Scotland in the Global Age: Rethinking Ukania, Europe and the New International Order

Tom Nairn and George Kerevan in conversation

This is a longer version of a conversation of which an abridged edition appeared in Gerry Hassan, Eddie Gibb and Lydia Howland (eds), Scotland 2020: Hopeful Stories for a Northern Nation, Demos 2005.

October 5th 2004

Dear Tom,

I feel like an old soldier parading for the Armistice, medals proudly on show, but just a bit quizzical about what we achieved in the conflict. For you and I are battle-scarred veterans of the Second Devolutionary War. The one that ran from the failure of the first devolution referendum in 1979, to the final victory and restoration of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

A period when Scottish politics, far from forsaking the constitutional question, saw it dominate. A period when civic Scotland mobilised as at no time since the great split in the Church of Scotland in 1843. We faced down Thatcher, turned the original Labourist compromise of a Scottish Assembly into a full-blown legislative parliament with tax varying powers, dented the hallowed sovereignty of Westminster for the first time in three centuries, and annihilated the once hegemonic Tory Party north of the border.

But the guns are silent now. Only a few of us remain to honour the fallen: Alex Kitson who forced the Scottish Labour hierarchy to accept devolution or see the party destroyed by the SNP; John Smith who made London Labour realise it was either constitutional change or the break up of Britain; poets and playwrights like Hamish Henderson and John McGrath who mobilised the entire Scottish intelligentsia to cede from Ukania in the imagination; and editors like Arnold Kemp who made devolution the conventional wisdom of the Scottish media.

What would the departed say if they saw us now? For the reality of devolution has seen half the electorate flee the ballot box at only the second Scottish Parliament election. Has seen the Scottish economy continue to under-perform the UK average exactly as it did before constitutional change. Has seen the cultural intelligentsia abandon politics for either well paid light entertainment or gloomy personal introspection.

Current wisdom has it that expectations pre-devolution were exaggerated and bound to produce a negative reaction. Conspiracy theorists see the political depression north of the border as a plot by disgruntled unionists set on getting their back. Perhaps there may be some element of truth in both analyses. But we need to situate the current uncertain phase of Scottish and British constitutional evolution deeper in the tectonic forces shaping British and global politics.

As good a place as any to begin is the old agenda you and Perry Anderson developed in the New Left Review of the 1960s. You explained correctly (and in wonderful prose) the historic failure of the British capitalist state. How, after a brief high noon in the mid-Victorian era, the Ancient Regime avoided the need for a deeper bourgeois revolution to modernise against the rising American and German industrial states. How it detoured into Empire and delayed a turn to mass production and scientific management, before exhausting its capital and manpower in two destructive world wars. By the 1960s, British society was desperate for economic and social reform – a reform delayed both by a reactionary Tory Party and an Establishment-hugging Labour Party.

Your own path-breaking book, The Break-up of Britain (1977), was seized on by many of us as a manifesto for how to get out of this historical impasse: the super-centralist British state would have to go, and with it the block of social interests that mitigated against reform. A Scottish breakaway – made economically viable with the discovery of North Sea oil – was not a nationalist deviation but a necessary step in the modernising revolution. Ditto regional movements in France and Spain.

How then has devolution in practice failed to open the floodgates to real social and economic change? Was the analysis wrong or are we not seeing the wood for the political trees? Let me offer a few pointers to start the discussion.

First, none of us guessed that, in the face of economic stasis, the modernising revolution would begin on the right. Thatcher was a British (or English) de Gaulle, restructuring capital and smashing the worst elements of Stalinist trades unionism. A new block of the English professional middle classes and labour aristocracy responded to this liberation from the moribund state machine, ensuring Blair would carry on in the same fashion. The fall of the Iron Curtain and ensuing economic globalisation ended any hope of a utopian British socialist state, or even a social democratic British Federation.

At this point, history played its cruellest trick. Many of the most conservative forces in Scotland, in retreat from Thatcherism and Blairism, turned to devolution as a mechanism for defending vested interests and the old corporatism that kept Britain moribund over the past century. So we have the highest per capita health spending in Europe and the worst health. Twenty per cent fewer young Scots finish high school than the European average. Over half of GDP is in the state sector. And the same old clique is in charge. A similar reactionary fate has befallen much else in Blair’s constitutional agenda: the House of Lords is no longer hereditary; instead it is a naked expression of political patronage from Number 10.

Tom, we won the Second Devolutionary War, but like so many before us, we lost the peace. Why?


October 19th 2004

Dear George,

Although it’s kind of you to refer back to the Nairn-Anderson stuff, and to The Break-up of Britain in your remarks, these no longer measure up to what you rightly call ‘the tectonic forces shaping British and global politics’. Actually existing ‘internationalism’ has changed everything. And I suspect the real disagreement between us lies on that level: less on ‘the matter of Scotland’ than on where that matter now stands.

Scotland finds itself on the growing list of countries seeking self-government under the conditions of first-stage globalisation. They extend from Wales to Corsica, then from Palestine via Kurdistan to Sri Lanka, Tibet, Taiwan, parts of Indonesia, and then across Melanesia from Hawaii to the most remote place on earth. Easter Island is now demanding ‘autonomy’ from Chile. It used to be thought these were ‘left over’ questions: tidying up, so that  the serious business of Free Trade could carry on, and tie-and-waistcoat ‘modernisation’ become universal. Now we know better. Since 9/11 and the explosive affirmation of American nationalism, they’re more like the substance of the globalising process — what comes after the End of History.

What comes after is, well, eh…more history (as if anything else were possible). You talk of a ‘modernising revolution’ from the right, that unfortunately coincided with Devolution. But surely there was no such revolution. There were cumulative, even radical, social and economic shifts from the right, in the sense of being organically linked to the Atlantic seaboard and Japanese capitalist expansion of the later Cold War period. Under détente, such expansion encountered ever-fewer obstacles, as West and East agreed on putting stability and continuity before everything else — both to avoid thermonuclear war, and to prevent any recurrence of the deplorable anarchy of the 1960s. Right and Left-wing historical materialisms (and ruling classes) agreed on one thing: disorder from below must be banned.

