31 October 2011

Machiavelli on Scottish independence...

Machiavelli seemed the obvious author to think of when Gaddafi’s violent death in Libya was reported. Although there still appears to be a popular appetite for brutal tyrannicide, the Italian statesman’s prescription that the incoming Prince should obliterate the entire ruling dynasty of his predecessors if he is to be secure, seems more likely to prompt pangs of conscience than the general British twingelessness that accompanied the dictator’s killing. Having revisited the Prince, I went back to Machiavelli’s less well-known work, the Discourses on Livy, which is similarly concerned with the getting and holding of power, though speaks more directly to the predicaments of republics than principalities. While I’d baulk at any simple reading-across from Machiavelli to contemporary Scottish nationalism, I was particularly struck by the resonances of the following passage. While despots and tyrants should “renovate” everything in their new fief, upending hierarchies, dispersing populations, shattering and reshaping institutions, for those who do not seek a tyrannical sway, Machiavelli contends that…

“He who desires or proposes to change the form of government in a state and wishes it to be acceptable and to be able to maintain it to everyone’s satisfaction, must needs retain at least the shadow of its ancient customs, so that institutions may not appear to its people to have been changed, though in point of fact the new institutions may be radically different from the old ones. This he must do because men in general are as much affected by what a thing appears to be as by what it is, indeed they are frequently influenced more by appearances than by reality.”

The quotation scratched an itch of mine which I’m still attempting adequately to articulate. I thought I’d sketch my twinge here, and see what you all make of it. Given the SNP leadership’s now longstanding gradualist independence strategy, one wonders if Angus Robertson or Alex Salmond keeps a little copy of Machiavelli tucked inside his coat pocket. Whether it is the retention of the monarchy, or the idea that an independent Scotland should retain a unicameral parliament elected on a proportional basis, or remain in the EU, or retain pounds sterling, independence is being advanced – at least by the SNP – on the thesis of “minimal difference”. Adopting the gradual politics of the patient salami-slicer, the project is by soft degrees to narrow the gap between independence and the powers already accrued to devolved institutions. Squeezing a yawning political chasm into a slender fissure, ultimately this gradualism envisages that the electorate will be asked to make nothing like a leap towards independence. Step by step. Hop skip jump. Just a little thing, in the end. This approach wisely recognises human caution, with its concern for things practically realised over the abstractly appealing. But there’s a snag; at least for contemporary exponents of this sort of gradualist strategy. Unless something decidedly unexpected happens to the final Scotland Bill, in 2011 and in 2014 and 2015, the Scottish electorate will be invited to take nothing like the last sedate step envisaged here.

That being the case, I find myself wondering, what are the political limits of this nationalism of “minimal difference”, in circumstances where a gradualist-little-step idea of independence is simply implausible? As David Torrance notes in the revised second edition of his biography of Alex Salmond, writing about SNP ideological (in)coherence…

“The unifying factor was a belief in (varying degrees of) independence, but many leasing proponents of that ‘big idea’ held different hopes and aspirations for an independent Scotland. Paul Henderson Scott, for example, wanted it to be pacifist (not a view shared by the SNP’s defence spokesman Angus Robertson); Michael Fry to unleash neoliberalism; Joyce Macmillan to salvage social democracy; Gerry Hassan to think big and positive, and so on. The point, as the party frequently insisted, was that ‘Scots would decide’ what the New Scotland looked like, although it seemed unlikely all of them would be happy with the end result.” (Salmond: Against the Odds (2011), p. 412).

How to keep this ragbag coalition of (N/n)ationalist opinion together, with its divergent conceptions of what a just Scottish state would look like, while advocating a sufficiently potent and concrete conception of what Scottish independence would and could do, to justify the effort? I’ve written before about “being the cartographers of a new Scotland”, worrying about the proposition that the SNP should be regarded as simply “a vehicle to deliver independence, which will then afford an opportunity to choose what sort of state to choose to be”.

Not being in the envisaged “end phase” of gradualist Scottish nationalism, I worry that any strategies premised primarily on reassurance of the electorate just won’t cut it. Let’s be frank. Scottish independence is no small step for the nation to take, and strategies suggesting otherwise just won’t do. Put simply – and exceedingly tritely - if I go to sleep one night in the United Kingdom, and you tell me I will wake up to dawn in an independent Scotland and nothing substantial will have changed – you may feel reassured, but seriously, why bother?

