It’s difficult to imagine any issue which has been more badly-covered in the media than Scottish independence – almost every article and discussion is a bingo calling-card of the made up and the who cares. In the former category we have: questioning Scotland’s size (irrelevant), subsidies (actually the reverse – Scotland subsidises the rest of the UK), talk of public spending per head of population (utterly pointless without mentioning how much is available per head), and above all, the assumption that independence and the SNP are one and the same.
Alistair Darling’s embarrassing wibble in the Guardian is a classic example of the latter – in which the man in charge of the ‘No’ campaign fails to come up with a single concrete argument in favour of the union. Chiefly, his stance revolves around the UN Security Council (irrelevant – Scotland isn’t represented, the UK is. Scotland has no real need for representation at that level, it requires representing within Europe, where it has zero influence) and World War Two (sentimental, nationalist pandering. We fought Nazis with Stalin too, but Darling probably isn’t in too much of a hurry to bring him back.) Deep down, even Darling must know that this sort of talk has no relevance to anybody living in Scotland today.
Otherwise, he focuses on the maybes, demanding to know what Scotland will do after independence. That’s got nothing to do with him – the whole point is that it’s for the Scottish people to decide. The scare stories, of Scotland losing jobs, having to reapply to the EU, being unable to bail out banks, have been proved to be nonsense. The simple economic argument in favour is this: Scotland pays all of its income to Westminster, and gets a lesser amount spent on it in return, and doesn’t get to have a say on where it’s spent. In return, it also has to chip in to ‘national’ projects which rarely have any benefit north of the border, such as the hugely expensive overhaul of London’s sewer system, and the London Olympics. To these arguments, Darling has nothing, because he knows that there’s no acceptable response – it’s naked exploitation. Read that article again – that’s honestly the best they’ve got.
The argument that Scotland would abandon the rest of the UK to decades of Tory dominance, however, is perhaps the worst of the lot – aside from the fundamental counter-arguments (“not our problem, son” and “how’s the Labour Party working out for you”), it ignores two things – firstly, that escaping the imposition of unwanted Tory rule is probably the single biggest factor driving the independence campaign, and secondly, as with almost all anti-independence arguments, the facts. Labour are not indebted to Scottish seats for any recent election successes – there are, however, a number of unpopular acts of legislation passed, such as prescription charges, which were dependent on votes from MP’s who wouldn’t dare support them in their own constituencies north of the border.
Indeed, there may be another benefit for England’s left-wing in Scottish independence. The contentious Trident programme would require an immediate rehousing, at the expense of the government in Westminster – unfortunately, the only base equipped for that in the UK is Coulport, in Scotland. Building another base could take as much as ten years, and non-proliferation treaties mean that the UK’s hands would be tied over the issue. Unless Scotland accepts an exorbitant fee to look after them – unlikely, since opposition to Trident is one of the most strongly-pushed issues by the SNP – then the system would almost certainly have to be scrapped.
In truth, the simple fact is that political process is impossible when Scotland has such limited control over its own policies. Despite the power the Scottish Parliament wields, smaller reforms cannot be implemented without the larger ones necessary to support them, and any major changes in Scottish policy are therefore restricted to the rejection of UK-wide reforms. Given Scotland’s track record on opposing neoliberal cuts that have ravaged England – university education is still free, as are prescriptions, council houses are being built on a large scale, without the ‘right to buy.’ Independence is not indivisible from the SNP, as most news reports would have you believe – if a yes vote is achieved, it is uncertain what will fill the resultant vacuum, but even with the apathy brought by Unionism, and a weakened parliament, the Scottish electorate has still managed to force a set of policies a lot further to the left of any of the big 3 English parties, which will only become more powerful after independence.
The basic blueprint offered by the SNP looks rather Scandinavian – a strong welfare state, public sector, and accessible public services, allied to a relatively business-friendly tax policy and financed through national resources such as oil (which Scotland is not entirely dependent on, and should last well over 100 years.) The fact that the Scots will get this at first doesn’t mean that it will be the blueprint for all future Scottish governments, but without that first step of independence, imagining anything else other than the present state of affairs is a pipedream.
Of course, all this is simple shooting-down of unionist myths, which has been done more comprehensively and effectively elsewhere, made easy by the fact that almost all negative coverage of Scottish independence is either some nobody’s ill-researched tuppence or fanciful, made-up nonsense as a reaction to the fact that the anti-independence campaign really doesn’t have any concrete arguments in its favour.
