Reflections on the Independence Referendum
Scotland has long been a nation. We shall soon find out whether its citizens now wish that nation to become a state. I hope they do. It will not only open up new opportunities for their own country but will break up the atrophied, decaying British state and reduce its efficacy as a US vassal. Hence the appeals from Obama and Hillary Clinton to vote ‘No’, a sentiment Blair fully shares but dare not admit to, fearing that his intervention might tip the balance in the opposite direction. There is no issue of principle here, just imperial interests. The US accelerated the break-up of the old Soviet state, first the Baltic republics, then Ukraine and Central Asia. This was followed by the destruction of Yugoslavia. If Latvia and Slovenia, why not Scotland? After all, the SNP has (regrettably) decided to stay in Nato.
It was intellectually exhilarating during two trips to Scotland this summer to witness and participate in the serious debates taking place in meeting halls, kirks, streets, pubs and homes. What a contrast to dreary old England where all three parties and every single media outlet are against Scottish independence. The ‘No’ campaign lacks both sense and subtlety, being based exclusively on fear. But it is the forces of pessimistic conservatism in Scotland that appear shallow and parochial. The SNP, and even more the Radical Independence Campaign, look at a detached Scotland through international spectacles. Their gaze is fixed on the Norwegian model and beyond. A few months ago, in an open letter to the people of Scotland published by the Herald, some of Scandinavia’s leading writers and intellectuals encouraged the birth of an independent state, reminding Scots that Norway’s break from Sweden in 1905 was also preceded by fear-mongering but improved the quality of life and politics in both countries.
The remarkable growth of the pro-independence movement is the result of Thatcher’s dismantling of the welfare state and Blair-Brown’s admiration for the same. Until then the Scots had been prepared to stick to Labour regardless of the corruption and chicanery that categorised its party machine in Scotland. No longer. When large numbers stop believing that they can exercise political self-determination within the existing social order they begin to look beyond traditional governing parties. On the Continent (and in England) this has led to the growth of the right. In Scotland what is being demanded is national, social and political self-determination: in concrete terms this means a humanistic social democracy. Even if fear results in a Unionist majority, all are agreed that things will never be the same again. And if Scotland wins, perhaps the tired lull of English politics will also be disrupted.
As I debate what to write on my ballot paper, I am becoming increasingly irritated by the Electoral Commission’s decision to amend the original wording, ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?’ to ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ My problem is that I don’t really have a simple answer to the latter question, while I have a clear response to the former, which is: ‘Agree with whom?’ Nobody on either side of the argument has painted a picture of a truly independent Scotland for me to agree with. On the one hand, the Happy Together Party assumes that anyone who doesn’t want to be ruled from Holyrood wants to be ruled from Westminster. Trouble is, I don’t want to be ruled at all. On the other hand, it is clear that a vote for independence would inevitably be seen as an endorsement of the SNP’s appalling record on the environment and local democracy. Either way, the answer is clear: there is nobody to agree with, so my only possible response is ‘No’.
The question I am actually invited to consider is ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ Well, yes, but we’ll have to talk further. I can’t just tick a box. This isn’t one of those George Bush he-who-is-not-with-me-is-a-terrorist situations, is it? Or is it? Ever since I voiced a couple of reservations about the SNP’s fitness to ‘lead’ Scotland, I’ve been called a Stilton-eating, Cameron-loving surrender-monkey often enough to wonder if this is the reasoned debate I’d hoped for. I do believe that Scotland (like any supposed democracy) should be independent of the following: a) the whims of American billionaires with grandiose plans for golf courses; b) the magisterial nixing of local planning decisions by central government; c) the flouting of EU law in pursuit of a simple-minded and wholly unviable energy strategy; d) the abuse of parliamentary committees to circumvent checks and balances on the governing party; and e) a feudal, environmentally damaging system of land ownership, buttressed by extravagant subsidy systems – all of which we have suffered under the SNP.
Who will win? I couldn’t say and, anyway, I am waiting for real change, not a gloss on business as usual. If I had to make a prediction, however, I would say that the SNP will do what it has always done when it comes to democracy, which is to let the people decide – and then, if it doesn’t get the result it wants, overrule us from Holyrood.
