When ‘Two Tribes’ Go To War: Why Independence Needs to Understand the Union Case
The Scotsman, January 14th 2012
This week Scotland exploded onto the UK and international stage. The constitutional debate and independence have become the talk of Westminster and across the world.
Pro-union forces have been caricaturing the independence camp as ‘separatists’ with even the British Government paper published this week having contained within its title the phrase: ‘whether Scotland should leave the United Kingdom’.
Independence supporters like to think they are above this. Yet they have a tendency to think the union is self-evidently over, rotten to the core and just waiting to collapse in the face of the forces of history.
Life is never this simple. It behoves the best of each side to understand the other. And for the forces of change, the independence camp needs to reach out and empathise with the arguments for the union. They aren’t, as we used to say, a creation of ‘false consciousness’ and it would be a sign of strength which would aid a better debate.
First, there is still a case which can be made for Britain, just as there is a case for independence. The merits of either aren’t about oblivion versus salvation, or a choice between ‘Scotland free or a desert’ and a ‘Caledonian Albania’. Scotland both gains and loses by in the union, and has advantages and disadvantages from being independent.
Second, starting from this position of acknowledging the shades of gray, Scotland can have a viable future in the union or independent; it is about what kind of future we want and collectively willing it.
No one seriously now imagines a Scotland where our existence or identity is so fragile that it is under threat; and if Scottishness has proven more resilient than some people once thought, then so we should note is Britishness whatever happens.
SNP politicians once got in trouble for reflecting on this basic truth; Andrew Wilson walked into trouble for talking about a cultural Britishness post-independence. Things have changed with last year James Mitchell in his Donaldson lecture at SNP conference addressing the different dimensions of Britishness in Scotland without any fuss or controversy.
There is a case to be made for the union that has resonance and reach. We can divide it into the anti-independence and pro-Britain cases.
Scotland is a small country of five million people compared to the UK’s 62 million in what is the sixth largest economy in the world. ‘We are stronger together and weaker apart’ as the Cameron-Miliband (Camerband?) said this week as they blurred into one united unionist entity.
Scotland would struggle to make it on its own as we are kept afloat by the subsidies from the rest of the UK. Official UK figures claim that public spending in Scotland is £1,624 per head more than in England.
An independent Scotland would have to make difficult choices so the argument goes to fill this gap, cutting spending or increasing taxes. It would have to embrace a kind of tartan ‘shock therapy’, slashing and burning, which gets some right-wing opinion excited!
Then there are all the issues about the start-up costs and separation issues. How would an independent Scotland justify and define the 91% of North Sea oil it claims? There are the issues about dividing the national debt, what we do about Trident, and the BBC, DVLA and numerous cross-border services?
An independent Scotland to the outrage of some unionists would keep the Queen as Head of State, but even more seriously they charge, would we get into the European Union or be held in a complex queue and subject to negotiations? And what currency would we embrace, the Rest of UK sterling, the euro or a ‘Scottish poond’?
Some of these questions are genuinely put and require thoughtful answers. They deserve understanding for the thinking and emotions behind them which is a mixture of attachment to this historic union and fear of change.
Some are disingenuous. This week in a superb Radio 4 discussion Nick Robinson raised the spectre of 31,000 civil servants from UK Departments working in Scotland all potentially lost by independence. Yet it is also true that thousands upon thousands of civil servant jobs covering Scottish responsibilities currently reside south of the border. These would come north under independence.
What about the case for the United Kingdom? It is still a relatively harmonious, effective polity; it has a legitimacy in its domestic affairs and internationally, even if it is, a Eurosceptic troublemaker and ardent Atlanticist.
The pro-Britain case has been weakened by Great British Power nationalism, the kind of nauseating flag waving seen by Blair, Brown and Cameron. They have articulated their Britishness in a triumphalist, fundamentalist nationalism which doesn’t understand the history of these isles, Scotland or the patchwork nature of the union.
What is damning is their selective account of what Britain is historically and today and what they think makes it unique. This week’s UK government paper claims on its first page that the UK is ‘the most successful multi-national state the world has ever known’. This is a romantic nationalist account of Britain: similar in many respects to an earlier, sentimental Scottish nationalism.
We have to understand the dynamics, motivations and limitations of the ‘two tribes’ of Scotland in this debate. We have to encourage them to understand each other, and recognise that they are both partial, incomplete visions of Scotland, ones that most Scots do not subscribe to or see themselves represented within.
Crucially, we have to reflect that Scotland has become more comfortable and confident in its identities and sense of place in the last decade. This gives us the potential to have a more matured, measured, nuanced debate. One where we recognise the validity and power of the independence forces, that they are a legitimate, positive force for good in our nation, but which also recognises that the pro-union argument is one that reflects a genuine sense of a different account of Scotland.
Some people have already indicated that they dread the period leading up to the independence vote with its claim and counter-claim, aggressive name-calling and invective. That isn’t an unnatural response. We have to aim for something higher. And given the independence forces have brought us to this point in our history, should they not show some magnanimity and generosity, and reach out to the ‘other’ Scotland which doesn’t share their vision.
We might just create a different, better Scotland in the process.