United We Stand

What’s at the heart of the Scottish Independence debate? What’s it really all about? In my first post on thedangerouscurve, Musings from the Island Line, I wrote;

“…don’t be fooled by the rationale which claims independence can be a tartan ejector seat from Tory government. It’s not a coincidence that the SNP have risen to power in Scotland under first a Blairite British Government and then a Conservative-led coalition in Westminster. Scots as a whole tend to be traditionally orientated towards left-leaning politics. However, trying to solve the problem of the drift to the Right in British politics through the method of Scottish independence is using a sledge hammer to crack a nut.”

As an out and proud supporter of the No campaign, Better Together, I’ve been taking part in the online discussion through Twitter, arguing the case for the Union. What I’ve discovered has been both illuminating and disappointing in equal measure.

Disappointingly, I’ve discovered that my pro-Union compatriots are much less vocal – indeed much less present – in these online debates. Often it seems that the Yes camp is the only show in town when it comes to social media. Now, I’m not concerned that this is reflective of numbers for and against #indy; in my view it has a lot more to do with the zeal of the evangelist which, as the group advocating fundamental change, is more common amongst Yes Scotland supporters. Indeed, in my experience to date I’ve often found this zeal to spill over into vitriol or disdain when you dare disagree about the best path for Scotland’s future. In fairness, I’ve also found measured, thoughtful and passionate contributors amongst the Yes camp.

This imbalance disappoints me for two reasons. Firstly, Better Together is in danger of conceding that Yes Scotland is the truly grassroots movement, representing what the ‘people of Scotland’ want. We’re giving the impression that the Yes vote is much larger than I believe it actually is. It is certainly giving the Yes camp a sense of momentum at the time of writing. Secondly, the apathy of the silent majority (a majority which has been represented in every poll on the subject of #indy to date) allows Yes Scotland and its supporters to articulate the No vote’s argument for us. Instead of Better Together and its supporters making the positive case for the United Kingdom and everything that it offers, Yes supporters can caricature the campaign to maintain the Union as ‘Project Fear’.

It’s nevertheless been interesting to engage with my fellow Scots from the Yes camp and to learn about their motives for seeking Scottish Independence. If I was to broadly summarise the issues and ideals that seem to motivate them to support Independence, I would suggest that they believe the following. They see Independence as:

  1. An opportunity to create a more socially just nation
  2. An opportunity for Scotland finally to be recognised as a nation in its own right
  3. An opportunity to create a wealthier, more prosperous Scotland
  4. An opportunity to undo historic wrongs done to Scotland
  5. An opportunity for Scotland to cut the Tory apron strings, represented in all of the above

I am sure that there are other motives for the Yes camp which I’ve not listed here. I’m also sure that Yes supporters would articulate these reasons in a more elaborate or different way. But I’m confident that these points summarise the main thrust of their rationale.

If that’s the case, then how do we respond? Well, as I suggest above, we need to do a lot more than just respond. We need to pro-actively advocate for the Union and all the benefits that it brings to us all. The core of our argument needs to be found in the counterpoint to reasons 1 and 5 above. So let me quickly deal with reasons 2 to 4.

As I’ve said elsewhere, it really isn’t necessary in the 21st century for one’s nationhood to be dependent on or equivalent to political autonomy. Is my Scottishness innately diminished because I cast a vote to send a politician to Westminster rather than Holyrood to create Foreign Affairs, Welfare and Fiscal Policy? I don’t think so. Scottish nationhood is so much more than a political jurisdiction. The zero-sum, nation-state equation presented by the SNP and others is an unnecessary and inaccurate shibboleth.

Likewise, the economic argument is to me a distraction. Should the bottom line really be the bottom line in making our decision on Union or Independence? Some commentators have suggested that Scotland could be more prosperous as an independent country. Many more have suggested the opposite. But even if it could be unequivocally proven that the likes of oil, whisky and engineering could buoy the Scottish Exchequer in the seas of economic uncertainty and excessive Bank loans to GDP ratios that independence would bring, is that really the point? Does a few quid (or Euros, or Scottish Pounds) on our wage packet buy us out of our unity and solidarity with our friends from Wales, England and Northern Ireland? The truth is, over time, wealth comes and goes. What’s more important is how we as a society use the wealth that we do have. When it comes to the independence referendum, it really is not the economy stupid.

On the issue of historic wrongs, there is no question that they exist. Edward, Hammer of the Scots, The Highland Clearances, Maggie Thatcher’s Poll Tax; all of these loom large in the Scottish psyche. Indeed, some argue, the origin of the Union itself is tarred by the aristocrats who – on both sides – negotiated it without exactly focussing on the interests of the wider population of Scotland. But – leaving aside the historic wrongs which the Scots visited on England – are we to be bound by this narrative when we imagine our future? What concerns me is where we’re going, not where we’ve come from. What should concern us is creating a more egalitarian, more just, more harmonious, more compassionate society. True, this will include recognising that historic events and decisions have created the unequal society that we live in today. But only so that we know where to focus our efforts in building a more just society. And so, to my main point.

