After Britain: Is Scottish Independence the New Normal?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, July 6th 2016

These are unprecedented times. The Tories, UKIP and English and Welsh Greens are all in the middle of leadership elections, while Jeremy Corbyn is holding on by his fingertips in a stand-off with his own parliamentary party

There is a lot of bewilderment, frustration and resentment – not just amongst Remain voters in the EU referendum, but also in the bitterly divided Leave camp.

In the midst of this maelstrom Scottish independence looks like the new normal: less risky and the safer option than the Brexiteer fantasy of Britain. Whereas before the vote Leave was left as an open offer, now the uber right-wing plans are being dusted down with the aim of ripping up every economic and social regulation possible.

Some are portraying independence as a potential new ‘Scottish Renaissance’, but for what version of Scotland? In many respects, one suspects this is a Scotland which is a mini-me version of ‘the great British economic miracle’ – our very own ‘Celtic Tiger’ reflated post-crash with little learnt from that implosion.

The ‘idea’ of Britain might now be exhausted as an uplifting project, but difficult questions about how progressive and enlightened Scotland is cannot forever be avoided. On the week of the long overdue publication of the Chilcot Report, it is easy to pose a Scottish/UK binary, where the UK is seen as completely broken and amoral, and Scotland morally superior. Such ‘othering’ of the UK isn’t helpful, for many reasons, one of which is that it precludes Scotland from having some of the difficult debates and reflections it urgently needs to.

There is an appetite for exploration of these issues in Scotland, and earlier this week – under the auspices of Scotland’s Festival of Ideas – I ran a ‘Scotland after Brexit’ event – which attracted a packed house at the Glad Café, Glasgow. Beyond the personality focus of mainstream politics and media, and search for certainty in all the confusion, something is shifting in public opinion. In Scotland, a new sentiment is emerging looking more favourably towards independence – but one still in flux and transition.

With events moving fast and furious, here are some thoughts on where ‘we’ are and where ‘we’ might be going:

A simple statement of fact: Leave won and the UK will leave the EU. Some (Tony Blair being a good example) can’t seem to accept that.

What Leave means isn’t very clear to anyone beyond the above. But that’s the ideal way to win a referendum – campaign on the principle, and leave the detail until after. The Leave campaign with all its contradictions and ugly side, ran a perfect campaign on this ground.

Large sections of Leave and Remain look like two separate tribes, which don’t understand each other, speak different languages, and for most of the referendum, spoke past each other. This, we know from the experience of the indyref is a superficial appearance, and deep down the vast majority of people weren’t part of these two closed tribes, but shifting back and forward in the middle. Yet, even more than in the indyref, the loudest voices seemed to dominate too much.

All or most Leave voters aren’t racists, stupid, uneducated, duped by a duplicitous campaign, or just motivated about immigration. Part of liberal-left Britain seems to have learnt little from the defeats of the last thirty years. Insulting voters because they don’t recognise the superiority of your arguments may make you feel good, but wins few friends. One day, in a parallel universe, left-wingers will stop citing ‘false consciousness’ as the reason voters reject left-wing arguments.

There is a chasm of perception between core, liberal, elite (mostly) England, based in the London opinion formers and media (and with its own smaller Scottish version) and the rest of the country. Peter Geoghegan pointed out that ‘Post-Brexit liberal broadsheets – especially Guardian and the FT – seem to find ever harder to imagine a reader not living in a global city.’ Much broadcast media comment cannot really fathom that ‘people in the sticks’, from Boston to Burnley, do not share their cosmopolitan, pro-globalisation perspective.

There is no British politics left (beyond Westminster). Any nationwide British political competition and contest looks like it is in the past. Instead, as the 2015 election illustrated, this is the world of a divided kingdom, and in particular, a fragmented England.

This raises one of the big questions: who speaks for England? There is a sharp distinction between England’s lack of a national voice, and the divided state of English opinion – with London, Brighton, Bristol, Manchester and Liverpool all voting remain, and most of the rest of the country, including what is still the Labour North backing Leave. Would either an English (with Welsh) independence or rUK contribute to changing this mood?

Indyref2 looks more than likely to be on the cards. We can now confidently talk of ‘the first independence referendum’ and indyref1. It will, however, not be a simple path to a second vote, with significant hurdles in front of the Scottish Government – the most important of which will be the terms of Brexit which the UK negotiates.

So much is going to have to be different in any indyref2. For one, the question could be different. Instead, of offering the detailed, flawed indy package of last time which set up a host of issues to be shot down, better to learn from your mistakes and the Brexiteers. One possibility is to ask a question on the principle. What this does is park independence on the side of ‘the Scottish interest’. This does have the downside of making it more likely there would have to be two Scottish votes, which is pushing it a bit.

