Independence has to be about more than an indyref. It is a state of mind

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Herald, May 13th 2018

Scotland and the UK feel in hiatus and stasis – awaiting the unfurling and unraveling of Brexit.

Some people are marching. Last Saturday’s gathering was significant given the lack of SNP and Scottish Green support. It shows the energy, but also frustration and impatience, in parts of independence opinion. But it also shows the limits of such a politics. Any movement that marches under banners like ‘Tory Scum Out’, and with Tommy Sheridan on the platform, isn’t out to win floating voters.

Four years after the 2014 referendum, independence faces difficult choices and challenges, none of which are answered by a politics of simple assertion, hectoring fainthearts or dealing in abstracts. Similarly, the absence of the SNP leadership facilitating a public debate about the strategic choices of independence has produced a huge vacuum, which some people have filled with passion, while others have become slowly disillusioned.

No one quite knows what Nicola Sturgeon is up to. Is she playing a longer game of inviting the UK Government to self-implode over Brexit? Is she slowly letting the political heat out of the Scottish situation to regroup at a latter stage. Maybe she is making it up as she goes along, but the absence of candour and honest reflection means that many are left thrashing about in the dark.

In this situation an all-encompassing debate is needed about strategy and tactics. First, the indyref is not all that independence should focus on – and be about. It is rather a means to an end and has to be seen in this pragmatic light.

Second, the timing of any indyref is not the central issue facing independence. This is a process point not the principle. Understandably for some indyref2 has become the be and end all of politics along with the issue of timing. How many times do you hear people say we need an indyref as soon as possible, with comments like ‘We have to have a vote before 2021 while there is a pro-independence majority in the Parliament’, or ‘We have to have a vote before the Yes movement implodes or goes away.’

What unites such sentiment is a feeling of fragility and pessimism. For some the spirit of 2014 has to be reinvoked before it fades away. For others there is an anxiety that the conditions for a vote now – a pro-independent parliamentary majority and a wider Yes movement – is unlikely to last for long and certainly not forever.

This pessimism misses the bigger picture about how Scotland is changing and seems to suffer from a deep-seated lack of confidence. Scotland has, increasingly in how it thinks, talks and acts in public life, become quasi-independence – what I have called an ‘independence of the Scottish mind’. This shift is not short-term or transitory and not one that is likely to be reversed anytime soon. Instead, the challenge for independence supporters is to creatively build upon this and give it fuller form.

A politics that understands strategy and timescales would recognise that not only is it extremely unlikely for an indyref to happen before 2021, but that this is also the wisest approach. For a start, because Westminster would not give a Section 30 order in this Scottish Parliament any referendum would be an unofficial one. This would be a huge tactical retreat for the SNP that would make little sense. It would mean progressing from a legally binding vote to an unofficial one that would, in all likelihood, be boycotted by pro-union opinion and hence achieve nothing.

Some independence voices argue that we have to move now with even an unofficial vote because the British state will always say No. The argument goes: the UK Government cannot be given a veto and Scotland’s future must be decided in Scotland.

The British state is not the same in how it does constitutional affairs as Spain, for example. It is for all its faults flexible and adaptive. Scotland gained an indyref with Westminster buy-in when there was an unambiguous mandate. Once you have had one indyref it is much easier to have a second. A precedent has been set.

Westminster would eventually relent to an unchallengeable mandate for an indyref. It knows that to do otherwise would be disastrous and cede the democratic terrain entirely to the cause of independence, and hence undermine the argument of consent on what the UK is ultimately based.

Beyond this, independence has to address some key challenges. The vision of Scotland put forward by the most recent independence offer was aspirations to be a modern democratic, progressive, social democratic, and pro-European, country; all deeply mainstream sentiments, but ones which successive British Governments have increasingly turned their backs on. But each of these are also traditions which are under pressure, increasingly questioned, and in crisis.

Leaving aside the details of a future independence offer, the tone, voice and style of the politics matters. Thus, the 2014 offer tended to pose an ‘It will be alright on the night’ vision of independence which verged on the implausible. Instead, any new package has to address the trade offs and choices which will be inherent with independence. It also has to have an acknowledgement that independence involves risk, as does staying in the union, the central question being who do you want to decide and navigate the risk inherent in the modern world? Do you choose the Scottish Government or the UK Government?

Another challenge that has to be faced is that the 2014 offer was based on a benign view of the international order and at the absolute minimum, of our small corner of northern Europe. No longer can be the former be so easily said such is the instability of the global order with an increasingly belligerent Russia and unpredictable Trump.