This agreement was the key to actual globalisation, after 1989. It was a recipe not for revolution but for prolonged and successful counter-revolution. The Reaganites saw the Stalinists off, and inherited the earth. Revolutions are essentially political; counter-revolutions are in essence anti-political, relying on the containment and castration of democratic agency, and its replacement with apathy, mass cynicism and privatisation. You’re right to feel that Reaganism was on the whole preferable to Stalinism, and that the right-wing historical materialism intoned from each day’s Scotsman pulpit is better than a Peoples-Republic version would have been. Strychnine may be preferable to arsenic; but neither is a commendable diet for humane globalisation.

So where does devolved Scotland stand, vis-à-vis the long counter-revolution? Your stance seems to me extraordinarily glum. ‘The same old clique in charge’? The ‘reactionary fate’ of Blair’s (and McConnell’s) reforming agenda? But of course that was the intention  of devolution, and of the ‘Scotostan’ it set up — to ‘strengthen Britain’, as John Reid never tires of reminding us. His soul depends on it, as well as his job. Responsible folk-dancing was the aim, and it is to the credit of the Scottish electorate that it has shown definite signs of rejection and defiance. The 2003 Holyrood election was a defeat for both Old/New Labour and old-style Nationalism —relics from reservation days, I agree, but only they could run things initially, while new forces and ideas are forming, and gaining confidence. COSLA is still with us from beyond the grave…but fast fading away (and who knows, extinct after 2007?). Green politics, post-Leninist socialism, and independents have all emerged, and in association with important living sectors of the Labour and Liberal-Democratic movements, could now form a quite different sort of national movement. The most important thing about the Scotostani period is that it has provided just enough space for these novelties to break through — the very opposite of what Reid and his Scot-Brits wanted.

All pessimist or reductionist accounts of devolution should bear something important in mind. Scotland has been historically the archetype of non-political (or ‘civil’) society — the original failed state, whose nationality persisted culturally and in low-political mode, because there was no alternative. It has the most ground to make up, not the least. The fact is daily manifested in the curious mythology of ‘self-confidence’ — those traits supposedly absent from Caledonian psychology, for religious or other reasons. Limited self-government was meant to seal that dismal fate — to make it permanent. Actually, it has accomplished the opposite, provoking trouble below decks, and an unsteady, errant course with a growing likelihood of mutiny, and disorderly conduct over Europe and other questions.

Her Majesty’s purpose was to ensure Scotland would fit in better to Britain, as the latter was fitting itself in to the universe of globalisation comme il faut: American-led, unipolar and universal, nation-state ended, free enterprise to all horizons. Then came 2001. It wasn’t just the Twin Towers: the entire virtual house is still collapsing. It has became plain that America means America; globalisation means living with great-nation nationalism (China and India to follow, Russia resurgent), not leaving it behind. Tiddler countries (England, as well as Scotland and Wales) will now have to choose between abject self-colonisation and some kind of allied or confederate resistance, also known as independence. Even to choose between arsenic and strychnine, an independent state is required.

So let’s get on with it. But we can! In fact, we can do it by 2007. The nature of actually existing internationalism demands more civic-democratic nationality politics, not less. In the Scottish case, it needs a broader alliance — analogous to the old Constitutional Convention you refer to, but bolder in its aims and ideas, and more in tune with the times. The great breaking tide of a more united globe is now on our side, rather than against it. It was only the miserable British-American counterfeit of ‘globalisation’ that pretended otherwise. However, this wizened old hag has vastly over-reached herself in Iraq, and compelled a world search that’s more than simply ‘anti-globalisation’. The Scots can rediscover themselves politically, as part of it.


October 22nd 2004

Dear Tom,

I see I am branded a pessimist over devolution! Yet it is only a Gramscian pessimism of the intellect, for I remain a devotee of the decentralising process in general, and of Scottish political renewal in particular. You, however, seem to be stretching optimism of the will in an absurdly idealist direction, with literary devices such as ‘counter-revolution’ and references to some ersatz movement of all and sundry to create a utopian World State in opposition to US great power hegemony – in whose bosom Scotland will be reborn.

Can we perhaps agree on the following: that the complex process we call – for want of a better expression – ‘globalisation’ has, since 1989, changed the terms of the debate on UK devolution and of the wider ‘national question’.

This globalisation, while it undoubtedly has a political dimension, is rooted in deep economic and cultural changes: the dramatic extension of the world market to incorporate China and the ex-Soviet Union; a massive speeding up of the technological cycle; the creation of a global 24-hour news culture dominated by the English language; a quantum leap in the mobility of both capital and labour on a world scale, afforded by the new communications technology; and mass proletarianisation and urbanisation on a scale only fantasised about in the Communist Manifesto; but also the creation of a mass intelligentsia and white collar middle class.

This is the underlying material basis for a ‘second wave’ of nationalism that is distinct ideologically from the simple ‘modernisation’ agenda of proto-national elites, as originally espoused by Ernest Gellner and yourself. The first wave of nationalism in the 19th and 20th century was essentially a catching up process with Western Europe and North America. The second wave – which overlaps the first – is driven by the need to detach regional economies (some very advanced) from their existing nation state ‘shell’ and re-orient them directly to the new global markets and circuits of capital.

This process affects everyone, including the United States. For instance, the western and eastern seaboards, in the shape of LA and New York, have virtually detached themselves from the US hinterland and become de facto hubs of an integrated global economy. Politically, this has divided the electorate into two, with the conservative Republicans in the hinterland, and the Democrats on the geographical edges. But the real geographical shift is the fact that LA is the capital of South East Asia and of Cyber Space, while industrial regions in the US like Ohio have shrunk to internal economic colonies of the global hubs.

