Competing Scottish Visions

Gerry Hassan reports on the independence debate north of the border.

Today sees the publication of the Scottish government’s independence White Paper. Last week Jim Murphy, Scottish secretary, launched the UK government’s white paper on the Calman commission, proposing more powers to the Scottish parliament. These are two competing visions of Scotland. Alex Salmond has declared that “only independence gives Scotland the freedom to achieve its full potential as an equal member of the international community”. Jim Murphy says that Scotland has “the best of both worlds” with two parliaments in a union that has never been about “uniformity”.

The Scottish government’s White Paper does not offer a suggested form of words for the independence question. Instead it lays out four possible options for Scotland’s future: the status quo, Calman, full fiscal autonomy and independence. If we leave aside constitutional change, what do the Scottish and UK government visions say about Scotland and its future?

To answer this we need to understand who and what has gained from devolution so far? When compared with the pre-devolution expectations, there is a clear mismatch. The groups who have gained the most are the insiders – those who knew how to work access and networks pre-devolution and have adjusted to continuing to influence and shape decision-making post-devolution.

Scotland’s insiders, the business community, leading corporates and major institutions, whether public or private, have fostered two things. First, a stultifying economic conformity that has no real radicalism, no sense of political economy, and is obsessed with economic growth and the supposed challenges of globalisation, and which runs from Wendy Alexander, the former Scottish Labour leader, to the SNP leadership and most of institutional Scotland.

Second, it contributed to boom times for the professional middle classes, lots more well-paid jobs and initiatives, along with student tuition fees abolished, higher teacher pay and higher health professional awards. What has been lacking in devolution has been any understanding – from Labour, SNP or anywhere – of the distributional consequences of devolution and who has gained and missed out. The institutional, ‘corporate capture’ of devolution has meant that those who have gained the most have been those who already have power, income and voice. Those who have not gained have been some of the people who were among the most passionate supporters of a parliament pre-devolution, and who do not have much power, income and voice.

Glasgow North East and Glasgow East, scenes of the two recent Westminster by-elections, are parts of a ‘forgotten Scotland’, places only mentioned in the media to confirm a set of middle-class prejudices about today’s poor and welfare recipients.

Forgotten Scotland has for decades solicited very little interest, connection or relevance from the four main political parties. Tommy Sheridan’s Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), before it self-imploded, threatened to give some of the marginalised communities a voice. Whatever you think of the attractions or not of Trotskyite politics (or at least what began as that), Sheridan’s single-handed destruction of the SSP has left a void that none of the mainstream parties seems to have any interest in filling.

Tackling the double exclusion of forgotten Scotland – its real physical and psychic separation from society, and its exclusion from the political world – is clearly complex.

A start would be for our politicians and media to stop using the invidious language of the ‘underclass’ and ‘dependency culture’. This has slipped out from the world of the New Right into popular usage, used by commentators such as Andrew Neil week in and week out to denote that ‘these people’ are not like the rest of ‘us’.

Second is the issue of voice, hope and power. How can places such as Glasgow North East find and nurture a collective voice? A common cliche talking about the deprived parts of Glasgow is to lament the lack of hope which to many seems to be pervasive everywhere in such areas. This is a deception. In the Glasgow 2020 project I recently led for Demos we undertook nearly 40 events involving more than 5,000 people across the city, and in the most disadvantaged places we always found a sense of hope. When people were asked to imagine their future and that of their family, community and friends using stories, play and creativity, they found a way to slowly – and hesitantly at first – give voice to things working out, kids growing up supported, people keeping out of trouble, and in short, living normal lives like the rest of ‘us’.

Alex Salmond talks of independence giving Scotland “responsibilities other countries take for granted“. This is the idea of independence as a normalising force, the ‘Scotland Why Not?’ argument, which underplays the scale of change this would bring about north and south of the border.

Gordon Brown and Jim Murphy’s vision of a confident Scotland in a diverse United Kingdom seems oblivious to what has happened to the UK under their tutelage. The past decade has seen the humiliation of the progressive story of Britain, and the corrupting of the character and purpose of the British state, with the rise of the neoliberal state at home, and the emergence of a blinkered Atlanticism internationally which has placed the UK permanently on a war footing.

Somehow Scotland’s social justice traditions, to the left of the UK, have to be brought to the fore – the successful smoking ban in public, the SNP’s public health strategy, the proposed alcohol minimum pricing in a culture saturated with drink. At the same time, the economic conformity, found in both the SNP and Scottish Labour leaderships, and which has taken hold so emphatically of the whole Westminster village, needs to be challenged.

North of the border there is a historic opportunity to bring about change that could have a major contribution to politics far beyond its boundaries. That is to contribute to the defeat of the neoliberal leviathan. Scotland starts with a couple of advantages here. First, the Scottish state for all its limitations and conservatism is far removed from the practices of the British neoliberal state. Second, Scotland’s institutional class, who were part of the bulwark against Thatcherism and have been the main gainers of devolution, have only ever paid lip service to the neoliberal, market fundamentalism so beloved of New Labour and the Westminster classes.

Thus, Scotland’s choice of visions isn’t really about independence versus a reformed union, but between different paths of working our way out of the neoliberal wreckage which has produced such devastation to the British economy, society and life. One approach is that of continuity: the Scottish elites maintaining their historic position of privilege and shepherding the people to a post-neolib managed age. The other is to dare to challenge the rights and motivations of this class who have not served many Scots well, and begin to flesh out an alternative Scotland which looks at power, voice and status.

Such a choice would be a real historic opportunity for Scotland and would mean that the debate about independence versus the union could become a real one, filling out the detail, connecting constitutional change to economic and social issues, such as those in Glasgow North East and Glasgow East, and addressing how self-government links to aiding greater self-determination for the people.

Much will dep
end on what happens at the next UK election, the actions and style of a Cameron Conservative government (if they are elected) and how they are viewed north of the border, and how a programme of ‘tartan cuts’ will be seen.

One thing is for sure: Scotland is on the move at the start of journey. It would be helpful if we could widen the discussion from the non-debate on independence versus the union, which a large part of our political classes seem to be intent on having. Scotland is in the process of a long revolution and this should not be left solely to our politicians and institutional opinion.

Gerry Hassan is a Scottish political commentator

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