Before I leave it too late and the big event passes by I want to get up my reasons for supporting independence for Scotland. Until a few months ago I was an instinctive but wavering ‘Yes’ supporter without any real handle on the arguments either way. Since then I have encountered and been familiarised with a number of those arguments and, at each turn, I have been more convinced that independence is both sensible and emotionally appealing. The main injection of well-rounded arguments came at the Radical Case for Independence event that was hosted by Red Pepper and Open Democracy at Westminster back in June, and I’ve adopted some of those arguments here. Of course, the emphasis is based on what’s important to me and there are other thoughts reflecting conversations that I’ve had with friends in the subsequent three months. This is a mammoth post so I’ve split it into sections; I begin by considering nationality, national identity, and nationalism, move on to economic prospects, and then outline thoughts on government south of the border before finishing on constitutional change. I then conclude that Scottish independence is too good an opportunity to shake up the system to miss.
Nationality, National Identity, and Nationalism:
National identity has never been very important to me and, since I first started thinking about it at school, I’ve considered myself British primarily in terms of nationality rather than identity. In other words I’m largely British because I’ve needed to apply for a passport and fill out forms that expect me to have an answer to the question ‘What is your nationality?’ Identity-wise I only define myself as British by default to avoid the more uncomfortable status of being English, which (perhaps unfairly) has more negative connotations for me. Britishness is a very small part of my identity and a part that I’m not particularly keen on.
I have been told that, whether I identify with Britain or not, I’m British because I was born and brought up here and there are things that make me similar to others for whom the same can be said. I find this an unconvincing argument; I believe that we can construct or at least priorities elements within our identities and I’m uncomfortable with the expectation that a large part of mine should be defined by a geographical and cultural entity that I’m not especially sympathetic towards. In this light I’m happy with the idea that Scottish independence might bring Britishness into question, or leave it as only a husk concept that people think of as an official designation rather than a meaningful identity. I’m happy to describe myself, amongst other things, as an egalitarian, a democrat, a supporter of immigration, a pacifist, a cyclist, a vegetarian, a comedy-lover, a film-fan, a music-enthusiast, a beer-drinker¸ and a Cubs supporter. I’ve got enough things to define my identity without needing Britishness.
The potential demise of British national identity does raise the question of nationalism that has been a part of the ‘No’ campaign. They seem to equate, implicitly at least, the call for Scottish independence with the rise of unpleasant nationalist parties across Europe. This would be a worrying idea were it not so patently obviously ridiculous. No one could reasonably categorise the SNP, which is the most right-wing party in the ‘Yes’ camp, as a far-right entity. In addition to this the SNP are very far from being the only group who support independence. There is a huge, diverse, and vibrant progressive movement in favour of independence, something that I witnessed first-hand this past weekend. Both that movement and the SNP have engaged in an overwhelmingly positive campaign that has focussed on building an inclusive, multicultural society that welcomes immigrants, funds state-run services, and reduces inequality. Contrast this with the focus of the ‘No’ campaign on retaining Great Britain (emphasis on the ‘Great’) and stressing the achievements of the country whilst studiously ignoring the terrible things it has done and you can see which side is regressively nationalistic.
The widespread and implicit acceptance of British nationalism makes it more important, not less, to challenge it. Scottish independence would do this. Of course, there is a risk that a stronger vein of British nationalism (albeit with a reduced claim to the former word), or an equally or more unpleasant English nationalism, could emerge. This risk does worry me because such nationalism could have real and unpleasant consequences for some groups in our society. Also, as a person with little national identity, I don’t especially want to live in a highly nationalist society. However, as I’ve just outlined, the ‘Yes’ campaign has shown us something important on this front; it’s possible, even when exclusive nationalism might seem the natural recourse, to build a movement around inclusive goals. If Scotland goes independent there’s an opportunity for the remainder of Britain to be reshaped in multiple ways; a rise in exclusive nationalism is not the pre-defined outcome.