Consider how this second stage nationalism impacts on the UK regions and Scotland. At the UK level, London has already broken away and become virtually a separate economy driven by the needs of globalisation. As a result it has also become the most cosmopolitan culture in shell of the old Britain. Yes, I know London was always ‘different’, being dominated from the 18th century by finance and trade. But London no longer makes its living as an entrepot between the world and England, but as a global hub dealing directly with other global hubs.

One obvious ramification is for Blairite constitutional reform. This has concentrated on the ad hoc dismantling of traditional institutions – often as a way of centralising power in Downing Street – little realising the centrifugal forces being unleashed by removing the glue of national unity, just when such globalist forces are transforming the nation from below. Enter a phalanx of populist parties such as Ukip and the BNP. Tom: yes, the electorate are fed up with mainstream democratic politics but history is rather cruel to those who assume that always takes a progressive form, even in Scotland.

North of the border, the SNP has been in seeming retreat after Devolution but the underlying national question has not gone away. The Scottish economy – traditionally one off the most open in Europe – has become more globalised than ever. Besides oil, whisky and high tech, the rise of giant banks like the RBS group (with its growing stake in the US) and international energy utilities like Scottish Power, has oriented business relentlessly away from England and directly towards the outside world. In this scenario, London taxes and London interest rates are an unwelcome encumbrance.

But in defiance of globalising pressures, the new Scottish Executive has ignored the Scottish economy – unlike practically every other regional government in the EU. Instead, it has pursued an old-fashioned redistributive agenda, driving the share of the state in GDP to over 50 per cent, and drawing available scarce labour into a burgeoning state machine reminiscent of the UK in the 1970s. As a result, Scottish economic growth crawls along at an average of 1.5 per cent per annum. The political conundrum is not when the motley collection of Trots, Greens, rural Lib Dems, and independents seize power in the Scottish Parliament, but why a youthful, nationalist, free market party of the type seen in the Baltic States has not yet appeared in Scotland.

Part of the reason lies in the balance of forces within the devolution settlement. Labour first seized on asymmetric devolution (as opposed to federalism) as an ad hoc policy to head off the rise of the Scottish National Party in the 1970s. But during the Thatcher years, Labour greatly extended the scope of devolution from a minimalist regional assembly to a legislative parliament with tax varying powers, as a crude bulwark against any recurring Tory majority at Westminster.

During this period, many Scottish interests switched from being anti-devolution to supporting it, expressly on the grounds it would protect them from pro-market or anti-monopoly reforms being pursued by Thatcher and her heirs (among whom I include Tony Blair). For instance, the Scottish universities, which originally had opposed administrative devolution, in case it reduced their status vis-à-vis English higher education, shifted ground when they thought a Scottish parliament would better protect their financial interests and academic independence. It is that sense that devolution north of the border (and in Wales) has turned out to be a re-institutionalisation of vested interests, and it is in that sense that it has proved reactionary and a roadblock to modernisation.

The previous Union Settlement of 1707 also preserved Scottish vested interests within the United Kingdom context. The deal then was the various Scottish elites could keep their Kirk, education system and law courts provided they did not challenge London politically. But today, London has already ceded economically from the old-style UK, while Scotland’s vested interests cannot go on indefinitely milking subsidies from the old system. In that context, devolution is fascinating because it has introduced a national political forum into Scotland that must eventually provide a platform for nascent modernising forces.

Devolution is a pressure cooker with globalisation providing the fire underneath. That’s why, in the end, I am an optimist of the will.


October 30th 2004

Dear George,

No escape from philosophy for Scots. What you perceive as ‘absurd idealism’, both in re-reading history and imagining a future community for Scotland, I tend to see as emancipation, not from ‘materialism’ in a metaphysical sense, but from economics — or more precisely, from one astigmatic (but regrettably prevalent) conception of economics.

The post-1960s Cold War was a dramatic contest for global dominance, in which ‘Historical Materialism’, stage left, confronted ‘historical materialism’, stage right. Both troupes agreed on certain theatrical rules, including growth-rates, per capita GNPs, and the dominance (rather than the utility) of applied science, or technology. Beneath the war clouds of potential Armageddon, competition would thus remain safely caged within the apparently safe space of economics. Détente was based upon that largely tacit accord, which functioned mainly through the repression of politics. That’s where the true chill of the refrigeration-era lay: in the central nerves of agency, or (as you put it) ‘optimism of the will’.

Is  ‘counter-revolution’ a literary device? Well of course metaphors are required to revise understanding. But we’re beginning to do better: last year a valuable piece of revisionism appeared, Jeremi Suri’s Power and Protest, arguing patiently and in some detail that the post-1960s retreat was in essence anti-political: a stabilisation by anaesthesis, as it were, that found its ideology through deconstruction of classical Political Economy. The ‘political’ part was denigrated, and finally excised, via a corresponding exaltation of ‘economy’. After the ‘sixties, later attempts to break with economism failed even more disastrously, as with Mao’s Cultural Revolution. I suppose the resultant Zeitgeist may be labelled in different ways; but I don’t think ‘counter-revolution’ is too inaccurate a term.

One aspect of its success, incidentally, was the incorporation of a certain style of radicalism. Originally a starkly lower-orders form of rebellion, this particular ‘-ism’ was forced out from politics and awarded citizenship in economics-land. The political realm became by contrast a repository of ‘dewy-eyed’ recidivists, or worse. Packaged with the new passport a new and gratifying status: thorough-going, realistic, clear-eyed, first-things-first, no-nonsense (and so on) reason — the ‘no-bullshit’ bullshit of bare-knuckle capitalism’s modernisation. This ‘radical’ side of Neo-liberalism is merely vice’s tribute to the interred (or indefinitely deferred) political revolution.

