nordics takes considered, long-term decisions about investment and public priorities.

Scotland contains despite its wealth, huge inequalities, the worst concentrations of poverty in Western Europe and the most shocking and devastating health inequalities of anywhere. An independent Scotland could bring a sense of mission and purpose to tackling what is ‘Scotland’s real shame’, the poverty, exclusion and dislocation for hundreds of thousands of Scots in a nation which prides itself on its egalitarian character.

Public services north of the border increasingly see themselves as inhabiting a different universe from down south. Scots services embody principles of equity, collaboration and simple lines of accountability, whereas English public services for thirty years have been embracing marketisation and outsourcing. Scotland wants to preserve its distinctive approach and resist the encroachment of the public sector reform agenda seen in the English NHS and schools.

Scotland increasingly feels like a different place from the rest of the UK, and in recent years has enjoyed an artistic and cultural renaissance which has seen the nation’s imagination embrace both a distinctive Scottishness while being proudly international and outward looking. A self-governing Scotland would see artists, writers and creators flourish within a new environment, even in part by asking difficult questions to the emerging orthodoxies.

Then there is the Scotland of the public sphere. How Scotland talks to itself and others, represents itself and is represented is a crucial part of any democracy. At the moment we have an unsatisfactory situation whereby large parts of the media such as the BBC are disconnected from contemporary Scotland, not broadcasting, commissioning or portraying the many cultures and voices of the nation. This would change dramatically if independence occurred, aiding a new ecology of the public sphere.

Then there is Britain. Despite devolution the UK is one of the most centralised countries in Western Europe. Power, economically, socially and politically, increasingly lies with a narrow group of people concentrated in London and the South East. It isn’t any accident that according to academic Danny Dorling the UK is the fourth most unequal society in the developed world – after the US, Portugal and Singapore – and London the most unequal city.

Scottish independence would give Scotland a greater voice, platform and sense of possibility internationally, of tapping into the talent and networks of the global Scottish diaspora, and having the prospect of a warm welcome upon becoming a member of the European Union from friends and neighbours who have become fed up of UK hectoring and lecturing.

The nature of British Euroscepticism and fanatical Atlanticism has been part of Scotland’s growing disenchantment with the British state. Then there are the issues of Trident, nuclear weapons and the militarisation of Scotland which have long been controversial.

All of this not only changes Scotland, but England and the UK. One argument used to keep Scotland in the union is the pessimism of modern English progressives who plead not to be left with perpetual Tory Governments.

This is a false reading of history. In post-war elections the Tories have only won a majority of the English vote once (1955), the same year they won a majority in Scotland.  English democratisation could be aided by Scottish self-government, allowing radicals on both sides of the border to pose the current way British politics does business as increasingly representing the super rich and global winners.

Perhaps the greatest change of Scottish independence would be the prospect of wider cultural transformation and change. Over recent decades a debilitating avoidance of responsibility has grown, of blaming others whether it be Labour or Tories, London, or a general culture of gripe and grievance. Breaking that vicious cycle is only possible by embracing greater responsibility at every level of society, as a nation and individuals.

What have we to be scared of by independence? It poses a Scotland less ‘Scotland the Brave’ and more ‘Scotland the confident’. It allows England the chance to find a democratic voice. And it enables those of us who see the right wing lurch of British politics and its debasement over the last thirty years, the real prospect of making alliances together against the institutional capture of the British state by corporate interests.

Most of all, Scottish independence is about maturing and growing up, of people recognising that they have the power to shape and make their collective future. It is a powerful, positive story, and the only people who should feel threatened are the narrow elites who gain so much from the current status quo. A post-British politics would allow for a very different kind of Britain and Britishness to arise. That’s why large elements of Scottish society and opinion are galvanised and enthused by this historic possibility.