I do recognise the tricky balance between spooking the electorate and making a concrete case for independence’s transformative potential. As I noted, this is an attempt to articulate a niggling anxiety – a tension if you like – rather than a programmatic critique of anyone. For myself, I can’t find much vividness in any overly-inclusive case for independence from the SNP in our political situation, basically amounting to delivering the bare autonomy to decide in future what sort of society and state we should have, with the SNP as neutral arbiters between the conflicting ideologies of its Frys and Macmillans. I don’t see how such a gingerly constructed case can be compatible with a serious-minded civic nationalism, premised on authentic, plausible and meaningfully elaborated social democratic political commitments.

I was struck by the enthusiasm generated by Gerry Hassan’s latest Scotsman column, “From the ‘How’ to the ‘Why’ of Scottish Independence”, with eleven specific areas addressed, encompassing poverty, inequality, defence, Europe, foreign affairs – and UK Tory government. This lively response was no doubt partly generated by folk who share Gerry’s range of political concerns and commitments, and find the vista thus painted to be a compelling one. In his recent speech in Inverness, Alex Salmond repeated the idea that the SNP must “take sides in Scotland as well as taking Scotland’s side”. Gerry’s article demonstrates the extent to which, I believe, Salmond’s logic must be extended to our thinking about independence. While a desire for inclusion is no bad thing, we haven’t got the luxury of the relaxed gradualist, well down his road towards independence. Not being in circumstances of “minimal difference” between Union and not, different expedients seem called for. It is insufficient for the SNP simply to take the side of an independent Scotland. We must also take sides, on what sort of Scotland that ought to be.


  1. Whilst I understand your position and 'taking sides' will inevitably be required the SNP still have to clear the first and greatest hurdle, namely, that they can square the economics? I know hardline Tories whose first argument is not about the benefits of the Union per se but about expecting to be worse off financially and hence too wee, too poor etc etc. Surely if the SNP can win this argument, particularly against a backdrop of continuing Tory rule or even increasingly London Labour rule then the voters will start to move in their direction? Whilst I have no desire to have Devo Max instead of Independence I would rather have that than Calman. Even if it were only another step, once taken and assuming competence is delivered then the final step would surely be a 'minimal difference'?
    The SNP can I am sure 'take sides' which will appeal strongly to the majority of Scots in a way that none of the Unionists can but they first need to overcome the fear factor with a strong empirical argument?

  2. We live in exciting times;

    >>...We must also take sides, on what sort of Scotland that ought to be.<<

    Nuclear free.

    Unencumbered with sending naive young men or adventurers to die in US energy wars.

    Benefiting from the money saved as a result of the above.

    Exit NATO.

    Free to pursue geniune left of centre policies without the phantom threat of the 'markets' moving elsewhere a la Blair and brown's reign.

    Take a stance against Israel and Syria (just to name a few), motivated by doing the right thing for the right reasons.

    People like ken Macintosh should no longer feel the need to do down our native language, no more smirking and sneering at attempts to underpin it's survival.

    No longer need to argue why we should teach our children our own history. Ad finitum.....

    Not only is the idea of an independent Scotland exciting, but it will I believe reinvigorate our national conscience and allow us to come together. Once the gravy train to the House of Lords has been removed there will be a remarkable renaissance of Scottishness in the most unexpected quarters quite different from the current 'Team Scotland' type nonsense.

  3. I take your point about the there being a warm comfort in gradualism, but I wonder if it's less a strategy of boiling the frogs slowly and more a matter of expanding the Overton Window.

    What ever the case, it's not just those at home that need to be warmed to the idea, but those outside looking in that might also need a slow and gradual realignment to their frame of reference.

  4. To start with I think we do take a clear stance on what kind of Scotland we want to see - we have a clear position on all of the points in Gerry Hassan's article for example.

    But I think the underlying issue is that you want to see independence in terms of what change it will bring and the more radical the better. But for many people independence is going to be about what we protect, not what we change.

    Psychologically, most people place a higher value on protecting what they have than they do on acquiring something new and I think understanding this is essential to the independence debate.

    So what are we protecting, politically? You could boil it down to practical policies such as protecting the NHS, ensuring equal access to higher education, increasing business start ups, providing decent care for the elderly, making the most of our renewable energy resources. Or you could boil it down to aspirations such as full employment, decent housing for all, ending inequality and tackling public health issues like alcohol abuse. All of these things relate to a basic set of values which most people subscribe to and which they don't want to see changed.

    That is the key thing - most people don't want to see radical change in those areas. They can look south of the border and see radical changes being made - and that's exactly what Scots don't want.

    So independence is as much about protecting what matters to people and to their families as it is about changing the way we do things. People don't necessarily want to change the basic way society is ordered. They want to continue what we are doing now but do it better.

  5. Does the gradualist approach of the SNP towards 'independence' proceed at a faster rate than the gradual extension of EU influence over all domestic matters?

