What comes after Unionism and Nationalism?
The Scotsman, April 23rd 2011
The Scottish Parliament elections seem to be being determined on competence, trust and leadership. The record of the SNP administration, Alex Salmond’s leadership, and who we most trust to stand up and speak for Scotland.
Behind this there are competing visions of Scotland. There is Labour’s rather conservative vision of an ordered, deferential, respectful society which might not have much dynamism, but would prioritise law and order. Then there is the SNP prospectus of a more confident, outgoing and generous nation, defined by inclusiveness, but which does seem to lack a sense of radicalism.
We all know that whatever happens to Scotland, given our size as a small and big nation, small in population and relatively big in land mass, that we have to share power and sovereignty in the territory of the UK, Europe and globally.
The current election and its likely outcome begs the question: what comes after the idea of ‘independence’, namely, how can we go beyond the word and its meaning? And how do we find a new kind of story for Scotland, one which those technical fixes, Calman and fiscal autonomy, wont produce?
Self-government in an inter-connected, inter-related world is a very different concept from its conventional 19th century notions. It is post-nationalist, embracing the notion of shared sovereignty, partnership and multiple identities. This kind of politics is inherent in the SNP leadership, but has for the most part been left implicit rather than explicit, despite the fact it is seen across the world as a story for our times.
It would address the British dimension. Any political reform which falls short of full or old-fashioned independence would entail having some kind of relationship with the political centre in London.
In this the cause of post-nationalist Scotland converges with post-nationalist Ukania, the desire of constitutional reformers to literally dismantle the crumbling constitutional order of the ancien British state.
This then entails not being an abstraction, or tentative, but real and meaningful. We need to have a mature debate about what constitutes the degree of self-government we aspire to in Scotland.
Kenny MacAskill for one has intervened in a thoughtful, mature way asking, ‘Do we need a separate Department of War Graves? Can we not simply pay our share as well as our respects?’ What would be the core ingredients of Scottish self-government? A Scottish Treasury, macro-economic powers and full fiscal powers; implicit here is the creation of Scottish statehood, a body with the powers, ambition and resources to steer public matters.
Then there is the issue of the economic and social priorities people want to see addressed and the kind of Scotland we aspire to live in. Most Scots don’t really aspire to having an international profile or diplomatic force on the world stage – the Winnie Ewing view of independence with Scotland sitting in-between Saudi Arabia and Senegal at the United Nations.
What they wish to is as much as is realistically possible to be able to shape our own economic and social affairs, and align those with a real sense of national mission, and story.
Michael Keating’s ‘The Independence of Scotland’ is an original and impressive study of these matters which should influence the intellectual, if not the political debate. He reflects that, ‘the argument for independence has, in one sense, been won, since almost nobody, not even the most ardent unionist, argues that Scottish independence would be either illegitimate or unfeasible.’
What this leaves is practicalities and what is desirable. If one explores this there is a debate about the competing geo-political, geo-strategic poles which Scotland finds itself between. One is the Nordic social democratic polity of similar sized nations; the other is the Anglo-American sphere of the British state and USA. Scotland because of its membership of the UK and border with England, finds itself pulled in both directions.
Then there is the issue of our relationships and institutional arrangements with the nations and political centres of these isles. If they involve any kind of written constitution at a UK-wide level this would entail having to define who ‘the people’ are, where sovereignty lies, and issues of succession. Such processes could make the current discredited ancien regime seem relatively benign and relaxed.
The campaign of Scottish self-government has seldom made common cause with the radical democrats and progressives across these isles. People such as Anthony Barnett who set up Charter 88, Will Hutton and David Marquand, recognise that the aim of reformulating the constitutional and democratic order across these isles will be fundamentally affected by what we do in Scotland.
We should be drawing on this rich resource of radical imagination, aiding them to weaken the last vestiges of Westminster absolutism, and get them to aid us in developing a Scottish debate which looks at new ways of democratic engagement, and how we tackle reinvigorating our public realm. This could lead to a very different kind of pan-British conversation which prefigures a kind of very different post-UK.
Most important is taking the debate about Scotland’s debate out of the world of arcane language and obscure concepts, and connecting it to the real choices and priorities that we face. Calman or fiscal autonomy won’t do that as these are elite shaped solutions with no popular resonance, but independence has a problem as well.
The solution is some kind of inter-independence in an age of inter-relatedness and inter-connectedness: a self-governing nation and a self-determining society, a notion of power and autonomy that doesn’t define us by taking powers from Westminster or giving them to the Scottish Parliament. A Scotland which does not see change as all about politicians and institutions, but instead acknowledges the multi-faceted dimensions of far-reaching change and that much of it is now intangible and about culture and attitudes rather than narrow politics.
This needs to be connected to a story, an account of Scotland which is about all of us as a people and society. This would be a collective story which is founded on hope, optimism and potential, national mission and priorities, and then sets out via our government and public institutions and the art of statecraft to as much as possible advance this.
This story would have both complexity and simplicity in it, nuance and shades of gray, and above all transcend the certainties and blinkeredness of left and right, unionism versus nationalism, and black and white thinking and tribalism which has disfigured so much of our society and public life.
The current election campaign has shown so far the power of hope versus the politics of fear, but we need to take this much further, embracing am ambitious and radical post-nationalism which dares to be different from what has come before.