New states are usually the product of catastrophe. Violence is the air they breathe. I can’t decide if it is Scotland’s good or bad fortune that its vote for statehood should take place against the background of an entirely normal birth of a nation, that of the caliphate formed from the ruins of Bush and Blair’s Iraq. A cynic might say that the dreadful spectacle of ‘real’ state-formation in the Middle East – that Europe of the 21st century – only points up the Ruritanian flavour of the pretend British version. But Britain is Ruritania with a nuclear strike force, plus an army of ‘special advisers’ always ready to put boots briefly, bloodily, on the ground. Maybe the vision of a Middle East in agony – a reminder on a daily basis of New Labour’s imperial achievements – will persuade a few fainthearts in the Lowlands to leave the English to what they do best.
For the Scots, a ‘Yes’ vote seems to me a matter of elementary political hygiene. Trident being forced to wallow south (to which the SNP appears committed): that alone will be, for some of us, the most hopeful moment in UK history since Suez. No doubt the gesture will be symbolic, but the symbolism will be happy and glorious: it will drive the Home Counties military-media-political complex mad. The question in the longer term, alas, is whether that madness – and the general little England viciousness to follow, accelerating the exit from Europe – will confirm or annihilate the politics of the past forty years. Will the British Empire ever end? Not without shock therapy. Scottish independence on its own will obviously not be enough, but it might – just might – bring in its wake a true purgative politique du pire. The parties in Westminster are holding their breath.
We all have our links. I was once married to Jean Brodie of Annandale Street, who went to James Gillespie’s High School, the one in Muriel Spark’s novel. When I asked her the other day how she would vote, she shrugged. But almost immediately she added: ‘Well, it does seem that the notion of social justice is still alive, just, in Scotland.’ I took her to mean that its only hope of survival was if the Eton-City-News International ‘nation’ ceased to call the shots.
But why should the rest of us care? There are some 5.3 million Scots, barely a ripple among the total citizenry of the globe, and less than a tenth even of the population of the UK (which is itself part of the problem). Even so, the referendum possesses significance for more than just staunch supporters of Scottish independence or the Union. Like the passionate desire of some Tea Party activists to reassert a vision of a sacred America, the utopianism driving some Scottish nationalists is part of a broader trend. In the face of an inchoate and seemingly relentless globalisation, there is a growing hunger evident in many countries to recover – or invent – a more distinctive, discrete and reassuring identity. The referendum speaks to wider trends and anxieties in other respects too. Europe contains many more historic national groupings than it does states. Given the EU’s current diminishing popularity, pressure for Scottish secessionism – whether successful or not – will undoubtedly further nurture autonomy movements in Spain, France, Italy and elsewhere, and this will have implications not just for the economy and governance, but also for Nato.
In the UK itself the referendum is also about much more than Scotland. On an extended visit to Edinburgh last month, I was struck by how many potential ‘Yes’ voters I spoke to who were not unadulterated nationalists. They were scornful of ‘London elites’ certainly, profoundly suspicious of Westminster (and of Washington), and eager for more local autonomy and initiatives and for a fresh start. But their reactions were not that different from those I have encountered in the North of England, Wales, and elsewhere in the UK. Much of what is driving ‘nationalism’ in Scotland is also sparking discontent and a desire for a new politics south of the border, and this raises two big questions at least. What would have happened had David Cameron not foolishly refused to include a third, ‘devo-max’ option on the ballot? And, whatever the result, will political self-interest and the need to survive finally begin to push the UK’s two so-called main parties in the direction of localism and federalism?
‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ This most sensible of sayings applies for me to the referendum issue. Is the Union broken and in need of fixing? Surely not. It isn’t utopia. Nothing is. True, the Tories are so weak in Scotland that it might seem attractive to set up a new country where they’re unlikely ever (ever?) to be in power. Who would be then? If a Scottish Labour government were as little socialist and as slavishly Thatcherite as New Labour led by the unspeakable Blair or the harmless Miliband, little would be gained. (Down here in Cumbria, I’ve recently been voting Lib Dem, purely to keep the dangerously popular Tories out.) Could the SNP conceivably be socialist? True, it has kept NHS prescriptions and university places free.
