The Threat of a Good Example

Tim Holmes explores the progressive case for an independent Scotland

When American academic Noam Chomsky gave Scottish independence his equivocal, ‘intuitive’ backing in April, it generated waves of excitement among Yes campaigners, so much so that his name soon began trending on Twitter. Many share his intuition – particularly the Scottish poor, who are particularly likely to favour a Yes vote. On the face of it, the progressive case for an independent Scotland is plain: a more progressive nation could choose its own path, free of the dead hand of Westminster, dealing a blow to NATO and helping curb Western militarism. Tilting towards the Nordic bloc, an independent Scotland could exemplify something more like the Scandinavian social model on the British mainland. This could set a useful precedent as an attractive, demonstrably viable alternative to Anglo-Saxon capitalism. It could considerably enhance the prospects of Welsh independence, accelerating the decentralisation of power within Britain, and perhaps the forging of another small, more progressive, independent country. The ‘threat of a good example’ on England’s northern (and perhaps western) border might help precipitate a political crisis within that country, as it confronted the gross imbalance of power and wealth – particularly between the City and the rest – responsible for its social ills.

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Not all progressives are so optimistic. In May, the University of Glasgow’s Greg Philo rejected independence as undermining solidarity across the United Kingdom. Opening the Pandora’s box of nationalism, Philo argues, could unleash poisonous discourses surrounding identity, inclusion and otherness, particularly as the acrimonious process of division went forward. Already, Philo suggests, the debate is exacerbating a worrying anti-English prejudice sometimes expressed in physical violence. Nor is Scotland – either among the public or in government – as progressive as the Yes camp appear to think, on taxation, immigration, domestic violence, or prejudice of all kinds. London and the South-East would continue to drain investment and resources, but the countervailing flow of subsidies would cease. (Confusingly, he begins by denouncing the stemmed flow of subsidies from a richer Scotland.) Without Scotland’s MPs, Philo reminds us, the attack on Syria would have gone ahead.

Who’s right? Perhaps the most convincing counter to Philo’s pessimism has come from the Radical Independence Campaign – linked with progressive Scottish reformers the Jimmy Reid Foundation and Common Weal – and particularly Pete Ramand, co-author of Yes: The Radical Case for Scottish Independence. Why, Ramand asks, are risks counted only on one side? Huge risks attend the status quo: Scottish nationalism is demonised, yet Westminster’s hegemonic British nationalism is almost entirely overlooked, when the latter – racist, imperialist and authoritarian – is by far the more virulent. Scotland’s, by contrast, largely manifests itself in a more enlightened, ‘civic’ nationalism – unsurprisingly, when the Yes camp must make common cause with progressives of all stripes, including staunch anti-nationalists. Is a dangerous, violent chauvinism really on the rise? The police’s racial incidents record suffers all the shortcomings of reported data, but shows only that, far from inciting anti-English racism, the independence debate has actually seen anti-English attacks decline. As in Britain generally, the worst victims are south Asians, and how far British nationalism contributed to those attacks is unclear, the media failing even to pose the question. In reality, while England’s immigration debate has become poisonous, both the public and policymakers in Scotland take a more enlightened attitude toward migrants.

Nor do Philo’s economic arguments necessarily follow: smaller economies tend to do better because they are simpler and more flexible – the ‘flotilla effect‘ – so Scotland’s success need not hinder the rest of us.

Intriguingly, although it also enhances ‘satisfaction with life’, the flotilla effect is more ambiguous when it comes to human development – and in rich, developed countries, distribution matters more than wealth. On this front, the SNP promise to end austerity, invest public funds to regenerate industry, defend welfare and promote equality. How far they will do so in practice is unclear: the Scottish Parliament has failed to use the tax-raising powers it already has, while the SNP also propose to slash corporation tax below even the UK’s obscenely low level; and Alex Salmond refuses to commit to restore even an inadequate 50p top rate of tax. (By contrast, Thomas Piketty concludes that we need a top-rate tax of at least 80% to stem inequality.) Yet if only modest gains are currently on offer, the threat of the British status quo leads poor Scots to perceive – accurately – that they have little to lose.

On the environment too, the offerings are meagre. The welcome 42% decarbonisation target by 2020 is unambitious given Scotland’s natural resources, though its 100% domestic renewable electricity target is most likely to be obtained with energy independence, as a report by Robert Gordon University concludes. It is what this leaves out that is of greatest concern: the SNP’s commitment to exported fossil fuel energy would wipe out these carbon reductions several times over, and promises to address this with unproven carbon capture and storage (CCS) are whistling in the dark. Again, though, Westminster offers nothing better. And, intriguingly, the SNP’s promise to embed environmental protection in the constitution – alongside a ‘do no harm’ principle towards international development – offers an opportunity to challenge social and environmental harms through the courts.

It is internationally that the greatest gains stand to be made from breaking up the British state. Just how great is signaled by the hysteria with which the former head of NATO greets the idea. Trident would face an uncertain future: all alternative siting proposals in England and Wales confront serious logistical, geographical, political and safety barriers, even prompting suggestions that the UK shelve its nuclear submarines in Georgia until it can work out what to do with them.

But another seriously convincing argument concerns democracy. After Tory plutocrats sabotaged even the ‘miserable little compromise‘ of AV, the British electorate remains lumbered with the worst possible voting system, not to mention an unelected upper chamber. Scotland now has the opportunity to refuse this dispensation, bolstering the power of its proportionally-elected parliament. The momentum behind the Yes campaign is also reinvigorating Scottish democracy, spurring participation in national debate, and placing previously unconsidered alternatives on the table. A defeat could easily sap this progressive movement’s energy.

From Wales, Scottish independence can feel worryingly like being left in a small cell with a psychopath – but it will undoubtedly put the wind up the Westminster establishment. If, as John Major predicts, Welsh secession becomes suddenly more plausible, its demands become more difficult to ignore: the UK’s constitution might be overhauled, if the UK did not fragment entirely.

Independence, then, offers the prospect of a more democratic and peaceful politics, and the hope of a more equitable and environmentally sustainable future. None of this is assured, of course. But it is an opportunity that should not be missed.

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