It was all said much better than I can, by the outstanding voice of 19th century political reflection, Alexis de Tocqueville:

After believing that we could transform ourselves (during the Enlightenment), we now believe that even the slightest reform is impossible. After excessive pride, we have fallen into an equally excessive humility. Once we thought ourselves capable of everything; today we believe ourselves capable of nothing. It pleases us to believe that from now on struggle and effort are futile, that our blood, our bodies, and our nervous systems will always prevail over our will and capacity. This is the peculiar argument of our time…It will drive your contemporaries, who are already weak, to an even greater weakness.

The peculiar argument of that time has become a general disposition of our own. And it has a special relevance in Scotland — a country historically disposed towards exactly the weakness Tocqueville diagnosed. The trouble with the Scots isn’t their economic failure, on which you’re right, but also give far too much importance. It is a profounder political nervelessness deriving from the surrender and self-colonisation of the 18th and later centuries. ‘Lack of self-confidence’, the true justified sinner of post-1707 Scotland.

The Neo-liberal ruling classes of post-’89 had the good luck to inherit such a deep-died apoliticism. All they had to do was water it with daily newspaper and TV fertilizer, and the odd electoral bribe nobody could refuse. How else could they, with relative ease, built up a contemporary transnational oligarchy so uncannily like that of early-modern times (i.e. pre-democratic, pre-revolutionary times). This feat has not depended upon ‘development’ or socio-economic expansion as such, but rather upon the fetishisation of selected aspects of economics (e.g. ‘market forces’) as supposed determinants of all else. With strong support from the American Enterprise Institute, Neo-liberalism’s version of determinism now claims patent rights for ‘globalisation’. This is hustlerdom at its most brazen. The matrix of globalisation has hardly begun to develop. It will do so only as a synthesis of Neo-liberal beginnings with an anti-globalising response, as yet even less advanced.

You conclude by saying the new Holyrood Parliament is a ‘pressure cooker with globalisation providing the fire underneath’. Hence the latter is bound to determine Scotland’s exit towards exemplary Neo-liberal statehood — once ‘nascent modernising forces’ have dealt with your impressive list of inherited institutional dead-beats. About the latter, I don’t really disagree, though it’s also one-sided — and also, it should be recognised how part of its recent reaffirmation has been a response (pathetic but understandable) to the Neo-lib take-over you present in so favourable a light.

But the imagery remains revealingly misleading. At the end of 2004, we are not sitting quietly observing pressure-cookers coming to the boil on assorted stove-tops. We’re in the middle of a bloody chip-pan fire. The hottest single part is in  Iraq, where as I write, part of what’s left of the Scottish army is being hurried up to Baghdad to help President Bush’s failure appear less shameful and carnage-strewn. I felt a deep perturbation of the heart, reading this news in Australia.

But more generally it can also be said (in Amy Chua’s words) that the world is on fire. The deformed mode of globalisation that took hold in the ‘nineties’ is responsible, and there are discomfiting echoes of it in your stance. You say the main question is not ‘when the motley collection of Trots, Greens, rural Lib-Dems and independents seize power’, but why we don’t possess a responsible, free-market-trained nationalist movement like some in Eastern Europe. ‘Motley collection’, huh? You left out ‘dewy-eyed’. This is over-familiar rhetoric, carrying us back to the days when Thatcher and Reagan were just warming up. Shouldn’t it be buried along with them?

The main question is when Scots (whose situation is unlike the East, just as it has always been unlike ex-colonised peoples) will get the chance to do the one thing that matters. Which is, to vote for themselves. Or put in another way, to vote themselves back into political existence. This unavoidably motley, or broad-based, constitutional matter is unlikely to be channeled via a single party or Leader. It needs the Parliament to do it, supported by as many stane-pebblers as can be assembled for action outside it. Alas, I’m too far away for stanes to have much impact; but you have the luck to be just across the road.

Coming back to the philosophical front, I don’t for a minute think that anti-globalisation or the Scottish political renaissance has merely to oppose or ‘undo’ globalisation thus far. This really would be romantic idealism. No: we have to learn from it, and also to perceive more realistically what was inevitable about it. However, this isn’t ‘pessimism of the intellect’ at all. Historical intelligence and ‘the will’ (the determination to stand up and fight) are inseparable, that’s what ‘politics’ should be.

That’s how I would interpret Tocqueville today. Writing eleven years ago, Peter Wollen argued that the new circumstances of globalisation suggest how correct the protagonists of the Second International had been, before 1914. Bernstein and Kautsky thought that capitalism had to develop very much farther — possibly ‘on a world scale’ — before socialism would become possible. This was why Kautsky was able to produce such a devastating critique of Leninism/Stalinism in 1930, Bolshevism at a Deadlock, still valid today. ‘The time has come (Wollen concluded)…for a redefinition, even a refoundation, of socialism in the West, now that strategic debate is no longer polarised and displaced by Cold War politics…Socialists should accept that it may be better to have a realistic hope, however historically distant, than a false hope based on a deformed foreshortening, however immediate and close at hand it may seem to be.’ (New Left Review No.202, Nov-Dec 1993)

I agree; and I think that the Scots, via their new Parliament, could make a significant contribution to such a refoundation — and obtain independence at the same time.


October 31st 2004

Dear Tom,

As I remove your metaphorical barbs from my bleeding flesh, I am comforted by the fact that there is at least one minister in the present Scottish Cabinet who took my lectures in traditional Scottish Political Economy – with emphasis on the political/institutional. As I recall, your own work was on the reading list.

So, enough of philosophy and down to practicalities. Let us agree to differ on our judgements regarding the globalisation process of the last decades – I find the explosion of productive and cultural forces far from negative – while rallying jointly around the notion that such globalisation is only in its infancy. You see the ‘anti-globalists’ as reinserting politics (human agency) back into history; I see them as profoundly reactionary. However, where we can make common cause is in this: far from globalisation sweeping away nation states, it is reinforcing the need for people, at quite an organic level, to create new democratic structures, in order to relate to the dramatic interconnections and changes being made in global society.

