Archive | September, 2013

The case for Scottish Independence

10 Sep

Next year, Scotland is to hold a referendum on whether it wishes to break away from the UK. The London-based political parties and media outlets are already in full campaigning mode and release scare stories on a daily basis. “Scottish Independence will lead to financial chaos, immediate invasion by the Russians, swarms of immigrants and the plummeting of your house price” is a fair approximation of the dog-whistle-politics used by those against Scottish Independence. But what is the case for Scottish independence?

The case I am going to set out is very probably naïve. We are all aware that nationalism can be exclusionary, parochial and violent. The twentieth century was dominated by nationalism of various sorts and there is good evidence that violent nationalism continues to haunt this century. But, encouragingly, although the constitutional stakes are high, the debate on Scottish independence is entirely peaceful. Certainly the debate is heated, but there are no dead on the streets and no lines of displaced people. And if independence were to come about, it would be ‘independence lite’: the English monarch would still have a role in an independent Scotland (go figure?) and Scotland and the remaining parts of the United Kingdom would have much in common economically, culturally and politically.

The case for independence, I would argue, is not well served by anti-English narratives. Many, many English people live in Scotland, visit it and contribute to its economy and culture. Instead, the case for independence is best served by asking fundamental questions about the relationship between citizens and the institutions that purport to serve them. These fundamental questions are rarely asked in any society because political parties, institutions and people are caught up in the immediate questions of policies, budgets and perpetuating the same old system. The Scottish referendum gives people a magnificent opportunity to think beyond the humdrum and to consider really big questions:

– Is government responsive to the people?
– Who do political parties and institutions actually serve: themselves or people?
– Is it sensible to run society according to the old rules, with a few incremental changes here and there? Or, is it more sensible to have a periodic review of what works and what doesn’t?

The independence referendum gives Scotland a chance to recalibrate a series of relationships (between people and the state) that are often taken for granted and not considered. Take the example of the social contract, or the role that the state plays in personal and societal welfare. In the UK, this social contract was a product of WWII and a recognition that people saw the usefulness of an activist state in healthcare and education. Over the years the social contract of the 1940s has been chipped away. Healthcare and education are being privatized, despite the claims of politicians that they are protecting the NHS. So, I would hope that the independence referendum gives people an opportunity to consider the really big questions about how their lives are organized and to play a role in shaping this.

The referendum gives a chance to switch off the auto-pilot that is government as usual from London and to be present at the creation of new set of relationships between people, institutions and markets. Consider the utter stupidity of Britain’s unwritten constitution. Many people like this because it is quaint and quirky – like a red phone box. But like landlines, the unwritten constitution is outdated and unable to meet the needs of citizens who want to know where they stand before the law. Scottish independence gives an opportunity for a constitution to be written that offers citizens rights and encourages responsibilities. Hopefully the writing of that constitution would be a participatory affair, not just a stitch up by political parties and would encourage a debate about diversity and pluralism.

Indeed, there is an opportunity for Scottish independence to represent a significant milestone in anti-nationalism, to act as a signal to the world that it is possible to embrace greater local direction of policy without embracing exclusion. It is worth reiterating that such views might be naïve, yet much of the debate on Scottish independence has been encouraging. There has been little talk of ‘the auld enemy’ (England) and much talk of seeking a saner response to policy issues than those dictated by London. Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, the debate on fundamental questions of governance will be very useful. Once out of the bottle, that genie will take Scotland to interesting places.