The Economic Prospects:
A big fear that the ‘No’ campaign have tried to instil in voters is that Scotland will be economically worse-off if it goes independent. I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are risks here; as we’re frequently reminded, markets and institutions such as credit rating agencies are conservative and can go nuts when something happens that they don’t like. Scotland will certainly face economic challenges if it goes independent but no more so than any other relatively small independent country does. The idea that Scotland is too small to deal with these challenges on its own is literally ridiculous. There are plenty of examples in Europe alone of economically viable countries of an equivalent or smaller size in terms of geography and population and, crucially, they’re not all rich in natural resources. Every day that those countries exist (and have existed) provides an argument against the idea that Scotland can’t manage on its own. In addition to this Scotland is already a developed country economically with a skilled workforce and decent infrastructure (not-to-mention the insurance of oil revenues that can sustain the economy as it transitions (both to independence and, hopefully, reliance on renewables)), meaning that it has good economic prospects.
Further to the above, if the country goes independent they will no longer be subject to the economic decision-making of Westminster. This is a pretty simple point; MPs at Westminster are supposed to represent the interests of their constituents and thus, in aggregate, of the United Kingdom. The problem is that smaller regions with fewer representatives (even assuming that those representatives are unified) cannot outvote large regions and thus their economic (and other) interests can be consistently subordinated. Those in favour of the union are defending a system that has an inbuilt majority that can (and, based on the responsibility of representatives to advocate for their constituents, is required to) overlook or override the interests of Scotland. I can’t see how this is a more tempting economic proposition for the country than is independent control over its economy. Yes, Scots will be subject to uncertainty and the vicissitudes of the global economy (as everyone is) but at least they can be sure that they won’t be dragged in the wrong direction (for them at least) by the unresponsive British juggernaught.
The idea that there are both economic risks and opportunities reflects another idea; the relationship between economics and politics is not a one-way street. Even assuming that we can find reliable economic predictions, politics should not be about chasing whatever the projections say. This is especially the case since politics can change the context on which those projections are based. Politics isn’t just about doing what’s best based on what we have now, it’s also about thinking about how we can change the context so that things get even better. We should never forget that we are not just subject to economic outcomes; we also have a say over them. Adopting this line of thought makes it clear that, given the greater economic control that would follow, independence represents a great opportunity for Scotland. In the short term there might be economic tremors but independence is about the long-game, in which Scotland is better served by itself than by Westminster.
Government in the Rest of the UK:
Drawing on that theme of change offering opportunity as well as risk (apologies for sounding like an investment banker) I turn to the ‘thousand years of Tory rule’ argument. My first position on this is one that many many people have expressed; if I was Scottish, living in a country that is clearly not dominated by Tories, I would absolutely want to gain independence and cease to be subject to government by that party. Furthermore, as a person living in England, I don’t begrudge them this aspiration. The problem is that the Conservative base of support is, and would continue to be, in England and there’s a risk for all those non-Conservatives in the remainder of the country that (without the Scottish non-Tory vote) they’ll never constitute a unified-enough majority to elect a government of a non-blue orientation. There are two reasons to discount this risk, the first of which is historical.
There are only four occasions since the Second World War that removing Scottish MPs from the equation would have changed the majority at Westminster; 1964, 1974 (twice), and 2010. Since these are all shifts or potential shifts towards Conservative government it seems that there is something in what the ‘No’ side are saying. This only rings true if we think that nothing has changed since 1974, which is a bit of stretch. It’s more instructive to consider the most recent example, which may also be disheartening; without Scottish MPs we would have a majority Conservative government rather than a coalition at Westminster. However, continuing to focus on recent electoral history, we can see three examples in which the Labour Party has built impressive electoral victories without the need for their Scottish MPs. I believe that it’s reasonable to think that such results could occur again; it might require a different Labour leadership (whatever else you think of them, Blair and his team were good at winning elections) but it’s a plausible prospect. The forced choice between Labour and Conservative alternatives may not be tempting but it’s no different from what we’ve been offered at most elections to Westminster for the last century.
Crucially, the preceding argument is predicated on the status quo in British politics, which leads to the second reason that never-ending Conservative rule south of the border seems less plausible; if Scotland goes independent then things will change in the remainder of the country too. I’ll turn to the possibility of constitutional change below but the point here is that I don’t believe the electorate are incapable of adapting to a new electoral context. Things could change in multiple ways but it seems pretty certain to me that British politics will be different to the extent that we can’t presume uninterrupted Conservative electoral victory.
