A Scottish Spring for Independence?
Sunday Times, November 18th 2007
In a week in which it became quicker to get from London to Paris by rail than Edinburgh to London it is not surprising that Scotland and England are beginning to feel more like separate worlds.
Alex Salmond this week made the prediction that Scotland will be independent by 2017 and set out to woo the wavers he needs to achieve this. He has made these sort of predictions before, but this time things are different with the SNP in power in Edinburgh and the Union slowly cracking up.
The argument for independence and the merits of the union has been going on for centuries and in contemporary times since the breakthrough of the SNP in the 1960s. In recent times, Scotland has changed dramatically and I think in many ways for the better, while England and the notion of the UK has changed but for the worse. This is why I have finally come round to the view that independence is good for Scotland, the UK and internationally.
Scotland has gained a degree of self-government. Edinburgh has become a capital city with a purpose. The nation feels a more thriving, confident place. It is less white, and more at ease with diversity and multi-culturalism. The arrival of an SNP administration has played a part in this change. It almost feels like a Scottish spring.
The United Kingdom has changed dramatically. Thirty-four years of European Union membership, yet the British state still cannot make up its mind whether or not it is European. The intimate relationship of the British and American political, military and security elites has developed into a corrosive and problematic relationship for the UK and wider world.
Britain in the Thatcher and Blair eras has become an over-centralised nation, where the centre has its finger in nearly ever pie, despite devolution. The sad state of local government, which merely presides over central government diktats, is testimony to this. Even more, is the extent to which Westminster ministers decide the most minutiae local issues about what happens in areas in relation to hospitals, schools, prisons and bridges.
The centralism of the UK is combined with a narrow idea of politics and democracy. The three main parties at Westminster: Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems agree on everything Iraq apart: the inequality and poverty which scars British society, the degree of corporate greed and irresponsibility, the fanatical commitment to the American relationship. British politics have become debased in the last few years: under Thatcher and then under Blair, and there is no sign that the warm words from Gordon Brown about constitutional change show any sign of bringing about fundamental change.
Now we have figures from the respected Oxford economics which show that Scotland being over-subsidised is just another one of these myths and that the part of the UK with the most public spending (Northern Ireland apart) is the apex of power: London. In terms of public spending the parts of the UK which do least well are the English regions outside London. None of these figures are really that surprising; we should know that the UK given its state, politics and culture has never really worked well for the majority of working people.
The interesting thing from these figures is that given many of the Unionist arguments for Scotland remaining in the union were based on finances alone and Scotland being incapable of governing itself, where do such people turn to now?
In reality, whether Scotland become independent or not has never been about the money. This has always been a smoke screen. It was always the case that if Unionist politicians were to find that Scotland could be viable independent they are not going to turn around and say they got their figures wrong and change their views. The same is true of SNP politicians. If the Scottish structural deficit proved post-independence to be a chasm they would not change their positions and settle for the Union.
It has never, rightly, been about money. It is also not about what happened in the past. The rights and wrongs of 1707 should have little bearing on whether Scotland should be independent. Instead, we should be looking to the future.
It is striking that those who now make the case for independence are internationalist and outward-looking whereas Unionists tend to cling to British insularism and the politics of fear. It never used to be so. Nationalists used to invoke couthy, romantic notions of Scotland, tartan and shortbread. The Unionists felt the UK was the future bringing poor Scots and poor English people out of poverty.
Unionists such as Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander love to wax lyrically about the progressiveness and uniqueness of the United Kingdom. They talk of a land that is a great big melting pot of multi-culturalism and multi-national values and a force for good at home and abroad. This is the kind of British chauvinism which the Labour Party has bred since it was born, ignoring other diverse countries in the world, and turning a blind eye to how we look after our own people, let alone the consequences of how we act in the wider world.
One of the worst arguments made by Unionists against Scottish independence is to invoke the age of ‘globalisation’ and ‘interdependence’ and patronise Nationalists with being out of time and out of tune with the modern world. This is a marvellously, insular British argument which ignores what has happened beyond the shores of the UK.
The last decade and a half has seen an unprecedented springtime for nations across Eastern Europe and Central Asia. From the Adriatic to the Baltic and Black Sea, an astonishing twenty-three new nations have become independent. Indeed, only days after the recent Scottish Parliament elections, the small, former Yugoslav republic of Montenegro became the latest entrant to this expanding club and 192nd member of the United Nations.
Small countries around the world and particularly in Europe, whether newly independent such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, or nations which became independent earlier in the 20th century such as Ireland and Norway, have all managed to be successes, economically, socially and culturally. When Unionists talk about these nations – and cite the Irish success story or what has happened in Estonia – they fascinatingly want to talk about every factor (church vs. state, public investment) bar one; the fact that they are independent.
Independence has been a major impact in bringing about change in all these countries. It may have taken the Irish several decades to embark on the road to prosperity, but the Baltic nations and many others starting from a more rocky place than Scotland have succeeded in the transition from being part of a transnational Empire to independent states.
The road to independence is as much about culture and psyches as it is about economies. Independence provides the Scots with an opportunity to develop a new national narrative and story which motivates and inspires us and includes most elements of Scottish society with a sense of purpose and mission.
This would be exciting and emboldening for most people in Scotland and not without some risk. However, the opportunities are so much more. Scottish independence would be good for Scotland, good for the United Kingdom, dealing a crucial blow to the deformed nature of Westminster and British politics, and good internationally, weakening the Atlanticist nature of British foreign policy. I would like to contribute a small part to this.