This brings us to advancing independence of the Scottish mind. If independence is not just about an indyref or is timing, what should be the goal of people who support it? One answer is that perhaps people need to start turning their attention to the making of a more independent, self-governing set of institutions and culture.

This is something in which there has been little substantial change in the furniture, arrangements and formal institutions of public life. In this there is an increasing gap between official arrangements and where public opinion and attitudes sit. The latter has now for many years wanted to see the devolution of nearly all domestic policy responsibilities to Scotland.

Advancing this is about more than the ‘more powers to the Scottish Parliament’ argument that has been advanced by the SNP since the onset of devolution. Instead, what we have to focus on is the creation of new institutions – of which the Scottish National Investment Bank would be a rare example – and also the cultures and practices of existing bodies.

Nearly twenty years into devolution and after eleven years of the SNP in office too many aspects of Scottish life look rather like they did all those years ago at the onset of the Scottish Parliament. A politics which did not just fixate on the indyref would start asking what does self-government and self-determination look like in education, health, local government and other public services? It would look to embrace radical ideas from those in each area from professionals to users and other stakeholders, and it would nurture a distinct and contemporary Scottish ethos in each area.

To be more specific there is a consensus here on public services to favour more integrated, less fragmented services that do not go down the marketisation route. However, beyond this the actual values which our services embody begin to become more unclear. The Campbell Christie Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services came up with the idea of ‘preventative spending’, but we need to go deeper.

Where are the ideas about how to make our services more dynamic, innovative and forward facing? That informs making education and health more progressive and with a mission which brings up those who are disadvantaged and left behind. And where are the ideas which go beyond structures and finance, and address the values and ethos of what people do in such services? Couldn’t we, for example, begin to think of the ideal of self-government and self-determination, not just at a national level, but in services, drawing from the energies of teachers, doctors, nurses, health professionals and users, to create a more diverse mosaic of services and one more in touch with those working and using such services?

One response to the above is to see it as all of a diversion from the goal of independence via an indyref which should be held as soon as possible. But this approach puts all our eggs in one basket, and leaves the tricky subject of what is independence until after a vote is held and won. What if, like devolution before it, independence is a process not an event? What if the quasi-independence we have now could be used and expanded, not just for ‘more powers’ for the Parliament, but to advance a nation which practices self-determination in everyday life?

To aid the above one key challenge is encouraging a richer, more diverse public sphere: one where ideas and initiatives can be more easily nurtured, and where there are numerous resources and agencies engaged with policy and research related to Scotland. There are only two conventional think tanks: Reform Scotland and IPPR Scotland, and then hybrids such as Common Weal which try to be a cross between a think and do tank.

The conventional political elite take on this is that Scotland needs more think tanks, but that is a top down, unimaginative interpretation. Instead, what we need are a variety of different players and actors addressing our challenges and the future. There is a missing pro-independence conventional think tank or agency, but we are also missing some of the agencies which do exist standing up being more engaged and innovative: examples include the Royal Society of Edinburgh, NESTA and the Royal Society of Arts, the last two of which have dynamic London operations which are pale imitations here.

Rather tellingly in numerous parts of our country the championing of ideas and imagination has never stopped. Take the now celebrated work of the Violence Reduction Unit who turned around Glasgow’s terrible record of knife crime. Or groups like Galgael and Govanhill Baths who have shown in disadvantaged areas what leadership, ambition and believing in people can achieve. And there is the gathering movement behind what is called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) which looks at the harm done to people from the earliest age and says that this can be turned around. These and many more are inspiring, emboldening ideas, but we need to have more of them, and there needs to be more championing of such examples as inspiration for others.

Public leadership is critical. Not just by professional politicians, but by all of us. We all have a responsibility in this. We have a duty to show respect and manners to each other, including those we disagree with, and not engage in abusive behaviour and language. We have a duty to call out those who use terms like ‘traitors’ whether they are the Daily Mail on Brexit or independence supporters.

Even more than this a culture which aided an independence of the Scottish mind would embrace taking more responsibility and being more mature and reflective in how we discuss things. Thus, too much of Scotland is scarred by economic and social health inequalities which see the poorest parts of Edinburgh have an average life expectancy of 63.6 years (compared to 85 years in the richest) or bright working class children increasingly failed by the education system. Not all of this is the fault of Westminster or the solution being ‘more powers’.

A real, lived self-government would look at some of our areas of public life which are already devolved and address honestly their shortcomings and where they fall short in how they serve us. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of defending the status quo in Scotland which is the road to a limiting, conservative future.

Independence and self-government is not a one-off or just about an indyref, winning a vote and achieving statehood. Instead, it is an active and engaged state of mind and action in the here and now that changes the nation and society that we live in for the better.