The content of any indy offer has to be very different. It has to offer not a Big Book of Answers which tries to reassure us that everything would be alright. Instead, we need some honesty on the huge questions which sank the indy offer last time: currency, Bank of England and Treasury, difficult trade-offs, and the possible degree of autonomy independence for a small country.

The SNP are assuming that the swathe of Yessers mobilised in indyref1 are banked. They think that they are so alienated from the union and the ‘idea’ of Britain as a political unit, that they have nowhere to go. This is the sort of calculation all parties make at their peak. New Labour made the same judgement about working class voters – paving the way for the rise of UKIP.

The SNP look set to pivot centre-rightwards, trying to reassure business, banking and finance. This can be seen in Nicola Sturgeon’s words of calmness to business post-Brexit vote. Noteworthy was Andrew Wilson, ex-SNP MSP and now lobbyist at Charlotte Street Partners, writing that there was a need to focus ‘laser-like’ on the economy ‘demonstrating in word and deed that Scotland is open for business and trade …’ Whenever those words ‘open for business’ are cited, people should be sceptical, as it usually means open for the rigged, crony, crooked capitalism of recent times. Not coincidently, the entire Scottish political classes (Greens apart) used this exact language when they laid down in the path of Donald Trump over his Aberdeenshire Menie estate development.

Scotland has friends in Europe. It also certainly has more friends than the UK Government. While the Spanish Government currently isn’t well disposed to Scottish independence, this could move with events. There are EU splits between the French and Germans, as well as between the founding six and the rest, on Brexit. Scotland has an advocate for its membership of the EU in the shape of the Irish Government, along with others such as the Vice-Chancellor of Germany Sigmar Gabriel.

The mainstream media have a problem with how they cover referendums. The EU referendum was the eleventh UK or sub-national (meaning Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish) vote, and it won’t be the last. No matter how much some of the political classes bemoan the experience of referendums, they are here to stay.

That being the case, the media are going to have to start thinking better how to cover them. All broadcasters had a poor indyref, and while the BBC got most of the brickbats, STV were little better. Somehow, in the indyref, despite the mainstream media presenting their view of politics as a set of closed shop discussions and a surrogate general election, the mass majority of voters managed to see past this and recognise the importance of the occasion.

The EU referendum followed an even worse pattern. Not surprisingly, considering the Londoncentric media, none of the broadcasters seem to have undertaken any detailed analysis of indyref coverage. It showed. The award for the worst broadcasting has to go to the Channel Four Jeremy Paxman special the night before polling day stacked out with Z list celebrities.

All of the above points illustrate different ways in which the British political establishment is in turmoil. A caveat is that the Tories know how to handle and use a crisis, and already are finding structure and a prospective conclusion to their travails. Labour historically have never had the same killer understanding of the importance of crises, how to stage proper coups, or get rid of inept leaderships.

Labour seem to have managed to get the worst of all worlds: of posing Jeremy Corbyn’s future in opposition to the Labour Party’s future. A running thread of the last few days, for all the number of times ‘Labour movement’ has been cited, is the sad, shrunken state it is in. One example is the diminished quality of Britain’s trade union movement, reflecting its declining status in members and resources. Once upon a time, union leadership was filled with people such as Hugh Scanlon, Jack Jones and Frank Cousins who spoke with gravitas and weren’t just sectional, short-term leaders. One of the tragedies of Corbyn’s Labour is that union leadership is now reduced to the likes of Len McCluskey, head of Unite, trying to defend the Corbyn bunker to the last.

Britain looks like it is dead as we have known it. But that raises important questions. What will be the qualities and priorities of any rump rUK and an independent Scotland? In what way will either begin to understand the need to break with the failed economic thinking and models of the last thirty years? And, whatever happens, the future trajectory of rUK will matter fundamentally and impact on what goes on in Scotland.

Sadly, the Scotland/Britain ‘open for business’ line of crony capitalism isn’t over. George Osborne might be a member of the walking dead politically, but is tapping into Tory Brexit priorities when he talks of slashing corporation tax. Nicola Sturgeon may have chucked the corporation tax proposals of Salmondnomics, but Scotland isn’t going to be immune from the dynamics of zombie capitalism, or the future path of rUK.

A final observation. At the ‘Scotland after Brexit’ debate, one member of the audience gently questioned the assumptions of our Remain vote by observing that Scotland has twice in a row (indyref1 and EU vote) chosen ‘the safety first option’. It is possible that Scotland will vote in any indyref2 for independence as the next safety first position – meaning that three times in a row Scotland voted for the least disruptive, risk taking option. Independence wouldn’t quite be completely safe and risk free, but it would be a very Scottish way of navigating change, and have consequences for the sort of future we aspire to. That is both the upside and downside of independence as the new normal, but part of Scotland is yearning for safety and security, just at the point when across the world they have never been in shorter supply.