At present we have a UK highly mixed in race, peopled by folk originally from Ireland, Scotland, England, the Viking, Danish and Juteish heartlands, the Caribbean, Africa, Poland, the Indian subcontinent … A free Scotland would be founded on a nationalism roughly coterminous with race, and I grew up in a world where racist nationalism was the most abhorrent and dangerous tendency under the sun. My mother’s mother was stoned in the streets of Aberdeen because she came from Germany. In 1939 her brother Wilhelm wept when he was about to go back to Aachen after a holiday with us. All this formed the way I came to see geopolitics. I mistrust any party which is founded on nationhood as such – as a self-evident good – and for that reason, if I still lived in Scotland, I would vote ‘No’.
The historic vote on 18 September resulted from two decisions on the part of the Scottish government. The first was to hold a referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future. The second was to opt for a choice on the ballot paper between the status quo and full independence. The initial preference was for three questions, with ‘devo-max’ added to the other two. The UK government was emphatically against that. Two questions it would have to be. Strong rumour suggests that Alex Salmond would have preferred to go for devo-max – which would undoubtedly have been accepted by a massive majority of the Scottish electorate – and then, after bedding down the new powers, to go to the country again in a few years’ time on the final step of full sovereignty for Scotland. But the possibility of achieving the holy grail of Scottish independence in a single vote was just too tempting. With the ‘No’ campaign still in the ascendancy as the day of reckoning looms, the pro-independence camp may yet come to regret its rejection of gradualism.
The Scottish government states that it is committed ‘to securing the earliest safe withdrawal of Trident from an independent Scotland. This includes the removal of all elements of the current system.’ In the event of a ‘Yes’ vote, negotiations would have to take place between the Scottish government and the UK government over the transfer of assets and responsibilities from the UK to the new independent entities: Scotland and the residual UK (which I will call England).
The president of the European Commission has argued that an independent Scotland would not automatically continue to be a member of the EU; it is similarly arguable that England too should apply for EU membership like any other new European state. It could also be argued that England would not continue to be entitled to a permanent place on the Security Council. There are other related issues. A nuclear weapon state is defined by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a state which exploded a nuclear weapon before 1967. Since neither England nor Scotland existed as independent states before 1967 England could in theory join India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea in being classed as a non-weapon state which nevertheless possesses nuclear weapons.
The key to allowing England to succeed the UK in international forums is provided by the break-up of the USSR in 1991. Russia and the other former republics of the USSR wrote a joint letter to the UN secretary general stating that Russia should take the USSR’s place on all UN bodies and that it would assume the USSR’s obligations internationally. This letter was circulated to UN member states and no opposition was recorded. Russia thus succeeded the USSR in 1993.
This precedent means that Scotland holds a strong hand in negotiations with England: it could offer to support England’s claim to be the successor state of the UK on the Security Council and to be classified as a nuclear weapon state in exchange for England’s backing for EU and Nato membership for Scotland, a timetable for removing Trident and agreement to a common currency area. Scottish independence would enable Scotland to join Norway and Denmark as independent non-nuclear-weapon European Nato states; it would also help to free England from its nuclear pretensions and its role as America’s poodle. Both new states inhabiting the island of Great Britain would benefit.
If the Scots vote ‘Yes’ and leave the rump of the UK to the Tories then the prospect of that rump leaving the EU comes very much closer. It is hard to find people who care about Scottish independence in Dublin, but they do care very seriously about the EU. Stuck, as we still are, on the poisoned tit of the Frankfurt banks, the country is in a strangely passive and fluid ideological state.
It would be nice to see Scotland independent, because independence is a good feeling. It is possible that Scottish national pride would have a saltier flavour than Irish national pride, and that this would put us on our mettle. It would be gratifying to see the perspective shift among Ulster Unionists whose heritage is Scottish but whose allegiance is to the queen – this would be one of history’s great (and we hope not bloody) jokes.
