Scotland and 'the vision thing'

By Simon Barrow
May 29, 2013

How goes the referendum on Scottish independence? This is the question my friends from down south ask almost every time I speak to them. The answer is that it feels to be in a strange kind of limbo.

In theory, the chance to debate Scotland's future, and the future of the islands of which it will remain part, self-governing or not, is an exciting prospect. In practice, it is far too mired in the politics of fear and uncertainty.

Now these are relatively early days. The actual vote is not until September 2014, and political campaigns are often rather like those velodrome bike races where everyone is boxed in, pedalling slowly, waiting for someone else to break. Then something happens, and the acceleration begins.

Except that, as Gerry Hassan has pointed out in an important article for The Scotsman recently (Can Scottish politicians understand that social justice is about everyone?) the stasis is more profound than that. It is not simply a biding game, but a failure of nerve and vision combined, rooted in a dysfunctional politics that has not yet perceived its own crisis.

The central flaw Gerry points to concerns the gap between the self-image a good part of Scotland has of its sense of social solidarity, the ready rhetoric of social justice employed by the two largest parties (both, in theory, social democratic rather than conservative in orientation), and the unwillingness or inability of either to articulate clearly different policies on the social vision they espouse.

In an article that puts the matter potently and succinctly, Gerry uses as his starting point a revealing exchange on BBC Newsnight Scotland in which two politicians, one Labour and one SNP, failed to say anything remotely specific about a different future.

My own recent experience at the STUC (Scottish Trades Union Congress), where I was representing the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), echoes this. There, back in April 2013, we heard major speeches from Scotland's First Minister and from the Leader of the Opposition.

Alex Salmond gave a typically statesman like speech in which he pinned the case for a 'Yes' vote in the referendum, an appeal made in a gently (for Alex) suasive way to a majority Labour audience, on a continuing vision of universal welfare. Johann Lamont was more confrontational, as she usually is, and repeated her questioning of 'something for nothing' social welfare measures, while lauding the 'better together' message.

So let's get this right. The architect of a policy for cutting corporation tax heralds a seamless welfare approaching while sidestepping the issues about its cost and implementation now and in the future, while the representative of a party that introduced the welfare state to Britain spoke of reining it back and put her hope in a Westminster parliament that votes through policies Scotland cannot control while remaining in hoc on all sides to neoliberalism?

Combined with the remorseless negativity of the 'No' campaign and the struggle for difference and specificity in the 'Yes' camp (hampered by the UK government's delight in refusing the answer the questions it poses to others), this tweedle-dumming and tweedle-deeing does little to offer a positive prospectus for change.

Yet there is hope. Genuinely so. As Gerry puts it: "Scotland has a choice in this. We can develop a social justice debate and agenda. It would include progressive taxation, taxing the rich, unearned income and non-doms. It would act on the abuses and creative accountancy of big multinationals, tax havens and offshore arrangements which the UK state and government is one of the leading advocates for. And it would challenge privilege and elites to aid a more open, dynamic society and economy, taking away for example the charitable status of public schools.

We would act on high pay in the public sector making it enforceable for any business or institution that has a contract with government. We would act on land ownership and challenge the wealthiest owners rather than just set up a toothless land reform review group. Similarly on early years, we would take pride in acting rather than just setting up an expert group, and commit ourselves to a Scots version of Sure Start Centres across the country, recommitting ourselves to the abolition of child poverty.

The Scottish Government could even champion some of its own policies such as the Solidarity Rule, with its commitment to raising the incomes of the lowest paid groups. To this and more we need to start having a dynamic, challenging debate about the scale of our super-rich, the abuses of corporates, and the desolation of much of our poverty, subjects which seem far removed from the yah-boo nature of much of the independence debate.

To be fair, these and other policy ideas are very much on the agenda for the small but growing Radical Independence movement. I have friends in the SNP, the Labour Party, the Green Party and beyond (including those, like me, who do not belong to a political party) who share such aspirations. Indeed, I suspect they agree on more than 70 per cent of their political ideas, including no to Trident and yes to a very different foreign and environmental policy. Yet these ideas (and this solidarity) are not reflected in the political choices being offered, in inter-party relations in a country where the Conservatives are a minority, or significantly in the referendum campaign right now.

So bold thinking needs to come to the fore. I do believe "another Scotland is possible", and that this possibility can be a source of hope and inspiration to those struggling for social justice in England, Wales and both parts of Ireland. What is core to the alternative vision is not nationalism or state identity. Nevertheless, it seems to me, self-government for Scotland offers a fresh, vital and genuine opportunity to challenge the morbidity of politics in Scotland and beyond, to build a culture of anticipation rather than resignation, and to develop options based on subsidiarity and social solidarity which begin to instantiate a way beyond the suffocating, unjust neoliberal consensus.

For that reason I shall be participating in both open, civic debates about the future of Scotland (which aim to look beyond the polarisation of the referendum), and also in the push for a 'Yes' vote that is positive and hopeful. It is, I believe, possible and necessary to do both. Because the real challenge will begin after September 2014, whichever way the Yes/No vote goes.

That said, opting for self-government and a new set of positive relations within and beyond these islands would, for me, represent the clearest chance for a different future, as well as being a sign of the desire for it. I hope that those of my friends who oppose full Scottish self-government will be explaining why and how they think a better tomorrow can come through the continued hegemony of Westminster... and that we will remain friends and collaborators through and beyond that debate.

* More from commentator Gerry Hassan:


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. More on Scotland's independence debate from Ekklesia:

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