    And are you not just moving from one union to another much bigger one?

  6. I think you may be underestimating the dynamic of change here. Twenty years ago unionism meant Westminster rule with no legislative devolution, supported mainly by Tories (and Tam Dalyell). Now it means Calman or Calman Plus, supported by three 'unionist' parties. This consensus only dates from 2007 and looks pretty fragile. Calman was only ever envisaged as a temporary staging point and it has little voter appeal: surveys show that most want much more.

    Since May we've been living through a phony war which will only end when the new Tory and Labour leaders are in post. At that point we may well see a rush towards a more defensible position - e.g. full fiscal autonomy or devolution max - involving individual unionists or even whole parties (the Tories under Murdo Fraser, perhaps?). This is where things could get interesting. What does devolution max mean? On one commonsense reading, that Westminster devolves power to Holyrood, it should mean that Holyrood ends up with ALL the power. This looks like saying that Scotland is de facto but not de iure independent. Holyrood refrains (out of politeness, perhaps) from declaring independence.

    This inevitably raises the question of sovereignty. The orthodox Diceyan view is (was?) that Westminster has absolute sovereignty. On what grounds? I haven't read Dicey but some of his followers come across as legal realists: sovereignty needs no justification, it just is. This may have been true in Dicey's day but it hardly holds now. There are many de facto restraints on Westminster sovereignty (to the fury of right-wing Tories) - the EU, human rights law, judicial review, devolution. Can we imagine Westminster overriding a clear-cut referendum vote? If not, it looks as though the Scottish people may already (de facto) be sovereign.

    Questions like these will inevitably come into prominence when people start to think seriously about devolution max. The terms of political debate may look very different as a result in a couple of years time.

  7. Indy said "So what are we protecting, ....ractical policies such as protecting the NHS, ensuring equal access to higher education, increasing business start ups, providing decent care for the elderly, making the most of our renewable energy resources.

    Or ..... full employment, decent housing for all, ending inequality and tackling public health issues like alcohol abuse.

    ...All of these things relate to a basic set of values which most people subscribe to and which they don't want to see changed."

    All of which can be are being addressed at present.

    So what's the point of "independence"?

  8. Braveheart the point is the whole "joined-up policy" thing that Labour used to talk about.

    We have issues, for example, like the way welfare reform is happening which pulls against and undermines the way devolved policies are going. People like the SCVO - not an SNP organisation as you know - are saying it is becoming impossible to maintain a UK-wide approach to benefits policy when it diverges so keenly from devolved welfare policies.

    That's just one example.

    Essentially Labour's argument seems to be that we can use devolved powers to protect us from what the Tories are doing in reserved areas but you know we can't. That is why - going back to the welfare bill issue - even Labour are saying we have to vote against it and refuse consent.

    Which is all well and good - but what then? We can't really stop it because Wetminster has the power and we don't.

    That's just one example of the problems that are created by only partially governing ourselves. There are many more.

  9. Indy

    You think health, education, housing etc are important. I agree.

    We can and have improved all of these things without "independennce".

    "Independence" adds nothing that I can see (or you have explained) to the delivery of these essentials.

    In fact all the faffing about and falling out by and among people like you and me, who have no real differences on the practical essentials you identify, is delaying and even stopping improvements happen.

    And even if we do eventually get "independence", we will be no better off (probably worse off) economically, and less able to afford the things you say you want!!!!!

    Frankly it's nuts.

  10. You haven't really addressed what I said Braveheart.

    The reality is that the line between what is reserved and what is devolved is pretty arbitrary and given the fundamental interconnectedness of all things the division of power gets in the way of progress, especially when the respective ideologies of those who are in power are at odds, as at present. To some extent the fact that for the first couple of terms of the Scottish Parliament the same party was in power at both Holyrood and Westminster disguised that but the underlying tension was always there.

    In some senses though I agree that all the faffing about and debate around the finer points of independence gets in the way of discussing what actually matters to peoples lives.

    Frankly most people don't care if we have independence with a capital I and then choose to share some power and institutions with our UK neighbours or whether we have a form of Devo Max which is to all intents and purposes independence but not called that. In practical terms it hardly matters. What matters is that the Scottish Parliament and Government should have the same powers and capacities as other governments in the modern world. The Union as we know it is history, you must realise that.

  11. I appreciate all the observations. As I say in the piece, this ream of prose was about scratching an itch and trying to work out where it comes from. Just to pick out one point, I think Indy's observation is perceptive:

    "...I think the underlying issue is that you want to see independence in terms of what change it will bring and the more radical the better. But for many people independence is going to be about what we protect, not what we change."