Part of this involves strengthened regional blocks – an enlarged EU, a reinvigorated if still rickety African Union, and the newly dynamic ASEAN (which is starting to think about a common currency). Even more so, it involves a resurgence of small-nation nationalism, bolstered with instant Internet and digital television intercourse with the rest of humanity.

Before seeing where Scotland fits in – perhaps, even, in a leading role – it is worth looking for evidence of this new small nation nationalism elsewhere in other advanced Western countries. In Quebec, the traditional nationalist party, the Parti Quebecois (PQ), which has a social democratic orientation, lost power for the first time in nine years, at the 2003 elections. Instead, the federalist Quebec Liberal Party formed an administration on a platform of cutting taxes. This produced the usual obituaries for the Quebec separatist movement.

But wait: the rise in the Liberal vote was more an indication that the Quebec economy could not go on running up big public debts and that the level of taxation was crippling the country in competitive terms  – a rather mature verdict by the native Quebecois. And supportive of my thesis that globalisation is now driving a second stage nationalist wave based on the need to re-order relationships between the regions, the national centre and the wider global community.

But what happened next is even more important. First, the Liberals stalled on tax cutting, fearing to alienate any of Quebec’s many subsidised interest groups (shades of Scotland). The result has been a sharp drop in popular support. In a recent round of by-elections in September 2004, the small, free market but sovereigntist Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ) picked up votes and seats. As a result, the Liberals have suddenly discovered a robust interest in Quebec autonomy over Canadian federalism. The Quebec Premier, Jean Charest, is now demanding direct Quebec representation in international trade negotiations, much to the consternation of the English-speaking Canadian provinces.

A similar resurgence of nationalism is taking place in Catalonia. Again, in 2003, the traditional moderate nationalists, Convergence and Union (CiU), lost power in the Catalan Generalitat after nearly quarter of a century. The new government was headed by the Catalan franchise of the Spanish Socialist Party, the PSOE. Again, there was much talk that Catalan nationalism was off the boil in a new era of globalisation and EU enlargement. But a year later, everything looked different. First, the Socialists could only form a regional government in Catalonia by working with the secessionist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), which saw its share of the vote rise to 16 per cent. The ERC has driven the new Catalan government farther in a nationalist direction than the cautious CiU was prepared to do. While the ERC is theoretically left wing, it has waged a demagogic war against rich Catalonia having to subsidise the agricultural south of Spain: economics again.

With these examples in mind, where is devolution going in Scotland? Far from ‘normalising’ politics within the Union, five years of devolution have continued to divide Scotland from the rest of the UK. First, the Scottish Parliament continues to garner new powers ad hoc as a result of constitutional impasse at Westminster; e.g. the recent transfer of strategic rail functions. Despite the local cynicism over the cost of the new Scottish Parliament building, and despite the high abstentions at the second Parliamentary elections in 2003, every opinion poll confirms the Scottish electorate want more powers repatriated to Holyrood from Westminster. And the major repercussion of the debacle over the new Parliament building – which came in at ten times its original cost – is the call for a new, more efficient Scottish civil service entirely separate from Whitehall.

Second, the Scottish Parliament has introduced a significant political reform by legislating for proportional representation in local government, using the STV method, to be implemented in 2007. This reform will have dramatic political repercussions: it will end the hegemony of the Labour Party at local level and force coalition politics on every major town hall; it will also give the SNP as many as several hundred additional local councillors. So far, Labour has systematically avoided any pacts at local level with the SNP, but PR in the town halls means that someday the nationalists are bound to become a serious force in Scotland’s industrial central belt.

Third, the Scottish media continues to adapt to the requirements of a specifically Scottish political debate. For instance, while the merger of Carlton and Granada has created a single UK ITV – swallowing up Welsh ITV in the process – Scottish Television remains under separate ownership. The Scottish press has also altered: devolution forced a number of London papers to create quite distinct (and bolshie) Scottish editions edited north of the border. In the forefront are The Daily Telegraph and (of all papers) The Daily Mail. Curiously, the left wing Guardian and Independent have virtually ignored Scotland, possibly because the indigenous media is relatively left of centre.

However, what demarcates these Scottish developments from the experience in Quebec and Catalonia is that they reflect a largely internal political dynamic that deliberately does not challenge the rest of the UK. Whereas, the other ‘stateless’ nationalisms have become adept at using their parliamentary institutions, restricted as they may be, to pursue external and international goals. This is the boundary that must be crossed in order to create a genuine Scottish national self-awareness and self-interest. Or in your terms, Tom, for Scotland to challenge its alleged lack of self-confidence, or ‘vote itself back into existence’.

The obvious absence in post-devolutionary politics in the UK, as compared to the Continent, has been the reluctance of the devolved assemblies to operate in alliance to extract concessions from central government. London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have a combined population that is roughly one in three of the UK population – a weighty political block. Even missing out the on-off Northern Ireland Assembly, the other three administrations are all led by Labour politicians who could easily collaborate more.

The same absence of a systematic region foreign policy is found in relationship to the European Union. Of course, there have been a few initiatives: the First Minister, Jack McConnell, has formed close personal ties with Wallonia. Throughout 2004, McConnell was also the President of RegLeg, the network of the EU regions that have legislative powers. However, his low profile in the latter job led to major criticisms in the Scottish Parliament that he was failing to make good use of an important political platform, perhaps not wishing to rock any boats with the Labour administration in London.

Why this absence of an external policy dimension, especially given my thesis that regions like Scotland are being forced by economic developments to ally directly with the world market place rather than mediate through their existing nation states? There are some obvious political barriers to such independent initiatives. The most distinctive of these is the Barnett mechanism for allocating public expenditure to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Under the Barnett formula, any percentage increase in Treasury spending for England is automatically allocated to the Celtic regions pro rata by a fixed formula roughly linked to population. The three regions each started with a higher per capita public spending than England; in Scotland it is around 20 per cent. Over time, Barnett should reduce this differential. But Scotland’s rapidly falling population (in the absence of any change to the Barnett index) means per capita public spending in Scotland remains wildly in excess of England – even making allowance for factors such as poorer health and vastly lower population density. Few Scottish politicians want to interfere with a political goose that lays such golden eggs. An independent Scottish ‘foreign policy’ – say, ganging up with other UK industrial regions get lower corporation tax than England, as occasionally floated in Northern Ireland – would risk an English backlash that threatened to dismantle Barnett.