The British state is an anachronism. It acts as a brake (though fortunately not a block) on change and is very difficult to reform. Tradition has never struck me as a good reason to retain something; lots of entirely unjustifiable things have been defended on the basis of tradition. We shouldn’t look at how long our institutions have been around but at whether they’re any good (and I don’t believe the two things are correlated). First amongst the institutions of the British state is Westminster, a place that has one foot in the eighteenth century. One of the most egregious manifestations of this backward-looking status is, as you might expect me to say, the deficient electoral system that it’s wedded to. Since the Second World War no political party has attracted a majority of the vote (let alone majority support the population including those who don’t vote or don’t register to vote) and yet almost every general election has led to the formation of a majority government by one of those parties. At every election the population has been governed by politicians who garnered only minority support. Accepting electoral defeat in such a flawed system is not part of democracy but anathema to it. I would be willing to accept a government that I disagreed with if it had actually gained the support of a majority of the population; without that basis I believe it’s entirely right to question its democratic legitimacy. More legitimate are coalition governments that actually reflect a majority of the electorate (even if this is an understandably unpopular sentiment to express now). The idea that a party without a majority of the vote has to work to find the common ground with coalition parties seems a better reflection of the complexity of society and public opinion than is a large legislative majority for a party that has not gained most people’s support. And, lest it be said otherwise, there are plenty of examples of electoral systems that are vastly more proportional than ours that function perfectly well and lead to the creation of coalition governments that implement policies and respond to challenges.
But what the hell has Scottish independence got to do with advocating a different electoral system? If Scotland goes independent it doesn’t just mean constitutional change north of the border; there’s also a big opportunity for the remainder of the UK. The basics of the system of government could be seriously questioned in a post-independence UK. This doesn’t just mean the electoral system but also things like the unelected House of Lords, further devolution to Wales, and more regionalisation within England. There might not be much or any change in those areas but, at the very least, they’ll be given a hefty bump up the agenda (both amongst the population and politicians) if the basis of the British state is called into question. Independence would mean Scottish freedom from government by a state that was built in the era of the British Empire, and it would at least offer the opportunity to reshape that state south of the border. Without independence that opportunity looks much smaller. I believe that there are enough progressive people, and people frustrated by the status quo, outside Scotland to bring about meaningful constitutional change in the remainder of the UK. I don’t think Scottish independence would make this less likely (especially since we would have a example of an alternative on our doorstep) but I do think that retaining the British state as it stands does.
Summary and Conclusion:
I will not mourn the loss of British national identity; other parts of my identity are far more important to me. Further, I think that the Scottish case would and already does give us an example of how to build movements around causes other than exclusive nationalism, which is an exciting prospect. It seems eminently plausible that Scotland can improve its economic prospects without the deadweight of a political system that mathematically prioritises the majority of the British population that live elsewhere. These points can be seen as a matter of faith; I believe that humans are able to shape the world that they exist in and make it better. The problem is when the structures that they exist in, which may have developed for historical reasons, put a brake on this ability. There’s no doubt in my mind that the British state does this but that Scottish independence could reduce or, at the least, challenge its ability to do so. The plans for devo max essentially admit that Scotland is being held back by Westminster and, as such, beg the question why Scots (or any of us) should accept any government by that outmoded institution. We shouldn’t just accept what Westminster wants to give us, we should decide the shape of the state that we want and pursue it. I’m tired of living in a political system that is predicated on the idea that change ‘cant’ be done’ or is ‘unrealistic’, and Scottish independence is the biggest opportunity in my lifetime for this to cease to be the case. If I accept the possibility that humans can adapt and build a better world then I have to see the opportunity in change as well as the risk. At the same time, I can’t help but see the huge deficiencies of the British state as it stands, deficiencies that are not just a hypothetical risk. This is a case of the devil we know definitely not being better than the devil we don’t. We need a catalyst for change and Scottish independence represents that. For this reason I am enthusiastically in support of it.