It would be terrific to see a new English-speaking country write itself a proper constitution because ours has got hopelessly enmired in referendums about abortion, none of which helped a raped and suicidal refugee recently, forced to carry her foetus until it was viable because she could not travel to England for an Irish solution to her problem. This is a fabulously debilitating way to run a democracy. It also highlights the question of what, in a global economy, a nation-state controls. Ireland, nearly 200 billion euros in debt, controls everything but the money – is that something? Or is it nothing at all?
This difference, between the country and the money, is very much on the minds of Scottish voters now. It is possible they are being asked to vote for the kind of national entity that doesn’t exist any more. That must be on their minds too. It would be nice if it did exist. It would be nice if they believed it did.
Some friendships have curdled. There’s a new taboo at dinner parties; certain topics are best avoided until you can be sure that the whole table belongs to the same camp. ‘Is it like Northern Ireland without the bombs?’ a visiting professor of politics from the south of England asked me. I certainly detect echoes of the society described in Seamus Heaney’s morbidly comic poem ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’. Scotland too has become a ‘land of password, handgrip, wink and nod’, where ‘“You know them by their eyes,” and hold your tongue.’ However, I speak as a ‘No’ supporter, among whose ranks reticence is more apparent. Scotland looks very different, I suspect, on the other side. What is most striking is the asymmetrical character of our great national divide. There is plenty of passion among nationalists, indeed sometimes a rowdiness, whether online or on the streets. Why is the unionist majority of the opinion polls not reflected in the number of ‘No’ posters seen in windows, which is pitiful? Does it indicate lack of support or a fear of broken glass? On the other hand, Better Together, the main organ of the pro-Union campaign, has all the razzmatazz, the jibe runs, of a Stornoway Sabbath. And ‘No’ voters are generally undemonstrative, indeed I suspect many of them have opted – for the sake of a quiet life – to declare themselves ‘undecided’. Probably around 30 per cent of the electorate is passionately nationalist, supplemented by reluctant Old Labour diehards who see independence – understandably – as a way of rescuing part of the British welfare state from free-marketeering vandals. The welfare state apart, Britishness inspires acquiescence rather than vocal commitment among ‘No’ supporters. Anxiety predominates. Unionists are quietly fretful, concerned about pensions, job opportunities for the young and North Sea oil running out. I think they are right to be worried. Alex Salmond is what is known in Scotland as a ‘chancer’. He is taking major risks – against the advice of experts – on EU membership, cross-border pension schemes, the currency, and an economy geared for centuries to an integrated British market. Of course, Salmond wants the best for Scotland, but if he’s wrong, he threatens to destroy more Scottish jobs than Margaret Thatcher, to ruin more pension plans than Robert Maxwell.
In an ideal world a fully independent Scotland might be a better place than the quasi-independent state it is now, but why is almost impossible to see given the evasions and silences of the ‘Yes’ campaign. The SNP’s argument is essentially that full independence will be transformative by itself: the details can be left to another day. But it is the details that matter. No informed decision can be made in their absence.
What are the missing details? No constitutional model for an independent Scotland has been presented. All we know is that Scotland will remain a monarchy, and that is not very helpful. Adequate attention has not been given to the question of the currency. The SNP appears to want Scotland to remain within a sterling zone, but England has made it clear that will not happen and it would in any case oversee the currency in its interest and not Scotland’s. Then there is the question of defence. Like Ireland, Scotland will need little defending, but do the ‘Yes’ campaigners imagine that the English state will continue to build warships in Scottish yards or park them in Scottish waters? Equally, do they imagine that the great cultural institutions of the Union, like the BBC, can survive its dissolution? Will there be a customs and immigration border with England, and, if so, would that be in Scotland’s interest? Will there still be free movement of labour? Presumably the Scots will want the same rights as Irish citizens, but there is no guarantee they will get them. The possible implications for Scottish membership of the EU (Scotland will be out unless the other member states agree to admit it, which Spain won’t) haven’t been properly addressed. Will those who have invested in Scotland want to stay if it leaves the Union? Many won’t. Banking and finance is crucial to Scotland; perhaps even more than to England. Who will bail out RBS when it next goes bankrupt? Not the English state. Nor will the English state continue to subsidise Scotland. And how does one undo three hundred years of joint history? Scottish devolution was the result of long negotiations in which the SNP refused to take part. The result of that refusal is now very evident.