But there is an alternative to Barnett and it lurks near the surface of every constitutional debate in Scotland – the idea of fiscal autonomy for the Scottish Parliament. That is, Scotland collecting all or the majority of its funding from local taxes, while paying into the Exchequer for national activities such as defence. The current fiscal model in Britain, where the UK regions receive fully three-quarters of their financial needs from central government, ensures the regions must ultimately toe the line. But even in centralist France, where Paris still likes to run the show, the regions raise 47 per cent of their income from their own taxes, plus another 19 per cent from various charges they levy, leaving only a third of cash coming from central government.

Ignored down south, fiscal autonomy is the hot topic in Scottish politics. It is viewed sympathetically by Labour modernisers such as Wendy Alexander MSP, who see it as a way of breaking the hold of old-style Labour clientelism and corporatism. By the SNP who see it as a Trojan horse for independence. And even by free market Tory MSPs, who see it as a way of imposing fiscal discipline on the profligate Scottish Executive. Fiscal autonomy will be the battleground for the next stage in Scottish devolution.

As I write this, I can see the exotic new Scottish Parliament building outside my office window. Unfortunately, during the many expensive redesigns, the civil servants added a massive concrete wall to foil would-be terrorists. The wall lies between me and our nascent Scottish democracy. There’s another metaphor in there somewhere.


November 4 2004

Dear George,

Many thanks for your reminder about The Break-up of Britain, and other remarks. Also, you’re right about the ‘practicalities’. ‘10/3’ is a date that will soon appear just as significant as ‘9/11’, maybe more so. ‘9/11’ and the events that followed were just that: events, to which the possibility of being passing still attached. Bush’s election two years on is by contrast a direction, the confirmation of a trend in global events certain to configure most events in any foreseeable future. And this big shift makes practicalities that much more urgent.

There’s no longer all the time in the world for Scots, or anyone else. Thanks to globalisation, the wingèd chariot is forcing all nations into altered consciousness and action — not merely the Americans, Brits and Australians, and the victims of their concerted good will in Iraq and Kurdistan. I agree, ‘dramatic interconnections and changes in global society’ do render ‘new democratic structures’ a priority. These may now be more than narrowly national; but they also remain national — and sometimes nationalist — in their source, their initiative, and their potential popularity. The multitude has to react, but not (as Hardt and Negri argue in their book of that name) out of nowhere-and-everywhere: humans all start from, and return to, somewhere.

It’s interesting how different our respective emphases remain. Yours invariably focuses on the international and economic — in effect, upon the forced transcendence that post-’89 globalisation has imposed, and made irreversible. My own leans towards the constitutional — whatever re-knitted relationships between peoples and their states could move things forward, and away from the crippling anachronisms represented by today’s American, British and Australian politics. Globalisation thus far is certainly a great sea-change. But also a double-edged one — whose inbuilt contradictions cannot freely work themselves through, because it remains caged within a sclerotic, backward-fixated political world. In some ways, it has been forced back into the cage, above all since ‘9/11’.

You argue that Quebec and Catalonia (for example) need to participate more directly in the wider post-Cold War world, and deploy their own foreign and trade policies. While agreeing, I would qualify this by pointing out that in these and other cases, such external initiatives depend on some political reinforcement of respective national identities. It is constitutional shifts that got them this far: more are needed to take them farther — and that’s why it’s futile to go on talking about ‘regions’ and ‘autonomies’. These are the langues de bois of the Cold War’s old guard: the protective alibis and scarecrows  of threatened states, whose backward-looking élites need to preserve powers and privileges at practically any cost.

This factor is oddly absent from your practical ruminations. Yet in Scottish terms, is there any doubt at all that, over the last thirty years or so, by far the most aggressive and unrelenting form of nationalism has been the British one? Robertson, Reid, Dewar and their followers were not content to beat nationalists politically: over and over again, they said they wanted to kill them stone dead. Mercifully, such a fate was not literally practicable in the UK (as it has been, for instance, in Indonesia’s East Timor). What the Brit-nats wanted was to kill a political (and constitutional) idea. I need hardly remind you that Scottish Labour’s present-day ranks remains stuffed with such killers, in both Westminster and Holyrood — sustained by support-bands in Lanarkshire and other parts. The ‘dead hand’ of COSLA and zomboid sub-Labourism (which we both detest) has its real nerve here — not in mere inertia, or in past-obsessed negativism.

Far from being a quirk, such sadism is the normal expression of established authority, above all when supported by national minorities that have switched allegiance to the majority or host culture. Both psychologically and socially, any minority national who casts his or her lot in this way is compelled to overdo it. This is undoubtedly why (as sociologist Michael Mann has shown) the Third Reich’s SS and Einsatzgruppen were disproportionately staffed by borderland or ‘dubious’ would-be Aryans, rather than by heartland Germans. In liberal ideology, minorities usually figure as victims. But one important route of de-victimisation has always been offered through over-compensation to the majority’s great-nation identity. Scots have a longer experience of this than anyone else. In recent times, you yourself must have enjoyed regular contact with outstanding practitioners of the craft.

