Devolution, Unionism and Independence: Nick Pearce Replies

Nick Pearce

Open Democracy, February 16th 2011

Dear Gerry,

Once again, thanks for your reply. I found it very stimulating. Here are some points by way of response:

1. A small clarification: by “unionist project” I simply meant that, in fact and law, Scotland’s Parliament remains within the United Kingdom, and was designed as devolution of power within the union. The devolution project is unionist, therefore, even if its parents had a range of perspectives, including nationalist ones.

2. I think if you want to claim that the “primary account of devolution” was about a governing mindset and a practice of politics which span a number of parties and go beyond formal politics into the character of the state, you should not use the phrase “legitimising the Labour state and nomenklatura” to describe it. It is either about Labour, its people and statecraft, or it is something else. Incidentally, you then go onto say that the fact that Labour has shared or lost power doesn’t defeat your argument by reverting back to an account of Labour politics, which I think proves my point, not yours.

3. You claim that I misrepresent you by stating that you lay the blame for the failure of devolution to realise the promise it might have held at the door of the Labour Party in Scotland, whilst ignoring a longer list of factors which you adduce. But you go on to say that, of these factors, the most important is the “character of devolution”, which in your original critique is almost entirely explained as a problem of the “Labour payroll state”. Unsurprisingly, I took this to be the burden of your argument. I think you would do better to advance your wider case more systematically and not get so drawn into the personnel politics.

4. On the question of independence, I will concede that I know too little about the Scottish nationalist tradition and that I skated round it in my musings. But to the point: I am not in favour of independence for Scotland or a Federal United Kingdom, even though, like you, I am very interested in the English question, and its modalities and potency. However, I am not sure from your critique whether you are in favour of independence, even though you are clearly against a unitary state. You appear to make a Habermasian argument for giving all political actors an equally legitimate role in a deliberative process of addressing Scotland’s future, from which a range of constitutional frameworks might emerge. I am sympathetic to this. But I’m not sure any of these frameworks would be “post-nationalist” in the sense Habermas would understand it. An element of sophistry creeps into your argument at this point.

That said, I think one of the biggest challenges for contemporary progressive politics is to better understand and connect with communities of attachment and identity, including national identities, whilst at the same time advancing the case for stronger forms of pooled sovereignty and multi-national action, including in the European Union. On this we can probably agree.

Finally, the poll you cite is potential dynamite. If things stay that way, much of what I originally posted becomes redundant, whilst a whole set of new dynamics open up.

With best wishes