It’s social justice that seems to motivate many of the Yes campaigners whom I come into contact with. The paradox is that it’s also social justice which motivates many of us on the No side. We agree that, under Blairism and the prefix ‘New’, the rump of the Left lost its way towards the end of the Labour Government through mistakes like PFI, the abolition of the 10p tax rate and an unethical foreign policy.

What we particularly agree on is that British politics has taken a lunge to the right since the 2010 General Election: The Bedroom Tax, Atos assessments for DLA, anti-immigrant rhetoric, aggressive benefits sanctions, tax cuts for millionaires and the government’s failure to deal with the culture of the Financial Sector, so brutally exemplified in the Banker’s Bonus and Robin Hood Tax rows. All of these factors unite those of us on the Left who are tired of a culture of blaming the most vulnerable in society for the failings of the elite.

The enemies of social justice are a combination of apathy towards the political process, fear and individualism; the sense that I can’t change the system, and that the state of the economy means I’d be better off just looking after myself. It’s this apathy and fear that ushered the Conservative Party into government in 2010. It’s the (irrational) fear of economic meltdown that is raising the rhetoric against Eastern European immigrants. It’s the legacy of historic grievances and narrow identity politics that catalyses a retrenchment into Scottish Nationalism. It’s the failure to imagine just what could be achieved in our wee multi-national country if those of us on the left put aside our narrow selfishness and strove for solidarity, activism and unity.

Those in the Yes camp have concluded that the game is up. To them, the British experiment has failed to deliver the fruits of social justice. Leaving aside the exponential improvement in living standards across the British Isles in the last 307 years as we became the 7th largest economy on earth (with a smaller population than all above us on the list), we must acknowledge that there is a long way to go in achieving true social justice in the UK. Indeed, it will be a mission that is never truly complete. The search for social justice must be a permanent and indefinite state of mind. And I believe, to paraphrase a fellow-traveller, Dr Dave Landrum, that the fight for the Common Good within the United Kingdom is both missional and possible.

This week the Tory MP, Rory Stewart talked about the need for us to show the love that exists between the four nations of the Union by forming a human chain along Hadrian’s Wall. Well, in the words of Pink and Nate Ruess:

“Just a little bit’s enough. Just a second, we’re not broken, just bent, and we can learn to love again.”

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4 thoughts on “United We Stand

  1. An interesting piece, but I’d pick you up on a few points.
    The rightward lunge in Westminster politics has been for the last 30 years, not the last 3 years.

    New Labour didn’t reverse a single piece of Thatcher’s anti-TU legislation; the gap between rich and poor increased compared to John Major’s govt; JSA and the proto-type of the bedroom tax were introduced by them.

    Scotland has voted Labour non-stop since 1964. 50 years! And what has it given us? A series of Labour MPs with an sense of entitlement that would shock a Bourbon scion, and the secure knowledge they’re on a conveyor belt that will, if they do what they’re told by the party hierarchy, land them in the House of Lords, with a lifetime at the Golden Trough on £300 per day expenses.

    New Labour tinkered with the House of Lords. It’s lack of abolition means there are now MORE members of the HoL than there were before the reforms.

    It is both Social Justice and democratic accountability that motivates me. When I decided I wanted an independent Scotland, I thought the oil had run out. Because the McCrone report, which highlighted the wealth of the country, had been suppressed by both Labour and Tory administrations since the mid-1970s.

    My first political engagement was CND, and my second was Trade Unionism. And it was that, which meant I met trade unionists from over the UK in the 1980s, which was the reason I was so slow to embrace independence for Scotland. These people were the same as me; they held the same ideals; they suffered as much under the Tories.

    The actual reason I came to support independence – or self-determination – for Scotland is that I grew to realise that Wetminster was unreformable. As the decades went on, the metropolitan councils in England, the regional councils in Scotland were abolished. Local democracy was abolished. More and more power was centralised to Westminster. Because Westminster is sovereign in the UK. And has the power of a mediaeval monarch vested in it. And again, Labour, in power for 13 years, did nothing to reverse it.

    So my view of self-determination has nothing to do with “historic wrongs” visited on Scotland by England. I doubt my family were even in Scotland in 1707. The British state has visited “historic wrongs” on working people all over the UK as it still does.

    Westminster was designed to protect the powerful. That’s the one thing it does well. It preceded democracy and can function without it. It’s an elective dictatorship where any party that can get enough seats, regardless of how few votes, holds absolute power until the next election. And there are no powers of recall. Who voted for ESA? For the shocking evisceration of the NHS being visited on English people? No-one. But that doesn’t mean those in power can’t enact austerity.