In a thoughtful and good-humoured Guardian interview last month, the Scottish novelist Alan Warner said that he loves England and has spent a fair bit of time there but that, like most Scottish writers, he’s ‘a “Yes” man’, one who belongs to the tradition that ‘goes back to the 1920s when writers and poets felt they were through literature building a nation, a virtual nation, an imagined nation’. He offers as an example Hugh MacDiarmid’s Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry, which he calls ‘a construct, a fabulous construct of a country’.
Warner shows with a fine candour how different artists are. Most people, after all, experience no desire to have their country constructed for them, fabulously or otherwise. Having just surfaced from reimmersion in the writings of Edmund Burke, I find this disagreement a recurring, if not dominant theme in Burke’s attack on the French revolutionaries. ‘Men of letters,’ he complains, ‘fond of distinguishing themselves, are rarely averse to innovation.’ In Scottish terms, they want to be the ‘Makars’ not just of their nation’s poetry but of the nation itself. They want their country to provide a sensational tableau for them to star in, rather than merely a congenial background to their lives. Neal Ascherson’s bus party (LRB, 21 August) sounds like the Makars on wheels. One hesitates to shut the door on such a charming bunch. All the same, I wouldn’t much fancy them parking in my street, for I have an uneasy feeling that in the sort of country they have in mind their pibrochs would be the only music.
I have little patience with a view of politics that pays so little attention to what are dismissed as bread and butter issues: jobs, wages, prices, pensions, security. I care even less for the anglophobia that drives the screeching trolls and lurks behind the protestations that there’s nothing personal about the whole thing. And there is something childish in the refusal to recognise the three centuries of civil peace and economic progress that have followed the Act of Union. I passionately hope that a majority of Scots will vote to keep the country they know. I hope just as passionately that, if they do, the government of a still United Kingdom will honour its promise to complete the devolution process and restore full powers of taxation to local and regional governments on both sides of the border (a crucial change, dismissed in an aside by Ascherson). ‘No’ to independence must also mean ‘Yes’ to serious democratic reform.
All classical accounts see England as the original and model nation-state of modern times. One way of looking at the 18 September vote is that it’s a sign of the end of this model. Throughout the past era, the vital questions were posed by industrialisation, by the emergence of manufacturing and commerce on a scale that required dimensions larger than those of the city-states and regions within which capitalism first arose. Nation-states were the answer, and inside these states there was sufficient homogeneity to allow the development of functioning ‘identities’ that could cope with rapidly altering circumstances. In the evolution of a nation-state world, relatively big scale was important. Capitalism may have started up in small city-states and marginal countries but it was bigger entities that provided the combination of marketplaces and common cultures that favoured the rise of manufacturing during the 18th and 19th centuries. There wasn’t any pre-established scale for this process: the ‘national’ found itself propelled towards the ‘imperial’, and into transoceanic expansion − which was of course a recipe for mounting conflict. After the exhaustion of world wars there developed a Cold War between differing modes of one-ness, or ‘globality’, which capitalism coldly won, and took over the last phase of Middle Earth’s growth.
In the 21st century scale would count for less and hence become less significant for societies seeking collective identity, or nationhood. It seems that globality has left a new door ajar: societies – Catalonia, the Basque Country, Crimea, Scotland − once held to be unviable have become imaginable, and capable of formation, or reformation. A recognisable trend is emerging in several otherwise quite different countries, and acquiring a common voice. And isn’t there also some common ground among their opponents, the former or would-be great powers of Spain, France, Russia and Great Britain? These states built historical nationalism, culminating in the world warfare of 1914 to 1946, as well as its ‘cold’ successor conflict, and are anxious to preserve the nationality politics of previous times, the ‘realism’ of viable scale and standing.
Reculer pour mieux sauter: the Scots should take a step back into statehood in order to leap forward and embrace the new age, a globality where there are certain to be many more self-governing units. A ‘Yes’ vote isn’t for some outdated or renovated form of self-government, but for a necessarily new form of self-rule, a polity framed partly by the new circumstances themselves. The Scots have some chance of getting through (or at least moving towards) the exit. Let’s do it, rather than hang around for more decades of brooding, and trying to summon up enough self-confidence to take on the new age. The confidence will come from doing it.
