Scotland The Maybe Not-So-Brave

Is the vote for independence destined to be yet another noble-but-doomed episode in Scottish history?
by Gordon Campbell

On September 18, Scotland will vote on whether it should secede from the United Kingdom. It seems unlikely to do so. All year, the “Yes” vote has consistently lagged at least ten points (and more) behind those in favour of staying in the United Kingdom, and – although there is still a large bloc of undecided voters – the “Yes” vote seems to be stalling at exactly the point in the campaign when it needs to be closing the gap.

Some of the sting has been taken out of the “Yes” campaign by the tactical hints from pro-union politicians that there would be a greater devolution of power to Scotland even if the “No” vote prevails. Whether such hints and promises get acted on once the cause of Scottish independence has been well and truly buried remains to be seen.

For better or worse, Scottish nationalism has not aroused the passions evident in other secessionist struggles elsewhere in the world – in Catalonia, Quebec, or parts of China. It has been a very orderly business, thus far. This may have something to do with the motivations for the referendum, or the lack of them. Despite the occasional references to Braveheart and Scotland’s fractious relations with England down the centuries, the campaign seems to have very little to do with the ancient bones of contention – the Scottish Acts of Union of 1707, the Scottish Reformation etc etc. Essentially, the impetus for Scottish independence has arisen from a thoroughly modern desire to drive around the neoliberal policies of successive governments in Westminster.

What the “Yes” vote is offering is a pro-EU, Scandinavian vision of social justice. The desire for liberation from the economic model that has delivered Scotland over to rising levels of income inequality has played a major role in the drive for Scottish independence. According to the novelist Irvine Welsh, both England and Scotland have suffered from the current United Kingdom arrangements:

They have stopped England from pursuing its main mission; namely, to build an inclusive, post-imperial, multiracial society by forcing it to engage with the totally irrelevant (from an English perspective) distractions of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. From the viewpoint of the Scots, it has foisted 35 years of a destructive neo-liberalism upon us, and prevented us from becoming the European social democracy we are politically inclined to be….If we rid ourselves of the political imperialist baggage of the UK state, new possibilities emerge.

Maybe so, if only the “yes”vote could gain more traction. In late June, Welsh elaborated on his argument with this excellent call to arms.

Beyond Scotland, the political ramifications of independence would be immense. By voting solidly centre-left in recent elections, Scotland has become the Labour Party’s meal ticket to power in Westminster. (Conservative MPs in Scotland, as one editorial writer recently noted, are as scarce as pandas.) Meaning : if Scotland goes solo on September 19, the Tories would be able to rule in the abbreviated Britain, virtually in perpetuity.

Clearly then, the British Labour Party has a lot more to lose from Scottish independence than the Conservatives, much as Prime Minister David Cameron would not want to go down in history as the man who “lost” Scotland. In the wake of the likely outcome – ie, a“No”vote – a closer working relationship would emerge between Labour and the Scottish Nationalist Party machine, if only to shut out the more anarchic, feminist, and Green forms of political action that the movement for Scottish independence has inspired. On the centre left, a “No”vote will result in a battle for political control between the traditional party machinery and these new, grassroots form of political activism.

That battle is already being waged, on the sidelines. In early July, British Labour’s shadow welfare spokesperson Rachel Reeves promised to promote even tougher welfare crackdowns than the Conservatives, as a key part of Labour’s“ No” strategy on Scottish independence. Labour would be tougher-on-welfare in a ‘progressive’way, of course.

Ms Reeves, when asked if the pledge to crack down on benefits would help deliver a No vote said “absolutely” as she suggested most Scottish voters wanted a Labour government to pursue the policy after the referendum. Ms Reeves, who is the Labour MP for Leeds West, said: “I said that I’d be tougher than the Tories…. We’d do that in progressive ways – one in five people are not paid the Living Wage. That’s why a Labour government would increase the Living Wage and crackdown on zero hour contracts. There are progressive ways to control social security and there is nothing progressive about paying more in benefits.

Right. And arguably, a British Labour Party that resorts to such tactics deserves to be buried.

One of the unexpected twists in the Scottish independence campaign has been over the issue of membership of the European Union. Claims have been made – and rebutted – that an independent Scotland would be denied entry to the EU. Of late, SNP leader Alex Salmond has tried to turn such claims into a boomerang – by arguing that by voting to stay with the United Kingdom, Scotland would make itself captive to the course currently being steered by David Cameron, a course that is likely to see the Conservatives take Britain out of the EU in 2017.

Support for membership of the European Union is greater in Scotland than in England and the No campaign has previously played up fears that an independent Scotland would not be re-admitted if it split from the rest of the UK. But in an attempt to turn the argument around, Mr Salmond is now warning that Mr Cameron’s pledge to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU and then hold a binding referendum in 2017 makes it more likely that Scotland would be forced out – as part of the UK.

These troublesome external considerations aside, what does independence offer – internally – for Scotland ? There’s no doubt about the goal. Oxford University Ben Jackson has outlined the vision cleanly enough:

“ A new Scottish state, freed from the neo-liberal shackles imposed by the need to win over English voters, offers Scots the chance to achieve the traditional social democratic goals of the British Labour Party. A narrowing of income and wealth inequality, a reduction in poverty, greater economic security – all that, the Scottish nationalists argue, can be delivered through the agency of a Scottish welfare state and an active government in Edinburgh.

Yet if escape from neo-liberalism is the motive, and if independence really is the best means to pursue those policies of social justice, then (unfortunately) the separation agreement that is being proposed as “independence” will not enable those good things to happen. Why not? Because, as Jackson has pointed out, a “Yes” vote would still mean that Scotland would continue to outsource its monetary policy to the Bank of England, by keeping the British pound as its currency.

That seems peculiar, given the role that monetarism has played in inspiring the independence movement in the first place. Presumably, this would be merely a transitional position – and one seen as temporarily necessary to make a “Yes” vote seem less scary for those waverers feeling uneasy about the costs and implications of change. Alas, though, the fact that Westminster would be allowed to continue to dictate monetary policy for the foreseeable has had the side effect of making independence seem barely worth the effort – in that an “independent” Scotland would be surrendering one of the main ingredients of independence, at the outset.

At best then, independence for Scotland would be incremental. Right now, any form of Scottish independence looks like an uphill battle. For those to the left of the SNP – and that’s a fairly wide swathe of Scotland, especially among the young – there will be some consolation in the spate of political activism that the cause of independence has generated. Who knows? Maybe that new radicalism may avoid capture by the SNP, and carry on down, south of the border.

In the meantime – and as a further consolation – here’s a live version of “Scottish Wind” by Selkirk-born Scott Hutchison and his band, Frightened Rabbit.

Come burl around my body, Scottish blood
I’ll try not to spill a drop
Oh, I’m sure you’ve spilled enough
And the English fucking rule
Who mean nothing to these times
Ah, run forever in my veins
Bold Scottish blood