On the other side, the left in the UK can seem indifferent, for reasons which are largely nebulous. They warn of ‘the dangers of nationalism’, without any real idea of what it might represent. Nationalism differs from one country to the next, and often within each region. That’s virtually the whole point behind the idea. Any blanket denouncing of nationalism would require a set of blanket problems, criticisms, or at least circumstances which simply don’t exist. British nationalism can’t be compared to Scottish nationalism because the two are, obviously, mutually exclusive.
The independence question is one of nationality, but there is no non-nationalist option. The rejection of Scottish Nationalism is an endorsement of British Nationalism. It’s one or the other. So let’s compare and contrast – do you support the nationalism of the oppressed, in the interests of self-determination, or the nationalism of the oppressor, in the interests of imperialism? The nationalism backed by the most anti-military and open-borders ideology in mainstream UK politics, or the nationalism backed by parties that give nothing but hostility towards immigrants, waste billions on military equipment that isn’t even effective, and attempt to rehabilitate the likes of Enoch Powell? The nationalism that uses the phrase ‘New Scots’, or the nationalism that uses the phrase ‘Real Scots’(1)? The simple fact is that the nationalist campaign has barely pandered to romanticism or ideas of patriotism at all. The Unionist campaign has and will for the simple reason that it doesn’t have anything else to offer.
Even this, though, is a distraction. The real issue for the left is that the struggle for Scottish independence is inherently a class struggle. The foundation of the vast majority of nationalist ideas is, even with regard to self-determination, economic. What is being fought over is not taxes or personal income, but public money. The money that is siphoned out of Scotland that would under independence be spent on welfare and public services is not instead spent on the same in some corner of Berkshire. It’s sacrificed to neoliberal cuts, to trident, or whatever other scheme Westminster deems more important than people’s livelihoods.
The opposition to Scottish independence, particularly from Tories, regularly attacks Scotland’s high state spending, and routinely includes the claim that Scotland is ‘subsidised’ and will not be able to afford to maintain its high spending on welfare. This is entirely without foundation, and has at its root a casual, anti-Scottish bigotry, tied to a more general brand of classism.
As an aside, some history: the birth of the union between Scotland and England was itself an issue of class and identity. With Scottish lowland landowners investing heavily in the colonial Darien Scheme, and war between England and France looming, Westminster saw the perfect opportunity to secure its northern border, using military blockades to strangle the Scottish expedition before bullying, bribing, and isolating enough Scottish politicians into signing away their sovereignty. The partition of Czechoslovakia and the Anschluss of Austria would be good comparisons, but even they enjoyed a higher level of support than the 99 to 1 against(2) reported by Daniel Defoe, a English spy in Edinburgh at the time.
England’s entire history of imperialism in the British Isles has long been fuelled by a sort of united bigotry, encompassing class, race, nationality, and later, religion. Many of the higher-class lowland Scots England signed its pact with were viewed as Anglicisable, but others were not – Highland Scots suffered a level of brutal exploitation and bigotry easily comparable to the views that were held towards the Irish and, to a lesser extent, the Welsh. That was as much a class issue as a racial one, and after industrialisation, right up to today, the same streak has carried over into Scotland’s urban poor – Glasgow shipbuilders notoriously (and very noisily) suffered repeated exploitation at the hands of the UK government, and the ‘too poor, too weak, too stupid’ rhetoric used to oppose independence today is another shade of the casually-bigoted ‘deep-fried heroin’ jokes. Scottish identity since the Union has always been about class.
Regardless, if you still adhere to the message that the left-liberal consensus south of the border has to offer – “I hope you’re not rejecting those brutally destructive neoliberal reforms in a nationalist way!” – then fair enough. It’s not about you anyway – you barely get to have an opinion. But a proportion of wealth and the livelihoods of working people far greater than the Miner’s strike, or any other within living memory is at stake. It represents by far the biggest opposition to cuts and austerity in the UK at the moment, as well as the opportunity to reject it completely. It may differ from industrial action in that some Saltires might be waved about, but that doesn’t mean your indifference makes you any less of a scab.
(1) See this rather embarrassing tweet from the ‘Better Together’ campaign claiming ‘abuse’ for a perfect example of how the catchphrase is being used.
(2) The Letters of Daniel Defoe (edited by G. H. Healey, Oxford 1955)