In politics you sometimes lose by winning. It’s now as clear as these things ever get that Scotland will vote ‘No’ to independence. It’s a poll that Salmond couldn’t avoid calling after the SNP won a majority in the Scottish elections of 2011 (during the 2007-11 parliament, the SNP minority government was insulated by Holyrood’s unionist majority). Salmond had wanted to kick the can down the road for another parliament or two, hoping the scales would tip towards separatism.
Shrek’s infinite rubberiness has told against him. Pre-2008, independent Scotland was to be the next Celtic tiger, a Eurozone economy with rock-bottom business rates to lure inward investors. As he said in 2009, ‘the argument for having strong fiscal powers … within a European euro context, will prove to be a very strong one for the people of Scotland.’ Now that the tiger’s a rug in the ECB boardroom, free Alba is going to be the next Norway – which isn’t even in the European Union. In the referendum campaign, Salmond has gone for triangulation. He’s decided to retain sterling, preferably with currency union, while sloughing off Scotland’s share of the national debt; to keep the queen; to get rid of Trident, but stay in Nato. Free passage of people and goods between north and south Britain will remain, even though in the first instance Scotland, by leaving the UK, would also leave the EU, a fact that seems to have dawned only belatedly on the SNP. Later on, having presumably applied and been admitted, Scotland could find itself in an EU that the rump UK has left.
SNP electoral success at Holyrood and Westminster rests on voters deserting Labour, which had long taken them for granted; SNP policies on Trident, free tertiary education and free personal care for the elderly are popular. But nobody knows how far these policies would endure after independence – the SNP even seems unsure whether it would disband. Salmond has retreated from a thick separatist platform, built from these policies, to independence-lite, in the hope of swinging voters Yeswards. To repeat, you can lose by winning – and you can trim, and still lose.
Although descended from Lake District ‘statesmen’, whose land tenure obliged them to defend the border against marauding Scots, and who successfully told King James VI and I to think again after the Union of the Crowns when he said that now the marauding was over he wanted their land, I moved to Scotland 45 years ago from the University of Wisconsin. In the US on a short-term visa to escape the Vietnam draft, I had applied to the Medical Research Council to work in one of its African outposts on nasty viruses. The reply came that there were no vacancies, but there was one in Glasgow. Science in Scotland was good then. It still is, thanks to the Union. Our research is very generously funded by the UK. Independence would be bad for science in Scotland. England would lose as well. It has benefited enormously from Scottish influence and unimpeded traffic north and south. My first science boss had been mentored by Alexander Fleming at St Mary’s Hospital in London. The Treaty of Union held that the Scottish universities ‘as now established by Law shall continue in the Kingdom for ever’. I like that, and want to prevent the treaty’s repeal.
The independence referendum is the first of three votes that will help determine the future shape of British politics. The second is the next general election, which is now just nine months away. The third is a possible in-out referendum on EU membership. There is a nightmare scenario here (at least, a nightmare for many Scots and for a few of us south of the border): Scotland votes ‘No’, the Tories win the election and then Scotland, along with the rest of the UK, finds itself out of Europe on the back of the majority view of little Englanders. It’s still odds against that sequence of events, but not by enough of a margin to bring much comfort. I suppose it’s possible that an EU referendum could follow the pattern of the Scottish one: a serious and extended political argument that, for all the nastiness round the edges, generates principled positions on both sides and allows the defenders of the status quo to make their case and have it heard. But I rather doubt it.
Whatever happens on 18 September, it is hard to imagine that the argument ends here. If Scotland chooses to remain part of the UK, it will still be jarring each time a UK-wide decision binds it into a fate it would not have chosen for itself. The pressure for change will grow, not diminish. At the same time, English nationalism is going to rear its head at some point, especially if the result of a ‘No’ vote is greater concessions to Scottish devolution. The other regions are going to want their say. The status quo inside the UK is defensible in the short term but not sustainable in the long run. When it comes to the UK’s position inside the EU it may be the other way round.