Not even I would compare the Third Reich to Blair’s interminable Kingdom. But the latter does remain staffed by hard-boiled Brit-Scots to an amazing extent; and many commentators have puzzled over the fact. It is as if the futile effort of the old state to modernise itself has fallen too much into the hands of this relatively well-organised minority, ensconced in the Labour Party. Thank God, the real gist of Gordon Brown’s lump-in-the-throat sermons on Party virtues can no longer be projected as the future of humanity. However, his dirge-like partinost can (just) still be imagined as the future of Britishness. It clings to all our countries like a wet undertaker’s suit. The protagonist may be he who liberated the Bank of England from its ‘chains’: but hypocrisy is neither here nor there. Like the fake nostalgia for Communism still found in Eastern Europe, its function is ideological and quite important: it keeps the old guard going, and also the mass dyspepsia it feeds off.

This is connected also with certain afflictions of the majority (English) identity, to which you rightly draw attention. The new dimension added to their latent nationalism by the success of multicultural London poses problems of a kind never dreamt of when the SNP was founded. But during our interminable wait between the expiring old order and the new struggling to be born, this Labour-Brit nationalism continues to command and exploit the interregnum — a true ‘pathological symptom’, summed up in Brown’s inability to do anything but stumble after Blair to Baghdad and back, on a venture his moral sense must warned him against from the outset.

In this situation of staved-off break-up, the most practical issue before us is the development of a new Scottish identity of departure. The SNP has been unavoidably deeply configured by that same dilemma. All-British identity is so strongly implanted among Scots that political nationalism has over nearly three generations learned to defend itself by a compensatory tactic, now itself traditional — in effect, by a style of sectarianism and rigid partinost, or party-firstism. As was plain in the 2004 SNP leadership contest, even its moderates feel constrained to over-stress obedience and unanimity, as if the national soul might perish from faction feuds and policy disagreements. The less moderate can then object only by intensified purism: ‘fundamentalism’, an even more severe interpellation (and rebuke) of the same soul. Salmond’s restored edition of Nationalism is curiously like Brown’s Labourism: myth-history tarted up as Salvation to come. I mean, how British can you get?

You point out how the electorates of Quebec and Catalonia have moved ahead of their parties. But so have the Scots. In 2003 they definitely misbehaved, showing marked impatience with a set menu of Granny’s half-reheated stovies. New parties and movements turned serious. New voices proclaimed belief in their own versions of independence, socialism and Greenery, indifferent to patent rights and consecrated ancestral norms. This wind of change is by far the most practical factor on the scene. As you say, it has since then won another victory, the reform of local government voting — incidentally, I don’t think this was just a tactical move to keep Liberal-Democrats happy. Important sectors of Scottish Labour itself were instinctively favorable — the younger, less British, more impatient cadres whose horizons are no longer bound by ex-Provost McBaffie, or even Councillor McNewspud.

The most important feature of this turning will be to make a Scottish political system integrally more democratic than the UK one. This, plus the fiscal autonomy you argue so strongly for, would make a strong basis for the independence bid. Both democracy and tax-powers are death to the Barnett formula’s weird echo of feudalism. On this, there are limits to these international comparisons. The Quebeckers, Catalans, Basques, Sards (and so on) all confront amazingly ingenious, often ultra-liberal, state apparatuses quite unlike Her Majesty’s Model-T. None are encased in a reactionary context that perceives reform solely as bricolage for propping up a debris of greatness, plus Special Relationship to God-in-Washington DC.

What I meant by ‘voting for ourselves’ in such a context is supporting a constitutional right, in advance of any attempts to dismount from the Model-T  Carriage. This may appear an odd notion — usually, most new states have claimed independence first, then proceeded to bestow (or inflict) a constitution upon their new citizens. Yet I don’t think it’s any odder than the history of the Scots — who are of course not a new state,  but one of the oldest. Scottish ‘nationalism’ is only claiming the repatriation (as it were) of its own Elgin marbles. This historical right, if reaffirmed democratically, would in turn give any Scottish government the right to hold a referendum on (e.g.) replacement of the Treaty of Union, on a British confederation (or ‘association’ as the SNP has always called it) or separate Scottish membership of European Union. Incidentally, I don’t see how Westminster could prevent any Holyrood Parliament from consulting its own electorate on this matter, however many fits were thrown.

Fiscal autonomy plus an integrally different political system would mean de facto independence; and the constitutional imprimatur would make movement to a de jure recognition possible. You’re right to raise the problem of the wider context of international relations — the emergent system, within which this might happen. It’s quite true we do need some notion of what such forms might be, however tentative. But oddly enough, some years back you yourself did consider the possibility of such a system, only to dismiss it — I suspect, mistakenly. In some reflections on confederation, you pointed out how few of them there are in recent history, and suggested this is because it is a ‘weak’ form of union compared to standard federations of the 18th to the 20th century — with the USA as the dominant model. Confederal alliances, where last-resort sovereignty always remains with the participating units, are relatively slow, cumbersome and unreliable — the price of democracy.

Well, confederation certainly was like that in recent history. But we’re no longer in recent history, however much George W. Bush would like to detain us there. Federation was a forced solution to the dilemmas of expanding  great-power megalomania, driven above all by a symbiotic link between capitalist expansion and uniformed militarisation. That link may not be ‘necessary’, but was over a long epoch unavoidable.  Federalism was great-nation unitarism in disguise — if you like, the dark side of Lincoln’s victory in the biggest 19th century conflict, the War of Secession. His Union liberated the slaves, but at the cost of imprisoning everyone inside a unified Great Power whose mission was, first, to make sure there would be a single America, rather than several; and (second) to render this state the natural heir to the ages. Though a foe of pipsqueak uniformed colonisation, its own ‘empire’ was the world itself — the final offer that, surely, no nation could refuse: God and Enlightenment as one. Anti-globalisation is the refusal of this offer, not of free-trading economic development as such. The price is too high. Scots are currently paying it in blood, as well as in economic and political stalemate.

In a public speech before the last election, Sean Connery made a plea for equality of treatment and regard: Scotland should become like other nations. The only drawback to this claim was that it left open what ‘nation’ means — what it used to be, or what it’s coming to mean under globalising conditions? What we want is William McIlvanney’s 21st century mongrel, mixed-up and proud of it, ‘open’ to the expanding world of really-existing internationalism, and able to distinguish this from being Blair’s (or Bush’s) gun-dog.