    And now Labour promises more of the same when/if they get into power. The rightward slide long predates 2010. I can remember when Roy Hattersley was considered right wing. Now, with his lifelong support of comprehensive educaton, he’dbe considered a dangerous radical. He wouldn’t be in the Cabinet – he’d be lucky to be selected as a PPC!

    And so, what of Scotland. A country with 1 Tory MP. A country where UKIP lose their deposit whenever they stand. A country which has voted Labour for 50 years. Where the STUC remained an important public body under Thatcher, under Major. Until, in fact, it was fatally undermined by Gordon Brown’s insistence, on election in 1997, that they accept PFI (the re-badging of PPP). Campbell Christie was a public figure; to a lesser extent, so was Bill Spiers, tho’ he was relatively young when he died. I’m a political geek, and I couldn’t name the current head of the STUC. They never recovered from Labour using the trade union movement to keep the workers in line – as it has always done – but getting nothing in return.

    Labour didn’t reverse a single piece of Thatcher’s TU legislation when in power. But that is now coming back to bite them. Because the TU movement policed and delivered the organised working class for Labour, but the next generation were not inculcated with those values, so there is no natural Labour generation as there was pre-1990s among working class people. Most of them are not employed in unionised companies. That is terrible. But it also means they’re making up their own minds. People in working class housing schemes who have been left behind by a Labour Party who feel they only have to be one step to the left of the Tories to take all leftwing votes. That might apply in England, but it doesn’t in Scotland.

    These are the people who would have been Labour’s natural constituency 30 years ago – a lifetime ago. Now, Labour aren’t interested, but with PR in Holyrood and in council elections, there are plenty other groups who are – Greens, SSP, SNP are all active in communities in a way that Labour hasn’t been for years.

    Better Together, the Tory-financed, Labour-fronted organisation that campaigns against Scottish independence, decided that controlling the heights, the mainstream media, the public bodies, was enough to control this debate. BBC Scotland’s current affairs supremo is the partner of a former Scottish minister, and a Labour Party member himself. A recent UWS study confirmed what we all knew – that the tea-time news on both main channels was biased against independence. Neither BBC nor ITN reported those results, though the BBC has gone out of its way to rubbish it behind the scenes.
    What Better Together hadn’t bargained on was the internet, and the sheer scale of the Yes Scotland campaign. Getting the BBC to use SNP/Yes Scotland interchangeably, and having their mouthpieces use “separatism” instead of self-determination to rubbish the “nationalists” has meant little, because Yes campaigners are out on the street in every town, with Green Party, Radical Indy and everyone else. People know what they’re seeing on tv doesn’t chime with what they see in their own lives. Meanwhile, internet memes, online communication, posters, badges, are passed around between activists. Better Together’s ridiculous 500 Questions were ridiculed so savagely in one evening that it was never mentioned again. Their “groundbreaking” spamming of people’s mobile phones wasn’t even reported by the mainstream media. If Yes had done such a thing, they would have been crucified.

    You are aiming at the wrong targets. Yes, the UK has the 7th largest economy in the world – it is also the 4th most unequal. Social justice is unachievable under Westminster. The left in Scotland has slowly realised that. False demands for internationalism don’t cut the mustard.

    The opposite of Scottish self-determination is not British socialism – it is Westminster’s Neo-Liberalism.

    It’s taken us a generation to realise that, but Scotland knows that now.

    1. Anne, this is a very thoughtful reply to my blog. I admire the way that you present an historic perspective to the issues at stake. I think that we agree about what the problem is, the only thing we disagree about is the solution and what is possible within the Union. The one thing that I would pick you up on is your commentary on the response of the media. I actually agree with you that the view represented is often not completely balanced. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that it tends to be pro-Union. But is it possible that this is so because the media is actually representing the majority view? The media is never completely objective, on any issue. It reflects the society around it. Anyway, thanks for your comments!

  2. Great article David and a wonderful response from Anne. I agree that the better together campaign needs to get the finger out and quickly. The apathy that was apparent on my recent trip back to Scotland was a little unsettling. It seems to me that the better together camp feel that its a no contest. It’s dangerous and naive to believe that anything is a forgone conclusion. I honestly believe the Union’s best weapon against the Yes campaign is Alex Salmond himself. It’s bad enough that he’s Scottish First Minister but the idea that he could become President elect of an independent Scotland is terrifying! Living in America I’ve watched TV through my fingers in embarrassment whenever he’s been on. Honestly seeing him donning his tartan breeks and appearing on the Craig Ferguson chat show here last year was a joke (not a funny one). If this is the guy Scotland want to lead us then I for one think we should run the other way.

    1. This made me laugh out loud Paul! You’re right, the apathy is unsettling. The worrying thing about Salmond is that he only needs to appear credible in Scotland, as that’s where the vote takes place. I think that a lot of Scots like him as a cheeky chappie. But you need a lot more in a national leader than that. He’s definitely shrewd and can spot a photo opportunity a mile off, and so is good in an election. That’s what I worry about.

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