Returning to British nationalism: it goes without saying that such a shift will be greeted by a single orchestrated howl of denunciation and reproach. Every Great-British kink, fetish and sentimental nostrum will again be earnestly, and ruthlessly, deployed. Betrayal of everything from Prince Charles to fish-and-chips will be alleged, with the spirit of 1940 served in blubbering evening doses on TV. No doubt Brown’s Westminster Scots will chain themselves to the Whitehall and Parliament railings, saved from outright starvation by Scotsman food parcels.
But such tragi-comic vistas are only making a final point: it’s time this door was closed. War has settled it. No anti-English nonsense, or disowning of social and personal bonds, is implied by saying such immaturity does have to be ended, by democratic and constitutional means. Devolution has been a real advance, but remains fatally mired in the past of ‘The Thin Red Line’, the enforcement of ‘Great Britain’s do’s and don’ts’. That past caught up with us again in 2003, let it be for the very last time. Globalisation both needs and calls for something more, and better; independence and European confederation are sign-posts towards it.


November 5th 2004

Dear Tom,

While we have been communicating through the ether between Scotland and Australia, the citizens of the North East of England have been voting on devolution. By 696,519 votes (78 per cent) to 197,310 (22 per cent) they killed a plan for an elected regional assembly. This is English devolution’s 1979 – when the first referenda in Scotland and Wales failed to carry the day. The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, called it an ‘emphatic defeat’. The likelihood is that plans for similar referenda in the North West and in Yorkshire and Humber will be put on hold. Devolution in the English regions seems dead as a doornail for the foreseeable future. Why?

The major English regions are not immune to the globalising influences we have been discussing. In the last decade, the Manchester conurbation, greater Birmingham and the Newcastle-Gateshead city region have independently reoriented their economies, transport infrastructure and cultural industries towards the international sphere of production. For instance: municipally-owned Manchester airport is now the primary hub which links north Briton to Europe, cutting London out of the loop. Nevertheless, provincial England has seen the growth of only modest devolutionary political currents and now this seeming popular rejection of devolution.

One factor is the unique homogeneity of English cultural identity since late Medieval times and the identification of sub-national personal allegiances with counties and shires rather than larger economic regions. As a result, there are few distinct regional institutions. Dividing England into viable federal units has always been an artificial exercise.

To this must be added the Blair Government’s contradictory attitude to constitutional reform, especially English devolution. Initially, Blairite constitutional change was aimed largely at destroying Tory bastions (the hereditary Lords, the traditional high civil service) or building anti-Tory redoubts (devolved political bodies in the Labour Scotland, Wales and London). Further constitutional modernisation ran into trouble, either because it was resisted by Labour traditionalists and the public sector unions (NHS, education), or else the Blairites lost appetite when it meant yielding up centralised political power.

As a result, the devolved assemblies offered to England are merely variations on the old regional tier of regional local government abolished by Mrs Thatcher. They had no legislative powers, as does the Scottish Parliament. Their only independent financing comes from a precept levied on the existing council tax (a form of property tax). This association with higher taxation killed the project.

But there is another irritant at work. The inner core of Blairites – the Prime Minister himself, Alan Milburn his chief henchman, and (until recently) Peter Mandelson – are all MPs from the North West. But increasingly, local feeling in the North East sees the Blairites interlopers as governing on behalf of the London global metropolis and the middle classes of the South East conurbation, with their aspirant, upwardly mobile culture.

The rejection of devolution in the North East is thus a profoundly contradictory phenomenon: by spurning Blair’s mess of devolution pottage, the North East has committed its first act as a distinct political entity. Watch this space.


November 14th 2004

Dear George,

My coda comes straight out of the Weekly Guardian, which came through the letterbox as I was about to send off the last message. Martin Jacques has rediscovered nationalism. ‘For a generation or more, it has been an article of faith, at least in Europe, that the nation state is in profound decline…’ he begins, and goes on to point out how ‘Nation states will be the decisive players in global affairs over the next few decades’. Iraq has reminded everyone of ‘the power of self-determination. Of the resentment felt against rule by an overweening power … the lesson of the anti-colonial struggle, which somehow had been conveniently forgotten’. Then he goes on to underline how it’s the great or would-be great national states who are leading the way, notably the USA and China — against whom the rest of the non-greats, mongrels, unviable left-overs and marginal misfits will somehow have to put together a resistance and an alternative, amid ‘intimations of of a nascent sense of global community’ (Nov. 12-18th 2004, ‘Comment and Analysis’).

So, Kerevan, none of that vulgar gloating, please. Well… not too much of it anyway: I mean, it just so happens that we nationalists were at least partly right all along, all the way from the dear old Scottish Labour Party onwards, and Francis Fukuyama was up a gum tree. Onwards and (admittedly) frequently  downwards — yet up in the end, and even with a few cheers from the Guardian. You say that from your Holyrood office a blank, massive concrete wall ‘lies between me and our nascent Scottish democracy’. But the metaphorical wall you invoke hasn’t been put up by ‘civil servants’. It’s the result of  a press onslaught against both nationalism and democracy, pretending to be ‘critical’ but in fact largely disparaging and denigratory. In consort with the spirit of Brecquhou (as near as history gets to a pure cash nation-state), the Supreme Editorial interest has for all too long identified Edinburgh’s newspaper with late 20th century causes that are now lost, however dear they remain to the Scot-Brit ego: disintegrating Britishness plus de-regulated, US-style capitalism, plus the conviction that daily Tartan Day injections may ally Scotland with Brecquhou. Time to get out of this dead end, surely, and back on a real road?


George Kerevan is Associate Editor of The Scotsman.

Tom Nairn is Research Professor in Globalisation at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and author of ‘The Break-up of Britain’, ‘After Britain’ and ‘Pariah: Misfortunes of the British Kingdom’.